You Doesn’t Have To Call Me Johnson!
Jay Johnson ponders the state of rock and roll and traces his footsteps from Radio Tokyo to The Rossington Band to The Southern Rock Allstars
by Michael Buffalo Smith
He’s guitarist in a band of gypsy madmen and he fits in just perfectly. Jay is one fourth of The Southern Rock Allstars, a band that features former Molly Hatchet lead guitarist Dave Hlubek along with Blackfoot’s drummer, Jakson Spires and ultra-bassist Charles Hart. Jay comes from a long line of musicians and his dad, Jimmy Johnson, has recorded with some of the biggest names in the business from his studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Jimmy is one of the original "Swampers."
GRITZ is pleased to offer this interview with one of the most excited rockers we have ever met, the one and only Jay Johnson.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Florence, Alabama and raised just a few miles down the road in Muscle Shoals, the onetime “dry county” mentioned in the song by Blackfoot!
When did you first become interested in music?
I’m just guessing, but probably around 4 years old -- my Dad was working at Fame studio in those days and it was then that I started hanging out during studio sessions. Pretty young for a studio gofer, huh?!
I know your dad is a Shoals legend. Tell us a little about Jimmy and also about Cowboy Ray and the recent CD you guys put together on him!
My dad, Jimmy Johnson -- what a guy! He still inspires me to this day, be it as a musician, audio engineer, record producer or whatnot. Besides producing and engineering records for Blackfoot, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Levon Helm, Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Paul Simon and others, he played on hundreds of records by people like Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and lots more. You can’t listen to an hour of any classic rock or R&B station today without hearing him play at least once.
He’s one of those unusual guitarists in that nobody else can cop his licks. You can try all you want but you’ll never totally recreate his sound. He’s no lead player, no master of technique, just sheer soul. Simplistic, just the right lick at the right moment in each song even if it’s just a muted “chink” across the strings along with a snare drum.
Stuff that no one else would think to play in a song, that’s what he does. It’s all rhythm with him and sneaky stuff at that; unless you actually see him do it you’ll swear it’s a bass line, drum lick or keyboard when you hear the records. His sneaky little licks just blend with the track. It’s still a treat just to watch him play. He let me hang out with him for hours on end at the studio when I was a kid. My sister and I got to watch sessions by Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Skynyrd, Blackfoot, Staple Singers, Glenn Frey, Bobby Womack...so many great performers I can’t even count them all. We got to see the records built from the ground up.
As for the “Cowboy Ray” project, we gotta go way back in time for the start of that. Cowboy Ray is my grandfather Ray Johnson. He was a musical model for me and my dad when we were both young, looked up to very much like Shorty Medlocke was a hero to the fledgling Skynyrd band and many other southern pickers.
My grandma and grandpa used to sing constantly around their house, always breaking out the guitars to sing the great old country tunes of the 1930s and ‘40s like “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “Back in the Saddle Again.” My father and I recently produced an album by my grandfather called “Cowboy Ray 2000.” The CD has all-new versions of those very same classics so I got to relive all those great tunes and times all over again.
My grandpa had given up professional music when he was in his early twenties so he never got to play on any recordings. My dad and I had talked off and on about doing a record on him and we finally found the time and did so. The CD is really something. Cowboy Ray proved to all of us that he still has the magic and many of our musician friends came out to support him by performing on his debut CD, released nearly 60 years after he had stopped playing gigs!
What were some of your early memories of hanging around the studios?
God, there are so many. I remember sitting in on sessions by Bobby Womack, Staple Singers, early Skynyrd, the first two Blackfoot LPs; playing roadie for Glenn Frey, toting beers to the guys in Traffic, lots of memories. I think I was around five years old when I first met Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins. They were getting their feet wet in their very first studio experiences then. I personally don’t remember much about that first meeting but Gary Rossington told me years later that his first memory of me was “a little blonde kid in a Pop Warner football outfit bashing into everything at the studio.” I remember very well serving as bartender for the guys one time -- I think that must’ve been in ‘76 or ‘77 -- Allen, Ronnie and Gary were in town with the Honkettes doing some backup vocals on some stuff that eventually became part of Skynyrd’s First and Last. There was a big draft beermeister in the studio lounge and it was my job to draw mugs for the Skynyrd guys as needed. I was at a Skynyrd show just a few weeks before the airplane crash -- in fact there’s a picture on Gritz’s Charlie Hargrett interview page of me backstage with Blackfoot that very day. Charlie and the guys were the opening act that night for Skynyrd in Memphis.
When did you start recording?
My first paid session was at the age of seventeen playing guitar for Mary Burns, an artist on Malaco Records. I did sporadic session work after that with folks like Randy Cutlip (ex-Three Dog Night keyboardist) and Moody Phillips.
What did you do prior to The Rossington Band?
Back in 1985 I was on the road fairly often with my band Radio Tokyo, a hard rock band that was one of the more popular fraternity-circuit bands of that time in the South. That band could have replaced the Energizer Bunny in battery ads today. Band members came and went and the hiatus it had to withstand during the Rossington Band years nearly finished it off but Radio Tokyo proved invulnerable to both time and change for a long time. We had one CD release, Songscape, in 1993.
How did you come to join Gary Rossington’s band?
It was during those “animal house” days that I was asked to play guitar for some demo sessions on Gary and Dale Rossington. They had been recording demos with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in late ‘85 but those tracks came out very slick and streamlined, not quite like the raw, powerful “band” feel that Gary and Dale were looking for so they were back with a hand picked band trying to find some magic.
Gary had been listening to a lot of Van Halen stuff at the time and wanted to find a young guitarist with that kind of heavy pop/rock sound, one totally against the grain of his own style. That was, of course, right down my alley. I was thrilled to be asked to play. Gary was my favorite guitarist from Skynyrd and I was more than honored to play with him. The tracks went well and I went on with my band, figuring that “that was that,” so to speak. A week later Gary called me from Wyoming to ask me to finish the album and to join the band officially. I was knocked for a loop. Life was never the same after that.
How long did you do that? Any special memories of those days?
That band lasted just over three years. Gary, Dale and my dad Jimmy shopped the project constantly to few interested companies. Finally we got a bite and started recording again. We finished the first Rossington Band album Returned to the Scene of the Crime for Atlantic records who released the LP in late 1986 with little or no fanfare whatsoever. The album fell off the charts as though it had an anchor attached to it. Gary tried in vain to get a tour started right after the release but was thwarted in the process by two band members who bailed out on us at the worst possible moment. I feared that Gary would drop the project altogether, discouraged as he was, but I stepped in and played cheerleader until Gary finally agreed to try another tour using new musicians. We snatched up drummer Mitch Rigel from Radio Tokyo and we brought in Tim Sharpton on keys, who I had written songs with some years before. We did a three-month tour financed totally on Gary’s American Express card. It went well and we were added as opening act to Kansas’ 1987 summer tour where we made good friends with Steve Morse, one of the finest gentlemen on the planet, who would appear as a guest on the next LP. As we were wrapping up our second LP, Love Your Man, (this time for MCA records) Gary had entered negotiations to reunite Lynyrd Skynyrd. Next thing we knew we were on a two year Tribute Tour with Skynyrd that took us all over the USA. What can you say? It was a young rocker’s dream come true.
The Rossington Band was a great, but short-lived group consisting of some of the best players anywhere. Tim Lindsey is one of the finest bassists ever and Dale Krantz-Rossington is one of the best singers of all time in my book. What a voice! I’ll always be thankful that Gary and Dale gave me the opportunity to work and write with them and I’m proud of the two records we all did together. I still work with some of the Rossington Band guys from time to time -- Tim Lindsey and Ronnie Eades sit in with the SRA whenever they can and I still talk to Mitch and Tim Sharpton from time to time.
Did you come right out of that into the Southern Rock Allstars?
No, we reformed Radio Tokyo and set about reducing East coast venues to rubble.
How did you come to join the SRA?
In late 1990, the Radio Tokyo band was booked alongside the Dixie Allstars for several dates in upstate New York and later in Alabama. That’s how I wound up renewing old ties with Jakson Spires and Charlie Hargrett. I later wound up replacing Charlie in that band in March, 1994. That band made an admirable attempt but bad management and just plain bad decisions wound up destroying the group. I spent a lot of time after that just producing demos and writing. I had wanted to do a solo record for a long time so Mark Ray, my studio partner and Radio Tokyo keyboardist, suggested that we contact Jakson to co-write tunes for the project.
Jakson flew into Muscle Shoals in August ‘97 and along with Mark we wrote many of the songs that would eventually become the SRA debut CD Crazy Again. As we were recording the songs it became obvious that this would not be a solo project. We wanted a band so, along comes a brand new band with a brand new name and along comes a Round Man. Enter Dave Hlubek. The founder and one of the main songwriters of the original Molly Hatchet, Dave had played with us in the Dixie Allstars and we knew that he could and would go the distance with us. Radio Tokyo bassist Charles Hart provided much engineering work and most of the bass tracks but at the time could not commit to the job full time, as he was one of the main studio engineers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Pete Geddes and Blackfoot’s Greg T. Walker were both brought in to play on some cuts and to do some live bass work over the next year. We had lots of fun playing with both guys but ultimately they both wanted to record as solo artists so we parted friends and finally got a chance to snag the bassist we wanted all along, Charles “Fireball” Hart. These days the SRA is going strong and, more importantly, having fun. In my mind if you can’t have fun playing rock and roll professionally then you had better just pack it in. I’m just really lucky to play with those guys. We’re like Curly, Larry, Moe and Captain Caveman. What a team! They truly are the best -- even Dave !
How long have you been in the band?
Since the inception in 1997.
Tell us about Dave Hlubek.
My favorite Round Man. Actually, we have about 75,867 nicknames for him. It’s amazing that Hlubek and I are playing together at all -- we hated each other back in the late ‘80s -- he thought I was an uptight jerk and I thought he was a dyed-in-the-wool asshole. Now we’re looking at each other across the stage and have been doing so for over six years. What’s so wild is that we actually play off of each other very well.
We push each other into performing our best each night. We each know better than to screw up too much or one of us will be grinning at the other with that “I kicked your ass” look in his eyes. Good God! Like they say, be careful what you don’t wish for, you just might get it in spades. Ha! Really, though, he is nothing like his tough “screw you” exterior. He’s really a big softie. Dave is a swell guy, especially if you treat him to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. There’s no one quite like Davey-Boy.
Tell us about Jakson.
My twin brother from a different mother. I can never say enough about that one. I’ve worked with a lot of big time drummers but no one can hold a candle to the sheer POWER of the Thunderfoot! He’s the best. He’s also one of the kindest, yet sickest human beings I know.
Tell us about Charles.
My triplet brother, only I can’t get him to close his mouth long enough to tell him so. He’s been my really talkative partner since the Radio Tokyo days and we’re quite the engineering team also -- he’s awesome! Did I mention that he has no trouble at all with verbal communication?
You guys have done a lot of shows with Mike Estes. What can you tell us about Mike?
Alright ! Now you named somebody I can talk trash about! He’s great as long as you don’t take him to any ethnic restaurants! That whole Kentucky attitude just plays havoc in sushi bars. (laughs) No, let’s get him off the hook -- he knows I love to rag on him but seriously, he’s a great guy. The best fishing-fool singer I’ve heard in years and the boy can whoop ass on a guit-box, too. His new CD just kicks ass. We work with him a lot and let me tell ya, between him and Dave I am now convinced that there is nothing, absolutely nothing in the world wrong with ME.
You guys tour quite a lot. What are some of your favorite places to perform? Why?
Santa Fe is always great -- The Camel Rock Casino is hot! Cleveland, Daytona, Sturgis, all loads of fun. Personally, I have a great time at Club 66 in Edgewood, Maryland -- that place is the place to see an SRA show.
Who were your musical influences? Who do you like to listen to today?
I was a drummer when I started out! Eight years old trashing the skins. As a drummer I cut my teeth to records by the Ventures, who I still love today. The little rehearsal studio behind my grandpa’s house was home to a huge collection of 45s that my dad and his brother had collected, mostly ‘50s and ‘60s stuff, so I soaked up all the Beach Boys and Beatles tunes right away. After that I got into the meatier stuff.
Blackfoot simply blew my head off. I learned those first three LPs lick for lick. What a band! I blame the entire Blackfoot band for inspiring me to make the transition from drummer to guitarist. Charlie Hargrett and Rickey Medlocke were just too cool, blasting the walls down at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Charlie and Rickey were my first guitar heroes. I knew I could never bang the skins like Jakson Spires so I just had to be a guitarist.
Thin Lizzy was big in my book, Ted Nugent, certainly Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, all the great ‘70s hard rock outfits -- Bad Company, Aerosmith, Starz, Alice Cooper, Boston, Foreigner. Skynyrd and Blackfoot were honestly the only Southern Rock bands I ever really listened to when I was coming up. To me they were the only southern rock bands period. I never really even gave thought to bands like Marshall Tucker or Molly Hatchet until much later in life, not that I didn’t like them. In my mind there was only room for two Southern Rock band heroes on my list when I was young! I never would have dreamed back then that I would wind up working with virtually every band member from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blackfoot as well as the original Molly Hatchet in later years. Ultimately though, my personal playing style drifted more towards those of bands like Kansas, Rush and particularly the Canadian group Saga, who is still my favorite band, number one in my CD case. I really dug some of the better ‘80s bands like the Producers, now that was a great band lost in the shuffle -- the Cars, the Police were fantastic.
As for today’s music, not much interests me. The whole rap scene makes me violently ill and the Mickey Mouse Club, Britney and that ilk, is downright boring. I long for the days when ACTUAL MUSICIANS are topping the charts.
Who are some of the bands you guys have shared the stage with that you really enjoy being around? Why?
Ah, those were the days. We still get to see Artimus from time to time; and Mikee Estes picks with us pretty often. It’s quite a loud raucous night of fun when any of the Skynyrd clan mix it up onstage with the SRA. The SRA runs into the Kentucky Headhunters a lot -- we really enjoy doing shows with them. Birds of a feather, ya know.
Who are your all time favorite guitar players?
I’d have to say Ian Crichton (Saga), Andy Summers (The Police), Alex Lifeson (Rush), and Steve Morse.
Tell us as much as possible about the new SRA record?
Well, the new SRA CD is nearly done and it is as different from our first album as M&M’s and cheese puffs. It’s a rocker, loaded with enough special guest artists to make ANY southern rock fan drool. Mike Estes from Skynyrd, Greg Martin from the Kentucky Headhunters, Tom Crain from CDB, Charlie Hargrett plus many others -- Damon Johnson from Brother Cane sings on a track, Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers picks. Patterson and I were in a high school band together many years ago if you can picture that. My 8 year old son even helped on some background vocals on a cut. First CD performance from the little guy. Pretty cool. Guest artists not withstanding, this is one real hard-hitting, fire-spewing monster of a record, I’ll tell you.
Jak was talking about a female singer you guys have been recording with. What’s the scoop on her?
Well, we haven’t started yet. Jakson has played me some songs written by one of his relatives, Jessica Smith. She has a really unique voice and the songs really grab you. We’re hoping to find some time to produce some recordings on her this year.
What’s in the future for you individually as well as the SRA?
The SRA plan to have our biggest year yet and Charles, Jakson and I may take a stab at producing some outside acts as well, as I mentioned before. In fact, Charles and I have been kicking around an idea to return to the Radio Tokyo project. Not for any live gigs but there is a wealth of unfinished demos by that band recorded over the years that needs to see the light of day so I imagine we will all dabble a bit in that also, reuniting some old friends in the process. SRA will be hitting Europe for a short tour in June of this year, starting off at the Sweden Rock Festival. Our first album Crazy Again just got released over there to some rave reviews. We haven’t ruled out the possibility of a live video and CD either so there could be a lot of action from the SRA camp this year. It’s starting to rain a little success for the Allstars lately, all thanks to the many fans that come to see us. We are very fan-oriented -- you don’t see us hauling ass for the exit door when we are finished playing. We always hang around to meet the fans because the fans are what keeps us working. We’ll never forget that.
If you could play with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Man, I’ve already done it. Etta James. The Right Time, Elektra records, 1992. Wow! My playing on that album was a last minute fluke. The Right Time was one big historic session with an A-list of R&B icons. Jerry Wexler was producer and the various session pickers included Steve Winwood, my dad, David Hood, Steve Cropper, Lucky Peterson, Roger Hawkins, Steve Ferrone and Clayton Ivey. It was a real who’s who of R&B and I was hired as assistant engineer. Steve Melton (Skynyrd, Bob Seger) was head engineer.
Jerry Wexler has the widest vocabulary of any human being I know. My favorite Wexlerism came during this session. After a mournful solo from Lucky Peterson, Jerry quipped “That was the sound of a sodomized hobbit!” The entire control room fell apart laughing on that sentence and since I was a big Tolkien buff, the saying was then branded on my brain forever.
After the initial tracks, Wexler needed a few added guitar parts and Etta wanted a really heavy metal style guitar riff on one particular tune. Wexler suggested calling on Will McFarlane, another of the great Muscle Shoals session guitarists. I elbowed Steve Melton and gave him that wide eyed “ME! ME!” look, and he got the drift right away, suggesting to Jerry that I could do the parts easily and I was already there and already on the payroll. Jerry gave me the go ahead and I ripped though Etta’s rock song just the way she wanted. I wound up playing on two more cuts, strictly R&B tracks. I’ll never forget Jerry asking me to “play like Cornell Dupree” on one cut -- I had no idea who Cornell was. I was stupefied. Here I was performing a once-in-a-lifetime session for the Lord of R&B and I’m too much of a dunce to comprehend his style suggestions.
Clayton Ivey came to my rescue and mimicked the lick for me then I copped the part and saved my hash. Whew! Etta commended me on the album liner notes and Jerry still calls me his “guitar man.” No greater praise exists. I’m honored beyond words to have been included on such a great R&B album which also is big on my list because it marked the very first time my father and I had played guitar on an album together.
Tell me your “desert island” top 5 albums of all time.
This oughta be good! Let’s see—-
1. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper
2. Led Zeppelin 4
3. Rush, Chronicles
4. Saga, In Transit
5. A tie between Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti and the first B-52’s LP!
What is Southern Rock?
Well played music served with a side of grits and corned beef hash, washed down with a double shot of Gentleman Jack, chased with a bag of gummy worms.
Well said. When you’re not rockin', what do you do for fun?
Oddly enough, I’m a stay at home type of guy so I like playing games with my son -- he’s the best thing to ever happen to me. I raise non-venomous reptiles: snakes, monitor lizards and such. That’s probably some freak by-product of watching too many Godzilla movies as a kid. I’m bad into the (really bad) Asian cinema thing -- I actually help run sci-fi conventions that specialize in major parties featuring the guys who played in those old Japanese movies. Here’s a shot of the Allstars with two of the guys who acted in those movies. On the left is Yoshio Tsuchiya, character actor and on the right is Ken Satsuma, THE guy in the Godzilla suit. They party with us every year at these conventions. I know, it’s weird.
What’s the best book you ever read?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Best movie you ever saw?
Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI.
What’s your favorite guitar?
My trusty old 1985 Kramer.
What about your choice amp rig for stage? Studio?
I use the same rig onstage as in the studio -- a Line Six Axe212 amp. Nothing like it at all. Throw in some Les Pauls, Explorers and a 335, garnish with Dean Markley Blue Steel strings and add lots of volume. Serve hot.
I notice you wear the Three Arrows chokers (Jakson Spires’ jewelry creations). Do you feel any special vibes coming from the Indian jewelry? Jak said the buffalo bone has been blessed. Or do you just wear it cause it looks cool?
I’ve always loved Jakson’s jewelry. I don’t know about vibes but my black choker started a near riot on a .38 Special newsgroup. One fan swore up and down that I was wearing a dog collar and the ensuing brouhaha was absolutely priceless. I figured that was just controversial enough for me so I keep wearing the things.
Do you think Southern Rock is making a comeback?
The reason all this classic rock stuff is coming back is simple -- most new music today sucks like a Hoover. There really is little or no good upcoming acts, at least from the younger set. Here’s hoping they will all start listening to AC/DC instead of Eminem.
UPDATE: Jay continues to perform with The SRA and recently joined Blackfoot.