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"On This Old Rock Pile ... "
A Brief Overview of His Life and Music
By Shane Hughes
Logic suggests that obscurity is the net result of a lack of talent, ambition and originality. True, some of the
lesser known singers and performers of the Big Beat era should never have been coaxed into a recording
studio, let alone have been privileged with a commercial release (Buddy Barnett and Hank Mathews are
names that immediately come to mind). There are obvious exceptions, though. For one reason or another
(lack of promotion and bad timing are the common complaints), some singers and performers are needlessly
deprived of the success they strove so hard to attain. Jeff Johnson is one of those exceptions. His style
is difficult to categorize. But, whether he is labelled as a country singer or rockabilly shouter, his handful
of releases on minor Arizona labels during the early sixties warranted a far greater level of prosperity than
was achieved. Jeff's rendition of Jimmie Skinner's hillbilly opus 'Doin' My Time' is superfluous in every aspect.
From the bare backing of Lamont McConnel's Luther Perkins styled picking, to Jeff's intense double time
rhythm and menacing baritone voice, this record is flawless. Why, then, did his record fail to climb Billboard's
country charts? Jeff is quick to blame Reneek's label owner, A.C. Kenner, who was ill-prepared for managing
success. Further, Jeff's recording was primitive. Probably too primitive for 1962. Nevertheless, Jeff
isn't too bitter for not reaping the rewards that his idol, Johnny Cash, enjoyed. He's just satisfied
with having been offered the opportunity to make a few records. Retrospectively, Jeff should be proud
of his achievements, as he possessed (and still does) an original talent that was, thankfully, captured
on vinyl for audiophiles to enjoy for many years to come.
Jeff David Johnson was born in Galesburg, Illinois during the early forties. A very young Jeff Johnson
suffered chronically from bronchitis and, at the age of two, he moved with his parents to the drier
climate of Tucson, Arizona. Music was a rich part of the Johnson family heritage. Jeff's grandfather,
James Johnstone, was a classical music composer and voice teacher at the Chicago Music Conservatory.
Jeff recalls that his mother helped instill in him an interest in music and encouraged him to sing at an early
age, 'My mother used to try and get me to sing for the neighbors and the friends that would come over and
I would attempt to sing "Mocking Bird Hill", but only if I could do it behind the closed door.
The friends would just have to do with listening through the door'. Although reticent, a trait
that would remain with him throughout his childhood, his interest in music began to evolve.
He took up guitar at the age of eleven and remembers his first guitar, 'I had a cigar box with
rubber bands on it, that was my first guitar. Then I got really enriched when I acquired a $50
Stella guitar ... then on to a Dan Electro'. Then, in 1955, he heard the debut release of a youthful
country singer from Arkansas named Johnny Cash. This record would prove to be a major influence for the
then 13 year old Jeff.
Released on the emergent Memphis based Sun label during June 1955, Cash's inaugural release
coupled 'Cry! Cry! Cry!' with 'Hey! Porter' (Sun 221). Stark and real, Sun 221 was a fresh sound
injected into a staid country market that had stagnated in recent years. Cash's deep, yet
very rural vocals comprised only one third of the catalyst of this new sound, though.
Marshall Grant's amateurish bass playing was another part. It was the simplistic guitar
styling of Luther Perkins that formed the backbone of Cash's unique sound and it was
Perkins' playing that inspired the thirteen year old Jeff to master the rudiments of the
guitar and become a fluent picker. Luther Perkins (born January 8, 1928 in Memphis,
Tennessee) has been praised by many for his lucid technique and it is not surprising t
hat Jeff was drawn so strongly to his style of playing. Horace 'Hoss' Logan, music director
for the 'Louisiana Haryride' from 1948, surmised that 'Audiences ... liked the generally
lean, no-frills quality of the backup music. This ... was largely caused by inexperience and
lack of confidence. Luther Perkins was a mediocre guitarist, and he knew it. He never did
much more than keep time because he was always afraid of messing up, and he dreaded
playing solo parts'. David McGee, Carl Perkins' biographer, concurred, ' ... Luther Perkins
limitations as a guitarist were extraordinary for one aspiring to professional status.
He rarely ventured below the top three strings, and when he did solo on the bottom
strings, he kept it as succinct as possible'. Simplicity was the key to Luther's playing,
as Colin Escott proferred in his work 'Good Rockin' Tonight', 'As always, Luther was
the butt of Cash's joke's, playing the role of the hillbilly still life, working away
determinedly at his licks. If Luther thought about it, however - and he probably did -
he was having the last laugh; the most accomplished pickers in Nashville were
now being called upon to emulate his elemental style. It became doubly ironic when
Luther, who had exquisite taste in picking, later upgraded his skills, but was called
upon only to reprise his original bare-bones solos'. Although Jeff was not directly
imitating Luther's style like many Nashville guitar players were by the late fifties,
he was very much influenced by Luther's sound. Added to this was the uncanny
resemblance of Jeff's baritone singing voice to that of Johnny Cash. Not surprisingly,
Jeff has been an ardent follower of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two since their
first release in June 1955. Whilst attending high school, Jeff's appreciation of Cash's
music spurred him to write 'Story Of A Countryboy' (which he has yet to record) in
1958 and, upon the death of Luther Perkins in 1969, he penned 'Silent Guitar'. Albeit brief,
'Silent Guitar' is a poignant composition -
No more will his gui-tar
Play "Folsom Prison Blues"
"I Walk The Line" or
"Home Of The Blues".
He's on the road to Heaven,
On a road that's oh so far.
His Si-lent gui-tar.
Luther lived a life of fame
With the Tennessee Three.
The finest guitar player,
The world will ever see.
Then tragedy came,
And took him oh so far,
His si-lent guitar.
Thirteen years with Johnny Cash,
Luther never missed a show.
A star in his own right,
The world will always know.
A God-Gifted man,
With a smile no one could mar,
His si-lent gui-tar.
But I know he'll get to Heaven,
In Country's Hall of Fame.
There's not a man in music,
Who'll ever forget his name.
And I hope when my time comes,
To travel up there, so far,
I'd be priveleged to take to him,
His si-lent gui-tar.
By his late teens Jeff had become a reasonably proficient guitarist. Choosing not to opt for formal tuition,
Jeff taught himself. His shyness persevered through his adolescent years and he generally avoided playing
gigs, relenting on only one occasion during the late fifties to perform on a hayride type show in Sonoita,
Arizona with country disc jockey Bob McKeehan. Jeff's parents, particularly his mother, were not entirely
forthcoming with support when he enlightened them with his decision to become a musician, 'I was
very shy when I was a kid and my mom, God love her, had a bad childhood from my grandfather, who
was a musician and composer (classical music) and voice teacher at the Chicago Music
Conservatory. He basically left home when she was a child and impoverished the family.
So my mom always said, 'You're good but I want you to go to college and be a doctor or something.
Keep your music as a hobby'. Even when a man came to our house when I was 16 years old and wanted
me to come to Hollywood and record on a label there, but she would have none of it'.
Not until Jeff had reached the age of twenty did he first enter a recording studio. Even then,
it was via a suggestion from another party. By the early sixties Jeff had began frequenting
a record store on Swan Road in Tucson, owned by a small time entrepreneur named A. C. Keener.
During one of his regular visits to Keener's store in 1962, Jeff struck up a conversation
with him leading Keener to offer Jeff the chance to record.
Jeff recalls, ' ... He was chatting about wanting to do some recording next door to the record store ...
and so I did the recording. He asked me and paid all the expenses for it but was unprepared for the four
star review in Billboard'. Backed only by Lamont McConnel's lead guitar work, Jeff thundered
through a fierce rendition of 'Doin' My Time'. Following his spoken introduction, 'On this old rock pile,
with a ball and chain, they call me by a number not a name ... ', Jeff lurches into a furious rhythm
accompaniment, perfectly complementing McConnel's picking. The pace only slows at song's end,
when Jeff stops proceedings and exclaims, 'She waited for me, while I've done my time'. Only
the sparse arrangement by Jeff and Lamont could have created the feeling of intensity that this
record expounds. Reminiscent of Jimmie Skinner's original Red Barn label recording from 1946,
Jeff's version contrasts dramatically to the fuller sound of Johnny Cash's 1957 Sun version.
This is particularly ironic, as it was probably Cash's rendition of the tune that spurred Jeff to
record his cover. The second tune recorded at the session was 'That Little Girl Of Mine', the intended
B-side. Soon after the session, Keener shipped the masters to Floyd Ramsey's Audio Recorders
in Phoenix for final mastering and pressing. Released as by Jeff Johnson and the Lonely Ones on
Keener's Reneek label (Keener reversed), the disc received a three star rating in the November 17,
1962 issue of Billboard. Jeff could only be pleased with the result. Unfortunately, Keener was
taken aback by the impromtu success of Jeff's debut Reneek release and was unable to fulfill
the growing demand for the record.
Seemingly unperturbed by Keener's lack of resourcefulness, Jeff opted to cut another disc for
Reneek the following year. Backed this time by a full compliment of players, including guitarists
Lamont McConnel and Gene 'Spider' Little, in addition to a bass player remembered only as 'Peewee'
('A big ole country boy', says Jeff) and drummer Ronny Little, Jeff cut two original compositions.
'Flight 404' was a sublime, upbeat ballad concerning the loss of a beloved girlfriend in a plane
crash. Jeff's lyricism was consummate, to say the least, and the band laid down a paradoxically
solid rhythm. In hindsight, 'Flight 404' was Jeff's crowning achievement. The flip side, another
original piece, was just as good. 'Movies #2' was a witty parody of Buck Owens' 1963 Capitol
recording of 'Act Naturally', and proved to be a perfect counterpoint to the A-side. Mastered
and pressed in Phoenix, the disc was issued with the same artist credit on Reneek and reviewed
in Billboard on November 2, 1963, garnering a four star rating! Hopeful of a final breakthrough,
Jeff was let down by Keener once again. Unable to press and distribute enough copies of Reneek
121 to meet the demands of the record buying public, the disc died on the vine.
Although disappointed, Jeff resisted the urge to quit the music business. He was now
beginning to make a name for himself in and around Tucson and even managed to meet his idol,
Johnny Cash, on more than one occasion. During the early sixties, before he had married June
Carter, Cash toured through Tucson and Jeff was able to pitch one of his songs to the famed
singer. Jeff had penned 'The Matador #2' as a parody of Cash's 1963 Columbia recording, 'The
Matador'. Jeff passed the lyric sheet for his song to Cash while he was on stage, and to Jeff's
amazement, Cash began singing the tune. Jeff recalls that ' ... Johnny sang holding the lyrics
and laughing his fanny off'. There were a few other memorable meetings with Cash,
'When he came to town I had my guitar always in my trunk but somehow he was talking
about his guitar getting lost and Marshall's bass got broke. So I told him he could use
mine but I said it has my name on the strap and he said very quickly without hesitation "I don't
care if it says ELVIS PRESLEY", so needless to say he used my guitar. I was so excited here
Johnny Cash whom I had idolized for years had borrowed MY guitar. There was one more,
where I was at the Desert Inn with Cash in his room, right before a show at the Tucson
Gardens. Everyone took off and left him somehow and he asked if I could take him there ... I took
him in my station wagon which was a Ford Falcon about 1964 I believe and I said very proudly
(like a dummy) "Oh yes, it's BRAND NEW (like that would impress him) and then all the way over
there I am looking around for people I knew. I wanted to say "Hey look who's in MY CAR". But
not a single soul was to be had. NO ONE'.
During 1964 Jeff recorded the third commercial release of his career. Cut in Phoenix and
produced by Jerry Reece, the session saw the return of guitarist Gene Little and bassist 'Peewee'
to the studio to back Jeff. Two original tunes were waxed, 'I Said It And I'm Glad' (written by Jeff
and Gene Little) and 'What's This World Coming To'. The latter title was a self-composed lament
set to the tune of 'Battle Hymn Of The Republic'. Jeff's reasons for composing this torrid political
statement was due to his ' ... dismay with the 'hippies' protesting, and lack of respect for the US
Military and basically the decay in the morals and standards at the time'. Released on Jerry Reece's
Phoenix based Dewl label, Jeff anticipated a minor furor over 'What's This World Coming To', 'That
one got quite a bit of attention especially in California where one deejay told me "If I played that
the hippies would attack our station"'. To Jeff's surprise, and the detriment of the west coast long
hair set, the Dewl record became quite popular in Las Vegas.
By the late sixties, Jeff was gigging regularly throughout Arizona, even travelling as far afield as
New Mexico to fulfil his booking schedule. With his touring band of the period, Jeff also provided
backing for a number of popular singers who passed through Arizona, such as David Houston, Leroy
Van Dyke, Marion Worth and Chuck Berry. He continued writing original material unabated, too.
Unfortunately, another chance to record his compositions proved elusive. Jeff's only other venture
into the recording studio was as rhythm guitarist with a band led by Jerry Haymes. This band
backed Haymes' English born wife Brenda D. on two recordings released on the Enterprise label.
The top side of the disc featured a Jeff Johnson tune, 'Willy's Boy'. The release of this record
offered Jeff the opportunity to pick up more live gigs and he performed regularly with Brenda
D. at various Arizona clubs (Maverick, Desert Inn, Nashville West) for an extended period. Then,
in 1974, he pitched some of his songs to RCA. Hopeful that he may be able to rejuvenate his
music career, Jeff's expectations were quashed when RCA declined to offer him a contract.
Frustrated with his many missed oppurtunities, Jeff quit the music business during the mid-seventies.
Music was his life, though and he soon returned to writing. In 1980, Local Arizona journalist, Estrial
Winsheldon, interviewed Jeff and confirmed his return to the creative process, 'Years passed. After
hearing an atrocious jingle on the radio one day, he wrote one of his own, took it out and it sold to a
local western wear store. Pretty much pleased with that, Johnson wrote another with well received
results'. Jeff acquiesced with Winsheldon, 'I've been a recluse for eight years and now I'm starting
to come out of my little cocoon'. Jeff remained busy for a time, creating radio jingles are selling
them to commercial enterprises. Reaping some reward for his efforts, Jeff was spurred to develop
his own home studio and became, essentially, a 'one-man-band'.
During recent years Jeff has been living the quiet life. Surgery and radiation treatment
to rid him of a pituatary tumor meant a long recovery period over the last two years. He is still
recovering and, in his own words, is ' ... in a transitional state now'. Renewed interest in his early
Reneek recordings, through European reissues, has ignited a new spark in Jeff. Taking up where
he left off in the early eighties, he has returned to recording. Making use of his home studio,
Jeff is now finally recording the many songs he had wanted to record years ago. Jeff has said, 'I
have written a lot of songs and never really pitched them too much. Of course I wanted to record
them all, which was pretty short sighted of me'. Short sighted maybe, but with the passing of
years Jeff has not lost the originality and songwriting ability that he once peddled around
Arizona during the sixties. His most recent recordings are as vivid and intense as his 1962
version of 'Doin' My Time'. Maybe there will be a new Jeff Johnson album in music stores
some time soon.