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Jim Johnson - The True Soul Drummer Behind Willie Phoenix - by Colin G.

Willie Phoenix and The Soul Underground will be performing Saturday, January 16th at the A&R Bar and Friday, February 5th at Ace of Cups.

Click here for WilliePhoenix.com and their full schedule.

 

A little while back, somebody bored at work posted one of those informal Facebook polls, "Who are the best Columbus drummers..." A bunch of fellow slackers like myself chimed in. All the usual suspects: Tony McClung, Jim Kasto, Jessie Cooper and Sam Brown were listed, and rightfully so. But somehow, Jim Johnson had slipped through the cracks. Hell, even I forgot to mention JJ and I played with him in the League Bowlers for many years. (Yeah, I'm a homer, I mentioned Watershed's Dave Masica.) It wasn't until later that night that it hit me that somehow, inexplicably, Jim Johnson wasn't mentioned on that silly little poll of best drummers. It bothered me. Jim is so solid, so reliable, he is almost invisible. But what he does is just as important as what Neil Peart does on YYZ, it's just that Jim makes it look so easy that it's easy for fans to take him for granted.

Or put another way, if somebody did a poll of the all time best Columbus rockers, Willie Phoenix would be #1. And for most of the past four decades, Jim Johnson has been the backbeat to Willie's always-evolving soundtrack. And as all fans of the Beatles and Stones know, you cannot have a great rock n roll band without a great drummer. Before continuing with a very interesting interview with one of my favorite drummers and personal rock heroes, let's check out a clip from Willie Phoenix and The Soul Underground from October 2015 at The LC in Columbus. 

 

CG- I caught the Soul Underground opening for Rosie at the LC last fall and I was just blown away. I think it stands right there with Willie's best bands and he has had more than a few. What is it about this line-up that seems to be gelling?

JJ- The whole key to this lineup is Mr. Myke Rock. The very first song the three of us played together, we kind of knew, "Hey this grooves and gels from the get go." It's a feeling you seldom get, and it surprised us all, when it happened. We've all played with a lot of different players, and players that are a lot better than we are, but when the magic happens you just know. Then when Kim Crawford came aboard, she just added the solid rhythm, that holds it all in place. I think it freaks all of us out sometimes, that we just play together well.

CG-  The band really seems to dig playing the new material. Is there a song or two off the new record you really enjoy performing?

JJ- There are a bunch, but American Morphine, that I start with a surf beat, is probably my favorite

CG - I'm not sure many people understand that Willie records new material relentlessly and only the tip of the iceberg ever gets released. Could you take a guess at how many tracks you have played on in the studio all these years?

JJ - If I had to guess, I'm thinking 600? Tough to estimate. This band has been recording one a week for about 5 years, so that's about 250 there. Before this band, though, we didn't always have easy access to a studio, so it was more carefully planned. I started playing with Willie about 1982, so that's 30+ years of recording, just since I've been involved, and I'm not even on a lot of it

CG - Do you have a personal favorite song or two that you wished hadn't  fallen through the cracks?

JJ- The first 20 years or so, Willie didn't even give us copies of what we did, so there's a span of stuff I don't even remember. Luckily Doug Edwards made some copies for us, compiling a big chunk of stuff we did at Musicol, back in the day. "31 Basement Street" has always been one of my favorite Willie songs, as he was really Dylanesque lyrically back then. His writing was so descriptive, like "When TIME was a magazine, and Cadillacs were limousines."  I thought "Barbarians" was an incredibly powerful song, both lyrically and musically. It really captured a picture of where society was at the time.  I love "Chasin' The Night." Kinda Springsteenish, but there are people that described Willie in those terms. That one came really close to getting us another record deal, but in the end it didn't happen. Jimmy Ienner liked the song. Ricki C. is putting some of the cassettes I have on CD, so I can go back and listen to some of these songs. I've got about a hundred cassettes of Willie stuff that I haven't heard in at least 20 years, so that's gonna be fun.

CG - How many shows would you have guessed you have played behind Willie?

JJ - 1,000? I don't know, maybe more than that.  In the early days, we played at least a few shows  every week, and rehearsed the other days. When I first started, we'd take Sundays off, and either play or practice every  night. I was working at Buzzard's Nest Records at the time, and when I worked evenings and got off at 9:30 or 10:00, we'd practice after that, until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. If I worked early in the day. we'd practice from 7-11. We were relentless.

CG- Your meter has always been rock solid. Is that something you learned or did it come naturally?

JJ- A few people have said that to me, but I find it hard to accept. I always hear the spots where I'm off. I'm lucky I play for a guy (Willie) that likes it better when it's not perfect.

CG- Who are some of your favorite drummers both locally and nationally?

JJ- I've always been a Ringo & Charlie guy. Play the pocket, and let everyone else shine. Kenny Jones never got his due, he made the Faces swing. My favorite Petty stuff is the Stan Lynch years. If I want to listen to someone play all the stuff I could never do, it would be Ritchie Hayward from Little Feat, and then there's the master, Jim Keltner.

Locally, no one comes close to Tony McLung, but I've always dug Sam Brown, Bobby Boos, Jerry Hanahan, and about 50 other guys that are way better than me

CG - When Willie started the Shadowlords he was coming off his A&M record and was really up & coming. There had to be a line of drummers around the block trying hoping to get a shot, how did you get the gig?

JJ -  A friend of mine had a studio, actually where Bernie's was, before they expanded it to the the whole bottom floor. Willie recorded there on occasion, and he needed a drummer for a song he wanted to record. Tom Howard, the owner, recommended me, probably because my drums were set up there, and we had just recorded a jingle for Buzzards Nest. Anyway, Willie gave me a shot on the session, and we recorded two songs. I guess I played them the way he wanted, so he would ask me back when he had something that fit my style. This was even before he did the A&M album. We kinda stayed in touch but there was a long stretch, when he was doing the A&M thing, that I didn't hear from him. I was playing with Frank Harrison & The Straights about the time Willie was coming off the A&M deal, and he wanted to start fresh, with a new band, and he called me. He could have had just about anyone in town, I'm still not sure why he picked me, other than we seemed to play together well, and we both loved The Raspberries. I'm certainly glad he did.

     Willie Phoenix & The Shadowlords - Jim Johnson, Steve Donnellon, Willie, Greg Glasgow

     Willie Phoenix & The Shadowlords - Jim Johnson, Steve Donnellon, Willie, Greg Glasgow

CG - Do you remember your first Shadowlord gig? Where was it?

JJ - There was a restaurant on High Street, and I think it was called Lum's, or something like that. We played our first few gigs there, and that's where I met Ricki C. We both knew who Willie Nile was, so we immediately bonded.

CG - How much regional touring did you guys do? Any other cities outside Columbus where you could pack the house?

JJ- We played everywhere we could. We went to N.Y.C., all over the Midwest. There's one time, early in the Shadowlords days, we played Parkersburg, West Virginia. It was an OVER-packed house, and we never took a break, for FIVE HOURS! George was pouring water on my back, and steam was rising. Hardest gig I EVER played. Songs were back to back in those days, too.

CG - Suddenly, in typical Willie style, he switched gears and formed Willie Phoenix Flower Machine, which you were not a part of. Was that a difficult time for you?

JJ -  Yeah, but the Shadowlords had run their course. We needed a break, Our last gig was a packed Comfest. We needed a break, and Willie had my phone number. It's funny, because I never had HIS phone number until a couple of years ago.

CG - I've heard that was always part of Willie's deal. No matter how well you knew him, NOBODY had his phone number or even knew where he lived. How would you guys organize the schedule for rehearsal and gigs and all that? 

JJ - Well, Willie would always do it, or he would have Jan Bungart, our road manager, contact everyone. He was in control from day one. Jan would give us a schedule every week or so. We were together a lot, so we knew. Also, if anyone important, like a record label, needed to get in touch with Willie, they could always leave a message at Bernie's Bagels. We'd play Bernie's and Jack would come up at sound check, and tell Willie, "Hey So-and-so from Warner Bros. called for you on Thursday." Bernie's became known as "Willie's office."

CG-  So..The Flower Machine runs its course and suddenly your phone rings again. "Hey Jim, It's Willie..." Can you tell us about how the True Soul Rockers started? 

JJ- It's a little fuzzy, but I remember Koz and  I started rehearsing with Willie near Bernie's, I think he rented a space. Anyway, I ran into Mike Parks on High Street. Mike and I were in a band with Phil Stokes (another local legend, he was in Pure Prairie League) called the Retreads.  All covers, but 60's stuff no one else was doing. He asked me how Willie was, and I said good. I told Willie that I saw him on High Street, and next thing I know, he was at the next rehearsal. Mike had some history with Willie, since he played on the A&M demos, and was almost in the A&M band. We recorded a fair amount, and the band sounded pretty good from Day One. Bernie's and Ruby Tuesday's, and Chollie's. Those were our haunts. Man, that band had some wild times, all a lot of fun.

CG - That band was really MY Willie Phoenix experience. I was old enough to get into bars and young enough that I could go out all the time. I must have seen you guys 50 times. And, I love the record Radio Simplicity. Tell me about the recording the drums for the opening track, "Guys Like Me Don't Get Girls Like You." 

JJ - Willie said, "You know that drum break on the Raspberries song "Hit Record" where it sounds like someone threw the drums down a flight of stairs? Start the song like that, but more like Keith Moon would play it." HA!!! Well, I could not play it like that, but I came up with my own intro. I mean, I only had two toms, so I wasn't gonna get too Moonish. I always loved that song, and there's a live version from the High Beck, floating around in cyberspace, that really nails what we were going for.

CG - Ricki C. has burned me some old bootlegs from Ruby's and maybe the High Beck one you mentioned and boy, I wasn't just some young drunk kid imagining things, that band was smoking. Were you ever aware of how good the guitar interaction was between Willie and Mike while you were playing? In my opinion, two of the best guitarists to ever play in the same band. What was that like on a nightly basis?

JJ - It was great. You know, Willie likes his leads, and he takes most of them, but he was well aware of Mike's abilities, and gave him a lot of room. It's funny, but as good as Mike is, he's really happier just playing rhythm guitar. There were nights, though, that were as good as anything, ever. The two of them, it really was special. But in reality, they were both gunslingers, it could not last forever.

                 Willie Phoenix & True Soul Rockers - Mike Parks, Kozmos, Willie, Jim Johnson

                 Willie Phoenix & True Soul Rockers - Mike Parks, Kozmos, Willie, Jim Johnson

CG -  Sadly, we lost Kozmos awhile back. He always seemed to be loving every minute of playing rock n roll. What was it like being in a band with him?

JJ - Koz was the Master of All Time and Space, when he was in the band. He was a good soul and a very caring man. I still miss him, as does anyone who ever knew him. He was one of a kind, and a very good bass player. Sadly I really didn't realize how good he was, until he was gone. I listen to the old stuff he did, and he came up with some amazing stuff.

CG -  As long as we are on bass players, both Shadowlord Greg Glasgow and current Soul Underground player Myke Rock are local legends. Do you feel blessed to have been paired with such great players while supporting Willie? Does the bass player affect how you play?

JJ -  I miss playing with Greg, he really schooled me in how to play with Willie Phoenix. He and I could sit down, and play every one of our songs, start to finish, without any other instruments or vocals, or cues. We knew them that well, and we had a lot of songs. Every Shadowlords gig had new songs. Some we'd play a lot, and some we'd play once, and never play it again, but we always had new songs, and they were all Willie songs. About the only cover, was Gloria, which we did every night, and we still play it occasionally.

Myke Rock, though, is the absolute most creative bassist I've ever played with, period. I was a little skeptical when Willie put this project together, because Willie had been doing the blues, and this was just going to be a reggae-flavored side project for him. I knew Myke from Screaming Urge, and I played in Peace Time Riot with him for a while, which was really Myke's project, and wondered if he would be satisfied being in someone else's band, but it's worked out great. Myke is the only bass player I've played with, that plays something amazing every night. I really mean every night, because it could be a gig or practice, but he freaks me out, he is so good. 

All the great bass players I've played with: Greg Glasgow, Koz, Myke Rock, Phil Stokes, Mike Stemm, Ernie Oskey, Dan Cochran, they ALL made me sound good. I've been very lucky, and I've learned something from every one of them.

CG-  If somebody would have told you in 1980 that in January 2016 you would still be playing with Willie Phoenix would you have believed them?

JJ- Not really, but I always knew I'd try to keep playing, if someone needed my style. Willie and I have always had a particular feel, in that we instinctively know where we're going in a song. We both love a lot of the same music, and we both have the same rock roots. His blues roots though, come from his dad, but we both saw the Beatles on Sullivan, and that changed everything, for a whole lot of people.

CG-  How has being in a rock band changed from when you started until now?

JJ- My first band started in 1968, and it's still some guys bashing on guitars and drums, makin' some noise. From the beginning, we were hoping the chicks notice, and somebody digs it. To get to do it this long, is truly a gift.

Colin Gawel founded Pencilstorm and is a member of the band Watershed. For further reading on Colin and Willie Phoenix, check out the book Hitless Wonder by Joe Oestreich.

Don't forget to visit WilliePhoenix.com for the full gig schedule and lots & lots of music.