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This edition we spotlight JOHNNY VERNAZZA, or "Johnny V" as he has long been known, though in the age of the Internet he now competes for the title with a Canadian guitarist. Our Johnny "V" got there first, coming up through the San Francisco scene of the '60s as bassist and singer for the brainy psychedelic blues band Fox before joining Elvin Bishop's band as a guitarist. He toured with Elvin for years, recording six albums and playing the distinctive double leads on Bishop's hits, including his biggest, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love." Johnny came up through the ranks at the same time as another Bay Area favorite, his buddy Norton Buffalo, and for 20 years Johnny and Norton paired in Norton Buffalo and The Knockouts. Johnny was just about knocked out himself two decades ago, when a rock lifestyle of drugs and alcohol caught up with him and forced him to reevaluate his life. His rebirth seemed complete in 2002 when he released his critically acclaimed first solo CD, Feel Like Goin' Home. Johnny, a Bay Area native, is a southern rocker at heart, and a blues man. Living the suburban life in Southern California now, in a home north of San Diego he purchased with his psychotherapist wife, Johnny's life seems in order. At 57 he has his own band, The Johnny Vernazza Band, and some clear insights on what it takes to be happy in the bosom of rock and blues.
JOHNNY "V" VERNAZZA
Johnny Vernazza was born in San Francisco to a working class Italian family, "Genovese on both sides...," Northern Italians. The family spoke Italian around the house when he was growing up in Daly City, but stopped when his older sister started getting teased about it at school. Johnny grew up playing on his grandparents' produce farm, which was located at the present site of the Daly City BART Station. And early on he was drawn to the limelight.
"I wasn't shy, I made friends fast, and usually things just swung around to my music," he recalls. "Even before I was really playing guitar I would get up and sing at the (school) assemblies. I entered dance contests back when they used to have that... I always was like that, even when I was in Grammar School in Redwood City still, the teachers would let me go around to the classes and I would do like the whole Ed Sullivan show. I would do imitations and sing. I was one of those little kids who was probably pretty annoying to some. Who knows..."
The entertainment gene Johnny carries came from his father, who was one of the "Vernazza Twins," an accordion duo popular in the Bay Area in the 1940s and '50s, whose time in the limelight included an appearance on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Johnny's father started him on the accordion. "I took accordion lessons and played accordion for about three years - I took lessons from the same brother who taught my dad," says Johnny. "That ended because (the teacher) realized that I wasn't reading, I was cheating. He was whacking me on the back of the head, and then my dad came to pick me up and I could hear him yelling at my dad in Italian, and I was crying in the back room. And there was a guitar hanging on the wall, and I told my dad I wanted that guitar. And he bought it for me."
Johnny was self-taught on that first acoustic, before going to purchase his first electric - a Premiere guitar/amp combo - from Alec's, a Wal-Mart-like department store of the post-WWII era. The music guys there gave lessons and Johnny got training that took immediately. "Within a year of the time I started taking lessons I started playing professionally," Johnny says. "So by '64, I was out there..."
At 15, Johnny was fronting a band that was climbing quickly through the Bay Area food chain, winning "battle of the bands" contests and the opportunities that came with those successes. "We won the battle of the bands at the San Mateo County Fair. One of the prizes, besides a shopping spree at Dom Weir's, was...Sly Stone had a club called The Upper Room at The Playpen, on Divisadero Street, and we got to play there. I remember my dad had to drive me there..." In the audience was Billy Preston.
Fortunate connections abound in Johnny's story. He grew up with members of Sly Stone's band and crew, and was a confederate of Janis Joplin and other prominent players on the San Francisco club scene of the mid-to-late 1960s. Among his earliest cohorts (1964) was guitarist Gary Pihl, who hit the big time with Sammy Hagar before joining his friend Tom Sholz's band Boston (in 1978). Before all of that, Johnny and Pihl were band mates in the popular San Francisco psychedelic blues band Day Blindness, which Johnny describes as "...like a brainy Blue Cheer." Day Blindness was renamed Fox and between 1968-70 became a regular attraction at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and in the concerts taking place in Golden Gate Park.
Fox got an odd break in 1970 when they were recruited by a shadowy Korean "mob" figure called "Jermaine" to play a big money club show in Hawaii. "We went over on a one-way ticket," says Johnny. They played the first night and were paid as advertised, but after that there was no pay coming, just work. They were stuck on the island. "It was real ugly, at first. We got saved by John Selby, who was managing Quicksilver."
Black-balled from the local clubs, after splitting with Jermaine, Selby put Fox on as an opening act for Eric Burdon and War and they played shows with Quicksilver, who were living and recording in Hawaii at the time.
Johnny returned from Hawaii with his player credentials further established. He toured the United States with a Gospel band that included an appearance on the Sonny & Cher television show. He also caught a wave riding the blues scene that was sweeping the planet, and Johnny "V" started getting opportunities to work with blues greats Luther Tucker and Sonnyland Slim, rock'n roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and Johnny's contemporaries Steve Miller, Gregg Allman, George Thorogood, Charlie Daniels, and Commander Cody.
Elvin Bishop Band
In 1971, Johnny Vernazza was holding court at a club on Grant Street in San Francisco's North Beach. Here he hosted visiting players and musicians from the local scene. Elvin Bishop, who had made his name as one of two lead guitarists (along with Mike Bloomfield) in the powerhouse Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and who since 1969 had been fronting his own unit, started dropping by the club to play with Johnny. Elvin, whose dual-lead approach with Bloomfield had been emulated by many bands, most notably The Allman Brothers, was looking for a partner to continue the two-guitar style. He tapped Johnny V for the other slot and the two embarked on a musical collaboration that would span much of the '70s, produce six top selling albums, and yield such hits as "Fooled Around and Fell In Love," which reached #3 on the Top 40 in 1976.
The Elvin Bishop Band was another groundbreaking act in the evolution of rock'n blues. Elvin was initially working with John Coltrane veteran drummer John Chambers, but over time took the band toward a more rock-oriented style behind the beat of Don Baldwin. According to Johnny V, having a rock drummer "kind of drove Elvin's band. Don Baldwin wasn't exactly a blues drummer. I don't think he had ever even played a shuffle until he joined Elvin's band, not that we played that many shuffles."
Elvin was also generous about sharing the spotlight and Johnny V stretched out with Elvin's band, on stage where he was featured on solos, and in the studio where he was granted creative freedom. "The line in 'Fooled Around and Fell In love' that sounds like a flute, in the beginning, the intro... that's my guitar. That line that goes through the whole song, how that came about, I already had the line (he sings it), but when we recorded the tune...okay, I'm going to go in and overdub that line...so the night before I was to go in - we had already done the vocals, most of the band had already flown back... - I happened to see Chet Atkins on Johnny Carson the night before. He played something like 'Fly Me to the Moon' or something... he was playing harmonics, where he would pluck the string with his thumb and hit it with his finger at the appropriate fret to make a harmonic out of it. I saw that and said 'Shit! That's cool!' That's what I'm going to do with 'Fooled Around and Fell In Love' tomorrow. So I walked into the studio and explained it to the engineer and he said, 'Go get a six-pack of beer and I'll get a reel.' The reel was for the obvious - chopping, right? What I did was overdubbed the harmonies using the chimes like that... But if it wasn't for seeing Chet Atkins on Johnny Carson, which basically had nothing to do with music, I was just hanging around watching TV..."
Rock and Roll Life
Along with success came money and a life of serial one nighters, hotel rooms and non-stop partying. It was the "high" side of a lifestyle Johnny V was almost born to; one that came to him along with music, which came to him really young.
"I started drinking when I was probably fourteen. My future brother-in-law, at the time, was in the Navy and he used to drive up (to the San Francisco Bay Area) from San Diego. And I asked him one time, how do you drive up on Friday and drive back on Sunday? And he was taking pills. And so he gave me a bunch of pills and that was about it. It opened up the doors for everything. By the time I got to Elvin's band I was just basically doing everything. Whatever was there, I would take."
"It was like, every night was the same thing. If we were on tour together, I'd usually end up in some hotel room with Toy Caldwell, of the Marshall Tucker Band, God rest his soul." Toy Caldwell died of heart disease in 1993. "We were really tight. And we would be partyin' and singing the same songs. Maybe some different people, but the same songs every night..." It wasn't any different on the tour bus. "I've got a picture of myself with a windup monkey on my back, in the RV, with a Smirnoff, just waking up, and the point is 'it was Johnny's turn to drive.' Just give him the bottle and let him drink himself awake..."
"I don't remember half of the stuff we did, let alone half of the people we met... I remember being on the road with Charlie Daniels and a southern rock crew a lot, but we also did a lot with Rod Stewart and Foghat and a lot of different bands, but I really don't remember."
After Elvin Bishop put his band on hiatus at the end of the '70s, Johnny went to work with his friend, former Steve Miller band member Norton Buffalo, in Norton and The Nice Guys. Johnny's partying didn't stop. "The alcohol turned out to be my worst problem. The cocaine was secondary. I snorted heroine for a good twelve years. If I didn't have it, it was no big deal, I had my alcohol..."
Johnny believes, looking back, that besides whatever toll the lifestyle was taking on his memory, it was doing worse to his mobility within the rock world. A naturally gregarious guy, Johnny had become closed off, isolated among a close-knit group of friendly enablers. He was circulating among a music elite, yet missing his opportunity to capitalize on his talents. In fact, his fortunes were taking a downturn.
It got to where even his close friend Norton could no longer countenance Johnny's enthusiasms. "By 1987 it was about over. In '87 I got my first DUI and I started to be unreliable. So, Norton let me go and then in late '88 I got about four DUIs in about as many months. Part of the problem was that I had money, at the time, so I was just able to go on and do my drugs and my drinks and it finally caught up with me. So I spent all of '89 in four different counties doing DUI time. If that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have stopped."
Johnny credits his county jail time with turning his life around, but he isn't exactly contrite. "I took a high school attitude about it because it kinda was like that. I was in the camps, and I worked. I was in the kitchen usually, and baked... And then I also started working out and that really helped a lot. For the first time in my life all the sudden I weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, where before I was a ninety-pound drug addict. When I got out I just kept that up."
Johnny didn't play out at all between 1989 and 1993- "I had no license, no way to get around, and had to pay all these ridiculous fines off..." He then re-surfaced in his home Bay Area, playing clubs again for a few months, then got his moment of redemption - a phone call from Norton Buffalo inviting him back into the band. Johnny had a steady gig again, and this time he was going to be able to remember the experience.
Feel Like Goin' Home
Johnny continued with Norton Buffalo and the Knockouts throughout the '90s and into the new millennium. Then, in 2002, he released his first solo CD, Feel Like Goin' Home (At The Beach Records). The CD provided recorded evidence of what top musicians have known for years - that Johnny Vernazza is a special player. The album ranges from blistering slide to refined jazz to honky-tonk rock'n blues. His rendition of "Feel Like Goin' Home" is delta distilled to its essence, a dusty, sun-baked tribute to the devil of the south and the soul of a mortal man. Critics loved the CD, which has a breakthrough quality about it, undeniable in its reach. Every track feels classic, timeless, not an evocation of a style, but the style itself. It has "lift," an energy that separates the experience of listening to it from any conscious awareness of the performance effort.
Herein lies both the genius and the torment of Johnny V. His "stuff" is transcendent, a sonic gift to the ages, but how do you bottle that for live consumption? And how do you get full value for such a vintage wine?
Johnny Vernazza Band
Johnny has put together a quartet, The Johnny Vernazza Band, to give him his own stage vehicle. Consisting of keys, bass and drum, and himself on guitar, the band does cuts from Feel Like Goin' Home along with numbers from Johnny's Elvin Bishop days and other classic rock'n blues. Says Johnny - "My band... we could be classified as 'southern rock' at various times in the set. Although I do some more traditional blues stuff, it transforms into jam band types of things..."
Johnny's shows are spontaneous in the blues club tradition. "I write set lists if we have a time limit, and I kinda follow 'em. But when we do some of the clubs where I just know what's going on I just call the songs off, or just start the songs. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm going to play, and just sort of go on feeling, and that's a lot of fun."
"We do five or six things off my CD, then I do a couple things I did with Elvin, "Calling All Cows" and "Honey Babe," then a pretty eclectic set of blues and rock stuff...old Delbert McClinton, rock and jam tunes. We try to make a club show more like a concert, and we are getting a really good reaction."
Dating back to his band Fox, and throughout his collaborations with Elvin Bishop, Johnny's interests have always been with songs structured as songs within songs. "I think, structurally, to just have to play with verse, chorus, and solos for everybody is just kinda boring."
Rock at Fifty-Seven
Even as a born performer playing a form of music, the blues, that only feels legitimate coming from a veteran, Johnny recognizes that age isn't an advantage in pop culture. It even creates special problems with one's own repertoire.
"I've got this one tune that is on my CD called 'Why Did Ya?' that I wrote quite a few years ago... I was kinda debating about whether to do the tune, because it's like 'Every time I'm knocking on your door your mama tells me you don't want to see me no more.' Well, okay, I'm fifty-seven. Who's mama, you know? I keep wanting to write deeper songs, and then it comes down to what's real, and what are you gonna do here. My song writing right now, yeah, it's got to take a change. I stay away from the political stuff. I can't beat my political beliefs down peoples' throats. And then, too, you get pigeon-holed."
Another interesting challenge for the mature musician (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?) is that after several decades one has heard a lot of music. Even a guy like Johnny, who says he never considered being anything other than a musician, can get enough of it after awhile.
"I don't listen to a ton of it. I go through streaks... I'll make up CDs on my laptop, just random stuff, so I'll be listening to everything from Buck Owens to Bill Frissel, and everything in between. But a lot of times, like after a gig, I'm on pop radio, man. It drives my wife crazy. But no, I'm not always spinnin' music. I keep up, and I listen to stuff and I like just about everything, but it is not like a 24/7 thing with me. A lot of it is because there is a lot going on in my brain musically all the time... whether I end up putting it down or not, it's there..."
Johnny's interests tend to return to the classic country music he has always loved - "I'm a big 'old country' fan, a big Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, George Jones freak still, always have been...." The contemporary music scene seems as hit-and-miss for him as much as it does for any other baby boomer. "The country scene kind of depressed me for awhile..." He has a generational aversion to, and yet a musician's curiosity in, contemporary urban sounds. "I'm not too wild about hip-hop, although I like some stuff with beats. In fact, I'm talking to a friend of mine's son about putting together some beats for me... I'd like to put some slide guitar over some beats."
He does have a rocker's affinity for today's rebel dudes. "Some of the alternative stuff I really like... There are a lot of good bands out there." He mentioned particularly liking Green Day's recent "American Idol" performance of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." "I love that drummer" - Tres Cool - "Great drummer, man."
Johnny is even a fan of some of "American Idol's" past contestants. "My wife is a psychotherapist, so... so I'm cooking dinner and it's usually mindless TV. It's usually 8, 9 o'clock by the time she gets home, and it's too much thought to watch a movie... Ruben Stoddard, who won 'American Idol,' that kid can sing and here's someone you don't hear about... There is so much out there these days, it is just so thick, there is no way to turn on the TV and not find something pretty cool."
One thing Johnny does notice is that America's transition from a "sidewalk" to a "media culture" has been a mixed blessing for the young musicians he sees coming up. "I think the one thing they don't have that was instrumental in my growing up...and probably why I play the way I play... There were teen clubs I was playing, probably four or five days a week. On the weekends, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there were teen dances, and there were also teenage nightclubs. And so, like up until 10 or 11 o'clock you could be under 18 and be in these teenaged night clubs, and then they would kick everybody out, or stamp your hand, and whatever. There was all that stuff going on... There is nowhere (now) for the kids to cut their teeth like there was... Now there are more talent shows, and it's more media oriented... There is more schooling that we didn't have, though when I was in high school I took a music class, and I was already in the musicians' union. The teacher didn't like me at all, and I just stopped going to class, because he knew I was already out there making money..."
Johnny gives this advice to young players - "I think it's eyes and ears - always be aware, look and listen... I remember one time, we are on the road with Elvin and we were walking past this bar, and I stopped to listen to this gujtar player who was playing at a Holiday Inn. And the guy's said 'What the hell are you doin'?' And I said 'I'm listening to this guy, this guy's good!' My point was that you can always pick something up from somebody, no matter how good or how bad they are... I try on stage to surround myself with musicians who keep their eyes and ears open. This way you can drop the ball... it's like watching the old football games and somebody will fumble the ball and it will change hands five or six times and they still get a touchdown because everyone is watching, paying attention..."
Generally, Johnny doesn't have any trouble maintaining his enthusiasm for what he does, though he confesses that he doesn't have the energy he had when he was younger. "God bless Tommy Castro - he's a little younger than I am - but I couldn't do two hundred some dates a year..."
"It hardly ever feels like work," says Johnny. "The only time it feels like work is if I get called for a gig, and the money is just so good that I'll take it... and then, I could watch a ballgame on TV and not even worry about what I'm playing, because I'm just there... a mediocre kind of thing, that's work. Sometimes I'll take a small gig that will be a load of fun with players of half the caliber. It gets back to the eyes and ears and how the attitude is. Nothing is worse than people who make the same mistakes more than once, or don't keep their eyes open... it's a train wreck, and it's like the same train wreck at the same corner every day..."
The Best of Times
Johnny Vernazza has always been an upbeat guy with the youthful enthusiasm that typifies rock dudes. He still loves the music and, 18 years sober and in a happy 10-year marriage, he seems to be in a golden period in his life. The day I talked with him, he chatted amiably, answering my questions while watching himself on television, performing as a member of the Elvin Bishop band on videos being shown on the Country Music Television's Tribute to Southern Rock. He has a 25-year old daughter and a 4-year old grand daughter, and he remains in close touch with his many friends.
That's not to say that he is exactly the same guy he always was. When he moved from the "liberal" Bay Area to the "conservative" San Diego area he started to feel himself drifting a bit from his old ways of thinking. "My wife keeps saying the reason I've changed - I'm Independent now - is 'because of all your drug years and all your drinking and everything else that now you feel this moral righteousness that you must live. I feel I have turned away from the left side a lot, from where I used to be. The guys in Norton's band especially, I have some fun with those guys and they'll give me a real hard time. I'm just down here in Southern Cal and there's just different things that I have that I kinda believe in, and we'll see if I'm right as time goes on.
"But politically, nothing changes. We can try what we can, and there's gonna be gas prices that are sky high, and there's going to be reasons why that is, and there are going to be wars and there is not going to be war... and so we just try to do what we can do... I am an optimist. I definitely think that things will get better, and you've got to work to make it better, without a doubt.
"I mean, we became politically involved in our little neighborhood here just because of some roads they wanted to open by our house and things like that. But then we also had a very bad experience with some neighbors who bought a house next to us, and we're in top-notch suburbia, that were doing some illegal things and the other neighbors were just turning their head, and we said 'We just moved here from Oakland, and this isn't going to happen here...'
Johnny isn't one of those guys who lives with a lot of regret, including over the substance abuse and jail time. "That's part of my life," he says, accepting life for what it's been. He is thinking about how things changed for him, and considering telling his story in a book. "I want to write about why...and maybe help some other people not go down that same path."
"I think I'm probably happier now than I ever was. I'm married to my best friend and I love her. We have a beautiful house. The only thing is, it's like starting a career over..."
Johnny is doing studio work as a producer, recording his old friend Annie Sampson, who was the singer with the popular Bay Area '70s band Stoneground, SF blues guitarist Ron Hacker, and the Joplinesque blues belter Michelle Lundeen. He has also produced and recorded with rockers Scarlet Theory, bluesmen S.E. Willis, Bob Brozman, Merle Brandon, Yoshinobu Takeda and Andrej Sifrer.
Postscript - Johnny's World
Johnny V, even considering his associations with rock rebels, enablers and party boys, has always kept good company. His wife Trish must have been a positive influence. She is a force in her own right and there is a brief bit below that provides some information on who she is, along with a link to her website. Check it out. She does wonderful artwork and has an impressive resume. Her background as a Berkeley creative-intellectual is apparent in everything about the work she displays on her site, which puts Johnny's story above in an interesting context. She and Johnny must make a fascinating couple. Another important person in Johnny's story is Arlic Dromgoole, who has taken Johnny under his wing as his media representative and booking manager.
Trish Vernazza, M.A. is an accomplished artist and art therapist who has been a frequent guest speaker on NBC's reality TV show "Starting Over." You can learn more about her, her artwork, and her distinguished career by visiting her website at www.trishv.com.
Trish Vernazza is the author of Women, Art and Mental Illness, a project that grew from her work at the Berkeley Creative Living Center, where she led intensive workshops to surface women's issues and create artwork to capture their feelings and moods.
Left to Right: Norton Buffalo, Olivia Newton-John, and Arlic Dromgoole.
Arlic DromgooleIdid the painting on the left of bluesman Honeyboy Edwards.
A longtime friend of Norton Buffalo's, and now the manager of Johnny V, Arlic is a retired (32 year career) San Diego school teacher, and an artist/musician in his own right.
A Bay Area native, Arlic in the '60s played in a band called the Purple Orange. "We started in high school at Harry Ells High (in Richmond) where many other great bands came from. The King Brothers band, Lee and Sam King who played with their cousins Albert and Freddy, were also in my class. Norton Buffalo - who is one of my longest and best friends - and I went to Junior high together, he was 2 years younger than me. He used to come to my band practices. If you go to http://home.comcast.net/-obertson you will see a picture of my band and many of the other Garage Bands of the 60's. Different from the others, we actually opened for the Grateful Dead for a week in Rio Neito on Russian River, for Blue Cheer and Santana, at Contra Costa College. I went to California College of Arts and Crafts in 1967 and was involved with everything that happened in the Summer of Love. I hung out with people like Janis Joplin, Chicken Hersh, Michael McClure, and his friend Jim Morrison, that he would bring to school to work on poetry. We played at a park in Berkeley called Provo Park, a lot on the weekends. Bands used to play all day for free, just for the love of the music. That's where I met another old friend of mine, Charlie Musselwhite."
Arlic made an interesting statement when I asked him about his background. "I have enough stuff to fill a book, but don't have time to write, because I'm still living it."
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