Play that damn guitar

Jay Jesse Johnson Band
will perform at the Dublin Pub


Jay Jesse Johnson playing that damn guitar. Photo: Ed Sawicki

By Tim Smith

It’s been said that sometimes you have to leave home to find your true calling. Indiana-born blues guitarist and singer, Jay Jesse Johnson is living proof of that adage. His band will be appearing at The Dublin Pub on February 16.

Johnson started playing guitar at the age of 10 and grew up listening to the sounds of blues, country, and rock & roll. By the time he was 12, he was performing at local dances, events, and nightclubs around the Midwest. When he was 18, Johnson left the small town of Liberty, Indiana and headed to the East coast. He started gigging in the New York City / New England bar scene with regional bands, and was soon playing on many studio recordings. In 1983, he became the guitarist for Arc Angel, where he appeared on MTV with the band’s hit single, “Tragedy.”

It may sound like an old show biz fable, about the young man with a guitar leaving his small town roots to find fame and fortune in the big bad world, but Johnson has no regrets about his decision to strike out when he did.

“When I was 18, it seemed easy, although I do remember struggling with paying the bills and just trying to get by,” he says. “Playing in the New York City and New England bar scene 6 nights a week was a grind, but it continually presented opportunities. One time, I was asked by then-Vice President of CBS Records, Lennie Pietze, to be the guitarist for an upcoming, unknown artist. I didn’t like what I heard, so I declined. It turned out to be Cindy Lauper! It comes down to staying true to yourself and making the right decisions.”

After many years spent on the road and in the studios, Johnson decided to test Thomas Wolfe’s theory about going home again.

“After moving back to the greater Tri-State area in 2009, I formed a band and have had a few member changes,” he says. “The current lineup is Reed Bogart on bass, Jeff “Smokey” Donaldson on drums, Lee Evans on keyboards, and myself doing guitars and vocals. Lee has been with me for 7 years, and Reed and Jeff for 4 years. Great musicians, as well as good human beings. We all contribute during rehearsals. One of the things I tell the guys, whether performing or recording, is do what you do and enjoy yourself.”

The band performs mostly original material, with a few familiar cover tunes. The members also play into the reactions of their audiences.

“When performing for a concert or festival, we primarily do original material with a rendition or two of cover songs,” Johnson says. “I write all of the music and lyrics for all the songs, with a few co-writers over the course of 6 solo albums, but I’m always open to changes in the arrangement and letting the players contribute to best suit the song. I often write a set to go with the length of our performance, but that changes depending on how the audience responds and how long some of the improvisations are. When the band and the audience connect, it’s all good.”

Johnson has appeared on many recordings, but his first solo album, “Strange Imagination,” released in 2004, set the stage for his back-to-the-roots, blues/rock ascent. It was followed by, “I’ve Got an Ax To Grind” in 2007, but his third solo album, “Play That Damn Guitar,” was featured in Classic Rock Magazine’s CD “Blues Breakers.” He cites several musicians that influenced his style.

“Growing up in a family with 5 kids, I heard the music of the 50s and 60s,” he says. “My older sister, Gail, listened to Elvis, Motown, Doo-wop, The Beatles, and worked for Mercury Records in Richmond, Indiana. She would often bring records home from the company store so I was exposed to all kinds of music. I guess hearing ‘Meet The Beatles’ when I was 8 years old got me hooked. The earliest blues music I heard was from the English bands that covered American blues. Bands like The Animals, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds stirred my interest which led me to artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and T-Bone Walker. When I was 11, I heard Cream’s ‘Fresh Cream’ album, and that was the turning point. That same year, I heard ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix. I would say Jimi Hendrix is probably my biggest influence, although I have been influenced by many artists and styles.”

Johnson and his crew have played in a variety of venues in several states. No matter where they play, they pull out all the stops to win over the crowd.

“We do 60 to 80 shows a year,” Johnson says. “We’ve performed at venues like The Fraze, Cincy Blues Fest, Bean Blossom Blues Fest, Lebanon Blues Festival, The International Blues Challenge, and gigs across the country. The festivals are certainly larger than the clubs and the response is louder, but I find most places we go, our fans show up and appreciate the mojo. I love to play music, whether it’s concerts, festivals, or whatever. We always give it everything we’ve got, so when people come to see our band, I want them to have a good time and walk away knowing they’ve heard something unique and memorable.’

The Jay Jesse Johnson Band will appear at The Dublin Pub at 300 Wayne Ave. in Dayton, on February 16 from 8:00 p.m. to midnight. For more information, visit dubpub.com or call 937.224.7822. More information about Jay Jesse Johnson can be found at his website, www.jayjessejohnson.com.

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Tim Smith
Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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