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Danny Johnson


Danny Johnson by Mike Huberty
November 2009

Looking at guitarist, DANNY JOHNSON’s musical resume is like reading a syllabus for a course in Classic Rock. Discovered at 18 years old by Rick Derringer (he of the “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo”), Johnson recorded three albums with him and moved on to joining the bands of Alice Cooper and Rod Stewart. Danny would go on to replace Steve Vai (who in turn had replaced Yngwie Malmsteen) in Graham Bonnet’s post-Rainbow project, Alcatrazz, and when they disbanded, became the guitarist in Eddie Van Halen’s production project, Private Life, in the late 80’s. During the last decade, in addition to performing with Tia Carrere on the Wayne’s World soundtrack, Johnson became the lead guitarist with the originators of the term “heavy metal”, Steppenwolf (still a touring entity almost half a century after forming.) Johnson has also released two solo albums, Grih-Grih Thing and Over Cloud Nine and is embarking on a solo tour through Wisconsin this November.

“I don’t think a lot of musicians that I know realize what’s great about Wisconsin.”, native Louisiana resident Johnson says, “It’s like a second home for me, I just love the people. To be able to go into these places and your next gig is only fifty miles. Even in Nashville, I don’t play at all here, it’s a buyers market and you’re preaching to the choir. The next decent gig is 200 miles. A lot of times I have more fun having a smaller concert where I get to be intimate with the people.” His solo show is just him and a guitar, but he makes it sound like a full band. “I play by myself with a mixing board, similar to what Todd Rundgren and Daniel Lanois have done. My thing is to make it sound really good and I turn up the guitar and the vocals and have backing tracks that we recorded with a drummer and I played most of the bass parts myself.”, he says.

With a history like his, so firmly entrenched in classic rock, Danny understands that his sonic legacy is inescapable. He also has a band with Steppenwolf’s keyboardist, Michael Wilk, called Wolf Tribe. “We’re not trying to do anything super new.”, he says. At first, I was doing that when I was still in California and producing records. I just decided when I started making my records that it was more effort on my part to make it sound more modern or like Green Day than to let it be classic rock where I’m experienced. I decided if you have to work harder to sound like guys in their twenties who have nowhere near the background you do, why don’t you just let that be their music and let you do your music and quit worrying about having a new sound. I’m a fan of classic rock music. In my car, I put it on 60s and let it go“, and then he laughs, ”And when I’m feeling really ‘mod’ I put it on 70s.“ Wolf Tribe will also be performing several Wisconsin dates before the end of the year.

Connecting himself to the area even more, Johnson also participates in Sturgeon Bay’s Steelbridge Songfest and while he sees a lot of talent, he also sees the difference in what makes a star. ”My first question is always, ‘Are you obsessed with this?’“, he says. ”There’s a lot of musicians that have a lot of talent and they go out on Saturday night and they have a few drinks and say that they could do better. But are they doing it? I never thought KISS were great musicians, but they just were obsessed and pushed themselves, same with punk rock. They weren’t great musicians but I understood what they were all about. You have to be obsessed with what you’re doing to make it.“

And Johnson still stays obsessed with performing, ”What are rock and rollers supposed to do unless you can’t physically play?“ he says. ”Are you supposed to watch the flowers grow? Ted Templeman (Doobie Brothers’ and Van Halen’s producer) told me that one out of a thousand bands make it big. That’s one out of a thousand bands with a real record deal and managers and agents. And that’s your lives. Music is what I do for a living, but it’s also my hobby. I don’t go hunting or fishing, I don’t go out and play pool with the boys.“ And making sure his wife is listening to the conversation, he laughs and says, ”I don’t even go to strip joints.“ DANNY JOHNSON’s solo tour begins in Manitowoc on November 15th and goes for the rest of the month.


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