For Johnny A., the guitar has held a lifelong fascination, her six strings exerting a powerful influence and addictive beauty since the first time he held them. The pursuit of this musical lady with the perfect shape has driven his years - shaping the course of his life – taking him places he never could have imagined. Through inspiring moments of ecstatic improvisation, deep contemplation and inevitable gaps of frustration it has been a stormy affair with a tempestuous hollow-body lover, but the marriage has been nothing less than remarkable.
Johnny A. is widely regarded as one of America's finest contemporary guitarists. Gibson thinks so – their Custom Shop designed a Signature Edition guitar per his specific requests which, when it was marketed in 2003, placed him in an exclusive club that included legends like BB King, Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, Joe Perry, Pat Martino and Les Paul himself. The public thinks so too - Johnny A.'s latest works have sold many thousands of copies as well as being his personal best. The most recent CD's - 2004's Get Inside and 1999's Sometime Tuesday Morning, are the critically acclaimed solo culmination of a lifetime of learning, sharing and bonding in a long parade of bands and players.
As a bright-eyed six-year old in Malden, Massachusetts, Johnny became fascinated with the drums, a habit his father encouraged by buying him a kit. There were lessons and the Jr. High School marching band, but as fun as the skins were, he realized that their melodic capability was quite limited. Rhythm had taken a backseat to melody and since the most melodic instrument in any 60's beat group was guitar, those six-strings now began their inexorable pull on Johnny A's life. Once the four “mop-tops” from Liverpool dropped like a bomb from Ed Sullivan's studio into his living room in 1964, his course was set.
A $49 Lafayette Electronics guitar became Johnny A.'s first girlfriend. A humble beginning for sure, but his mom was no fool and wanted to be safe if this ‘guitar thing' just turned out to be another passing teenage phase. It wasn't. Johnny saw the Beatles at Suffolk Downs outside of Boston in 1966 and their magical presence sent the impressionable lad into a blur of activity – sweeping up hair and doing odd jobs at his aunt's salon to save up the 88 bucks needed to buy a Vox Clubman guitar. Then, of course, he had to have a Gretsch too. No, this was no passing phase.
Fate leaned in and dealt a tough one when the active 13-year old developed a curvature in his spine and suffered massive and painful muscle spasms as a result. Doctors put Johnny in a full body cast for 14 months and eventual body brace for two years to immobilize his back and neck during treatment. As much as this terrible handicap limited the schoolboy in his activities, it didn't stop him from playing. In fact, the condition actually forced Johnny to improve his skills since he could no longer look down at his fingers while forming chords and picking.
In high school he was freed from the cast, graduated and then went on to a semester and a half at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Ironically, Johnny had no interest in attending even one of his guitar lessons at the prestigious school - they taught textbook Bebop, while he had moved onto the latest sounds: Progressive Rock and Jazz/Rock Fusion. The instructors preached Lester Young, but Johnny grooved on Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, King Crimson and Return to Forever featuring Bill Connors and Chick Corea. He bid adieu to Berklee and schooled himself, both at home and in Boston's hippie-era club scene at places like the Ark and Boston Tea Party.
In amongst going to see Ten Years After, Steppenwolf, Edger Winter's White Trash, Rhinoceros, Spirit and dozens more, Johnny put together his own group called Squanty Roo. They might not have blazed a trail to Budokan, but they did play the Fusion sounds that the guitarist was digging on. After that it was a short pilgrimage to San Francisco to absorb some counterculture and do a brief stint with percussionist Mingo Lewis.
By 1975 Johnny A. had worked out of his progressive phase and hungered to put together a basic rock outfit with the energy of Aerosmith and the melodic fascinations of the Beatles. It was the pre-punk period and Boston was about to become a hotbed of local talent and a leading city to support the brand new wave of bands and attitude. Johnny formed the group The Streets, a leather-clad unit on the ground floor of hard rock that embraced the sounds of 60's British Invasion pop. When Boston's punk scene finally climbed out of a handful of dingy rock and roll basements with its first wave of rock recruits for the brand new era, The Streets were there, scoring a major local radio hit with the song “What Gives.”
Eventually, personnel changes killed The Streets, but the guitarist formed other bands – Johnny A.'s Hidden Secret and Hearts on Fire, a unit featuring his wife Beth on vocals. With a sound that drew from country-western twang but rocked solid, Hearts on Fire preceded Maria McKee's Lone Justice and pioneered a distinctive place within Boston's thriving mid-80's local scene. Competing in the 1986 edition of WBCN-FM's annual Rock and Roll Rumble spotlighting two dozen of the year's best up and coming bands, Hearts on Fire blazed a trail all the way into the finals, becoming recognized truly as one of New England's finest and brightest hopes.
But Johnny broke up the group instead after realizing that their direction had become “calculated” and “not honest.” Disillusioned after reaching so far within the band format, he began playing with other artists like former Derek and the Dominos keyboardist Bobby Whitlock before hooking up with legendary J. Geils Band front man Peter Wolf. Johnny stayed with Wolf for seven years, playing on his albums and co-producing one of them – 1996's Long Line, as well as supporting the charismatic singer onstage around the world. During this period, in 1994, the Gibson Guitar Company first recognized Johnny's talents, announcing that the company was officially endorsing his fruitful career.
But once again Johnny A. felt he had taken a direction and pursuit as far as he could. The idea began to take hold that he should return to a solo direction – this time creating an album of melodies and music that swirled about in his head. Even though it didn't seem as if there was any commercial potential in the move, that wasn't the point – Johnny needed to bring this project to life and it wouldn't resemble anything he'd been involved in the past. Peter Wolf and Johnny A. parted ways and the guitarist began recording tracks for his new experiment – an album of music made merely to satisfy his own muse with no commercial constraints whatsoever.
The result was Sometime Tuesday Morning, a solo instrumental guitar album that Johnny A. released on his own label for his own enjoyment plus that of a few intrigued friends and family members. But the warmth of its guitar tones and allure of melody made Sometime Tuesday Morning much more – it made the album a surprise hit. After gigs Johnny began selling dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of copies out of his car trunk. The attention led to a re-release and distribution deal with Steve Vai's Favored Nations label and an ever-widening circle of high-prestige gigs with the likes of B.B. King, Robert Cray, and Jeff Beck plus an appearance at Eric Clapton's “Crossroads Guitar Festival” in 2004.
That success gave Johnny A. the confidence to assemble his second instrumental tour de force called Get Inside, another critically acclaimed album that traveled even deeper into the richness of guitar texture and melody. The release once again garnered national radio airplay and inspired another round of touring commitments and personal appearances. An instructional guitar DVD has followed plus plans for his newest project – a live CD/DVD featuring special guests and new material. It has been a long way from that first $49 guitar to Gibson's Johnny A. Signature Edition (Metallica's Kirke Hammett recently bought one), but it's been a fruitful journey. Johnny A. is still doing what he loves to do the most - play guitar and create music, and he's still getting better at it all the time.