Joe’s Journal

Goodbye old friend

Posted:  Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 8:45am
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Goodbye, old friend.

It seems like yesterday when I was standing next to a skinny blond baritone on a shaky stage at the old Rendezvous on Southport. It was a shade more than 50 years ago, a time when three kids with matching shirts could spend the summer in Boothbay belting out folk and protest songs, while earning the princely sum of $50 a week, plus room and board.

We were billed as “Joe, Mike and Lee.” Despite the top billing, I was not the star of the show. It was the baritone, Michael Johnson, who drew the crowds. Lee Mallory was the other guy.

My job was to sing harmony and keep my big 12-string Epiphone in tune, no small task when humidity invaded the big room.  Johnson, a classically trained guitarist, would spice up our act playing complex riffs and jazz licks as we offered up folkie tunes written by the likes of Bob Gibson, Phil Ochs and, of course, Bob Dylan.

The highlight of the evening was when Johnson took a solo turn, often singing a Frank Loesser Broadway show stopper: “Joey, Joey, Joey,” from “Most Happy Fella,” Or “Bluesette” a jazz standard written by harmonica master “Toots” Thielemans.

As Johnson’s slender fingers danced over the fretboard, his lush voice warmed the room. When the crowd, mostly college-age kids, got a bit rowdy, he would just sing softer, forcing the audience to listen, really listen.

The other guy and I were pretty good at basic chords, but Johnson’s complex jazz and Broadway chord progressions were way over our heads, and our imagination. We watched a lot.

After the evening’s show, it was Johnson who was the object of attention from the ladies.

Needless to say, we had a wonderful time during the summer of 1965.

After the Rendezvous closed for the season, I got back on my battered Honda 250 Scrambler and rode to Cleveland where I lived while pretending to be a college student. Then the draft board called. The war in Vietnam was getting started and Uncle Sam decided the Marines need my skills(?). I didn't have a vote.

For the next two years, two months and 10 days I did my duty, including nine months in Vietnam at the big Marine base at Phu Bai. For the record, they sent me back to the states on the day before the bloody TET Offensive started. It was good time to leave.

When I got back to California, I ran into Johnson again. He told me when he left Boothbay, he flew to Spain to study classical guitar. Then he went to LA and a group called “The New Society.” While he missed out on military service because of a real health issue, he and the group did a USO tour that included several dates in Vietnam.

While he was in LA playing at a club, one of the guys hanging out with him was a bright, and very funny, banjo-playing magician named Steve Martin. Another was John Denver, who soon was hired by the Chad Mitchell Trio, a popular folk act known for their clever satirical and political tunes. When Mitchell decided to go solo, Denver hired Johnson and their act was called Denver, Boise and Johnson.

They continued to tour on the folk/protest circuit offering tunes like Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” and Michael Brown’s cutting satire, “The John Birch Society.” After that gig, Johnson went to New York where he appeared in an off-Broadway production of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris.”

I went back to Indiana and convinced an East Boothbay woman to be my bride, and to live in exile for nearly 40 years. Johnson joined the Nashville music scene, where he cut a couple of albums, including playing an original instrumental opus with master guitarist Leo Kottke called “Mona Ray.” He hit the big time with a major hit called “Bluer than Blue,” following that hit up with a couple of other top sellers and settled into a long career as a solo artist touring with stars like Alison Krauss.

After we retired and moved back to Boothbay, our paths crossed again when Cathy Sherrill booked Johnson to play the Opera House, first as a solo and later teaming him with his old Nashville pal, Maine’s own Dave Mallett. He also played a benefit for the Boothbay Region Land Trust.

In recent years, he kept touring until his health went downhill. He died last week in Minneapolis.

Michael still has many fans in the Boothbay region. If you want to hear his voice and guitar one more time, visit the internet. My favorite cut is a duet Johnson recorded with Judy Collins. They sang one of his compositions. It is called “Emilio.” Check it out.

RIP old friend.