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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5

Cover Story

Johnny Vernazza: Beyond the Blues

by Bart MendozaAugust 2018

Johnny Vernazza. PHoto by Steve Covault.

Young Johnny.

Vernazza and Elvin Blshop, mid-1970s.

Vernazza and Jerry Garcia.

Vernazza with Chuck Berry.

Vernazza reunites with Elvin Bishop at Gator by the Bay in 2011.

Vernazza backstage with Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop.

With its scenic beauty, great weather and thriving music community, it’s no surprise that many acclaimed musicians from around the world have made San Diego their home. Such is the case with Bay Area native, guitarist Johnny Vernazza. Best known for his work with 1970’s hitmakers the Elvin Bishop Band, he arrived in San Diego circa 2001, having toured through the area numerous times over the decades. Vernazza has had an amazing career, playing with a long list of musical icons, from Jerry Garcia to Chuck Berry. It’s the sort of life in music that just wouldn’t be possible today, but will someday make a heck of a movie.

Early Days
Johnny Vernazza was born February 27, 1950, at San Francisco’s Children’s Hospital, residing in Redwood City until 1958, before heading to Daly City. “It borders San Francisco to the south, so it was a great location to grow up in. By 1965 it was the place to be,” Vernazza recalled.

His interest in music comes via his family. “My Dad and Uncle were twins and very well-known accordion players in the San Francisco area,” he said. “They played accordion duets–my Uncle played the melody and my Dad went around that. It was all charted.” Though now known for his slide guitar prowess, as a youngster Vernazza followed in his father’s footsteps. “I even had the same teacher as my dad, one of the Pezzola Brothers, who were famous in that field.”

Vernazza’s ability to play by ear would prove to be the catalyst to a switch in instruments, albeit in a roundabout way. “I would take my sheet music home and play it with my Dad,” he remembered. “My ear was so good that I’d go back for the next lesson and viola! Well, this lasted until the charts got more complicated. Mr. Pezzola noticed I wasn’t giving full value to a note one day and told me to take it on a given bar. Well, I couldn’t read, so I was busted.”

What followed next changed young Vernazza’s life. “Mr. Pezzola called my Dad to the studio and when he got there he sent me out. I could hear him yelling at my Dad in Italian,” he said. In the meantime an acoustic guitar hanging on the wall had caught Vernazza’s attention. “My Dad came out and I asked if I could have the guitar to learn. He bought it on the spot; I don’t think he wanted to see Mr. Pezzola again either.”

While he would go on to play stadiums, his first performance was a much different affair. “When I was about six years old, we belonged to the Italian Catholic Federation and they would have big parades with cars pulling floats that were all decorated. My sister was on one of the floats as the Virgin Mary. Well, somehow I wandered off and when my Mom found me I was on stage singing with a Mexican band. I have a picture somewhere. I was standing on a stool dressed like a cowboy with a big microphone that had the radio station’s call letters on it. I think it went well,” he laughed.

The Sixties
By 1963, 13-year-old Vernazza had joined San Francisco’s Musician’s Union, Local 6 “with a note from my Mom,” he recalled. “The union’s treasurer sponsored me in at the time. I was working with his son–me on guitar and his son on accordion, and he suggested we both join.”

Vernazza came of age at the height of the Bay Area’s music scene, making connections and witnessing music history along the way. His first band, the Legionnaires, was formed in late 1963, playing instrumental rock and blues hits by the likes of the Ventures and Lonnie Mack. His first band of note, however, was called the Outcasts (not to be confused with a San Diego band from roughly the same time frame, featuring a young Gary Puckett) who were starting to gig around 1965. At the time Vernazza played R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll plus standards. His love of blues wouldn’t hit until 1971. His favorite guitarists were Chet Atkins and Steve Cropper. “We played dance music; that’s what they wanted at the teen clubs of the day and there were a lot of them, like the Batcave in Mountain View. We did songs by James Brown, the Righteous Brothers, and so on. Toward the end of the band we did add some Beatles songs, but we weren’t really into that,” he said.

The young Outcasts found inspiration in another local band just about to make it big. “We had a manager that took us to see a Top 40 Band–the Frantics–rehearse. They were off-the-charts great,” he recalled. “That’s where I picked up on doing medleys of different tunes, I stole it from them. Some years later I bought an album by the band Moby Grape and damn, there were four of the Frantics on the cover–Jerry Miller, Don Stevenson, Skip Spence, and Bob Mosley.” The latter was a fresh-from-San Diego combo called the Misfits.

It was with the Outcasts that Vernazza made his first trip into the studio, circa 1966. “The same manager that took us to see the Frantics brought us in,” he recalled. “His name was Hank Doing. I last spoke with him around 1984. Anyway, he was a real nice cat, really had a good ear, and knew what he was doing. He explained to us that writing songs was where the money was in the music business. It was around the time that we met the Frantics and we wanted to start to write our own songs. We recorded three original tracks.” The songs titles have been lost to time, but the good news is that the tape still exists, so there is hope the tracks may yet see the light of day.

Vernazza closed out the late 1960s playing bass for the band Fox. They would record an album in 1970, but it would remain unreleased until 2011, when it was issued as The San Francisco Sessions. “The drummer in Fox was an old pal of mine,” he explained. “We played in a couple bands together over the years and he suggested that I pick up the bass and join his band. They were called Day Blindness, but they had just broken up and were reforming. So that was that. I took to playing bass fast, like picked it up and we started gigging. We played all over, at places like Golden Gate Park, the Fillmore, and so on. We also did a Hawaiian tour and a trip up to Oregon and Washington.” The band’s guitarist was none other than Gary Pihl, who went on to play with Sammy Hagar and then Boston.

First National TV
Through the early 1970s Vernazza continued to perform with various bands, leading to his first appearance on national television, with Gideon and Power, on the hit CBS-TV variety program, The Sonny and Cher Show. “It was a great act,” Vernazza said. “It was high-energy old school gospel, but Gideon would preach about thing you wouldn’t hear in church. The band consisted of Gideon on lead vocals and me on bass, with a piano player.” Notably, the band featured three singers, including one that would have a significant impact on his career–Mickey Thomas, later of the Elvin Bishop Band, and Starship. “We toured the East Coast and played all over San Francisco, we had some fun,” he said. “The manager was Wally Amos–yes! of Famous Amos cookies! He worked for [booking agency] William Morris at the time and took Gideon on as well as comedian Art Matrano.” Unfortunately, any memories of the appearance are a blur. “It was all really quick. We were in and out of the studio,” he said. “That’s pretty much how it was done back then. But Sonny was real nice. He was so schooled in blues, gospel, doo wop, and everything.”

Elvin Bishop
Vernazza’s move into music’s big league came about by way of his relentless gigging. “I was in a band with bassist Michael ‘Fly’ Brooks called Perry and the Pumpers,” he said. “We were a solid blues band. Perry played harp and sang. He was in Elvin’s band as the road manager/harpist. We were holding court at Whumpers Old Man, a club in San Francisco’s North Beach area. It became the place musicians would drop by, drink, and sometimes sit in: Elvin, Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, all kinds of folks. North Beach had about six clubs with live music within a four-block area; man, it kicked. Well, Elvin started coming in a lot. One night he said “I’m starting a new band. Do you and Fly want join? That was it.”

So began a six-year stint with Elvin Bishop that would see him move from bars to stadiums and make the charts in eight countries. “It was non-stop as soon as we joined,” Vernazza said. “We averaged 290 days a year on the road and that didn’t count gigs at home. Between that and recording, all we did was play. It was like apply, wash, and repeat.”

While he played many notable gigs during his stint with Bishop, Vernazza cites the Ozark Mountain Festival (July 19-24, 1974) in Sedalia, Missouri, as a favorite. “They expected 50,000, but some estimates were 350 thousand! It was wild; they had to fly the bands in on helicopters. DJ Wolfman Jack was riding co-pilot when we got on. He loved Elvin.” Among the other bands on the bill were the Eagles, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Jeff Beck, and the Sweet. “It was a three-day fest and the town couldn’t handle the crowd. It was wild, not Woodstock! Things had changed by then.”

Vernazza’s first two albums with Bishop, Let It Flow (#100/1974) and Juke Joint Jump (#46/1975) did well, but it was the follow up, Struttin’ My Stuff (#18/1975) that put the band in the Top 40 and yielded a hit single: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (#3/1976). A bonafide worldwide smash, 40 years later the song is still heard regularly on radio and in TV and films, most recently in the NBC-TV program The Mysteries of Laura (2016) and the film Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which earned Vernazza a platinum album. The song’s impressive global chart run included #3 in New Zealand, #11 in the Netherlands, #16 in Australia, #22 in Canada, #29 in Belgium, and #34 in the UK. While Bishop would ultimately score five chart hits during Vernazza’s tenure in the band, this would be the bands only single to chart outside the U.S. “Even a one-hit wonder is still a hit,” Vernazza said modestly. “At that time it was the best that could be done. We were Capricorn Records’ first hit single. It shot us up overnight and we were already on top.” He’s heard the song in random places over the years. “…like walking through a Safeway market while shopping late night. The weirdest thing was hearing it and “Traveling Shoes” in elevators recorded as muzak.”

Next up was the album Hometown Boy Makes Good! (#70/1976), but it was with the live album, Raisin’ Hell (#38/1977) that he first made a San Diego connection. Two tracks recorded May 14, 1976 at downtown’s Civic Theatre were included on the album Fooled Around and Fell in Love and Struttin’ My Stuff. “These shows were also a blur. We did those recording so fast in so many cities that it wasn’t until I saw the cover that I knew they picked San Diego for some of the tracks,” he said.

The Midnight Special
During his stint with the Bishop band, Vernazza was a regular on network shows, including appearances on American Bandstand, ABC’s In Concert, and The Midnight Special. On October 21, 1977, the latter resulted in an unplanned collaboration when singer Van Morrison arrived to the taping sans band. “One of the producers came in and said, ‘Van didn’t know he needed a band, can you guys back him on a couple?’ Elvin and Van had been pretty close over the years so I think Van felt comfortable with doing that.”

The band ended up taping two songs with Morrison–“Domino” and “Help Me”–with little rehearsal. “We kind of all went into separate dressing rooms, horns in one, Mickey and Rene and the background singers in another. I went with Ed Ryan, Vans tour manager at the time. He played guitar a bit and showed me the part. Folks always say well, that couldn’t have been that hard, it’s ‘Domino.’ But the song was just released and we might have heard it a couple times on the radio at best! I think we did a great job considering,” he said.

Other performers on the show were the Electric Light Orchestra, Thin Lizzy, Ronnie McDowell, and host Crystal Gayle. “Taping that show was one of my all-time favorite things,” he said. “It was done in the same studio as The Gong Show. All the stagehands you saw on TV were there, like Gene Gene, the Dancin’ Machine and Red, etc. I do remember Crystal Gaye and seeing Willie Nelson at The Midnight Special taping, but that’s about it. You would tape and then you were pretty much done and on to the next gig. We rushed out to a flight once without time to remove our makeup. It wasn’t like ‘oh, lets hang and meet people.’ It was work and always another gig followed another gig followed another gig.” He notes the whirlwind nature of the biz. “Most of those shows were the same. You did two tunes, so it took as long as two tunes. It was all live. We would do a sound check and go to makeup and by the time you got out of makeup they let the crowd in and your set was up. You would have a bit of time between songs and then off you’d go.”

One occasion where Vernazza did get a chance to interact with other performers on the bill was on June 4, 1978, at Campus Stadium, UC Santa Barbara. The bill included the Grateful Dead, the Elvin Bishop Band, Warren Zevon, and Wha Koo. Following Bishop’s own well-received set, an impromptu supergroup, including guitarists Jerry Garcia of the Dead and Eric Gotthelf of Wha Koo got together onstage to perform the song “Right Now Is the Hour. “That was a magic moment,” Vernazza said. “Making music doesn’t get much better than that.”

New Horizons
Vernazza closed out his stint in the Elvin Bishop Band with the album Hog Heaven in 1978. “Things where getting a bit drawn by then,” he said. “Capricorn was having financial troubles, Elvin’s manager was ripping him off, and everyone was deep into alcohol and drugs. And I do mean deep. Some of us always were, but by that time it was really bad. It was a non-ending cocaine ride. You started meeting dealers that were on the grand scale, directly importing from ‘Pablo,’ you know. We had the largest liquor rider of any band; it was posted in Penthouse magazine,” he remarked.

“Although I left Elvin in ’78 I still recorded with him and played off and on in the band through the ’80s,” Vernazza said. He didn’t keep a lot of memorabilia from his early days. “I have a few things. There’s a reframed a mirror with the cover of Elvin’s Raisin’ Hell Live. It’s in very good shape considering all the use it had,” he joked. “I have photos, some old itineraries, things like that. I still have a rattlesnake guitar strap that was given to me in Hawaii in 1970.”

He would join his next group the following year, teaming up with harmonica player Norton Buffalo. “I kicked around with some originals bands in the late 1970s, funded by cocaine moneyed sponsors,” he laughed. “At the same time John McFee, now with the Doobie Brothers, was quitting Norton Buffalo’s Band. John and I had been friends since 1966 and he asked me if I’d be interested in joining Norton. I said sure. Norton called and I stayed with him until he passed in 2009. He was a great friend, a great player, and I loved that guy. We were like brothers–we fought, partied, played music, and traveled all over the states. Most of the tours were in RVs and there’s another story there,” he laughed. Vernazza would eventually perform on Buffalo’s album King of the Highway. He also did a short tour with Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers. Johnston’s band at the time included another guitar legend/Bay Area transplant to San Diego, Greg Douglass of the Steve Miller and Greg Kihn Bands.

Vernazza’s best known work is with Bishop, but he has worked on numerous recording sessions. In 1974 he played on the Marshall Tucker Band’s Where We All Belong, though it came about under the most unusual circumstances. “I was living with Elvin at the time and one night we get a call from Toy Caldwell, the band’s lead guitarist. Elvin hangs up and said, ‘Toy wants us to go and record with them.’ So, we flew to Macon in the morning, get to Capricorn Studios, and Toy goes, ‘Elvin, Johnny V, what the hell you guys doing here?” They were drinking moonshine the night, so they called and, well, you know,” Vernazza laughed. “Toy felt bad, as we were great friends, so he found room for us to play on a track.”

The situation yielded results, with the album charting at #54 (#91 in Canada). “I remember how happy Toy was to give me my Gold Record. He was one of a kind and one of the best guitar players to walk this earth.” Caldwell would soon thank Bishop and Vernazza in his own way. “Later that year Elvin and I went to spend a few days on his ranch in South Carolina. Elvin went fishing and me, Toy, Tommy Caldwell, and some of the road crew went deer hunting. On the way back Toy says, ‘Johnny V, open the glove box.’ Inside was a box with a Smith and Wesson stainless 357 Mag. Toy smiles and says, ‘That’s for the session that you all did that I screwed up!’

Vernazza also performed on Mickey Thomas’s first solo album, As Long as You Love Me (1976). “I had known and worked with Mick since the Gideon days, so it was just a different project. Fly Brooks and a few others from Elvin’s band recorded on it as well. Mickey was living with me in Sausalito at the time and the Record Plant was a mile away. That’s where we did the album. I pretty much lived at the Plant during those days, I’d go in and see cats like Buddy Miles or Steven Stills, and we’d sit around get high and shoot pinball,” he recalled. It was during the Thomas sessions that he worked with one of his biggest musical heroes. “I got to play with Steve Cropper on a couple tracks. Big fun!” he said. More recently, he’s worked on albums by the likes of Steve Ellis and Michele Lundeen. Is Vernazza open to more session work? “Oh yeah, just call me,” he said good-naturedly.

San Diego
Though Vernazza didn’t arrive in San Diego until 2001, he did have some fond memories of the city. “I was in the area a bit from time to time,” he said. “I remember the KGB Chicken and playing the ballpark as well as the La Paloma. I also remember playing the Belly Up with Norton Buffalo around 1985.” A visit to a family member in the area set in motion Vernazza’s move to San Diego. “My wife, Trish, and I came down to visit her brother who was living down here,” he recalled. “It was a great trip and we fell in love with the area, especially North County. We were looking to buy a house and it was time for us to get out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up there it was depressing to see how much it had changed. So much traffic, high housing prices, and all the political changes in the city as well as the whole area. The Dot-Com made us Dot out of there!”

Modern Times
After being a musician for decades, his decision to finally release his first solo album in 2002, Feel Like Goin’ Home, came due to pragmatic reasons. “I was still stuck in sideman role, something that would bite me to this day,” he mused. “Norton started spending more time on the road with Steve Miller and although I kept busy producing and playing with a number of bands, I figured I’d better get my own thing started.”

The album proved to be the catalyst for Vernazza’s immersion in San Diego’s music community, where he is a regular at events such as the Gator by the Bay Festival. While he leads his own band, he also occasionally sits in with other groups and plays regularly with the blues band Len Rainey and the Midnight Players. “Len is a great talent and his original tunes are very well done. He’s a fine bass player and vocalist as well as showman and it’s just a fun band to be in.” He can also be caught playing with Walter Gentry “who is off the charts as a sax player and a kick to be around,” Vernazza said. “I can be found on stage with Walter at some of his Tuesday night Chicken Wing Jam’s at Patrick’s downtown.”

Ironically, while he focused on his solo career, the new millennium saw a resurgence of his work with Bishop’s band. Two vintage live radio broadcasts have been issued as albums: King Biscuit Flower Hour (2001) and Struttin’ (2015), while there has also been a best of album, 20th Century Masters (2002) and a compilation of Juke Joint Jump/Struttin’ My Stuff (2009). In 2008 Vernazza appeared on Bishop’s most recent album to date, The Blues Rolls On, the album reaching #5 on the Billboard Blues Chart. Vernazza has continued to join Bishop on stage from time to time, most recently in 2013.

That same year saw the release of Vernazza’s second solo album, Lions and Thieves, which featured guest appearances from Bishop, Charlie Daniels, and Albert Lee and was nominated for Best Blues Album at the 2014 San Diego Music Awards. Meanwhile, in 2016, he made a rare non- musical appearance at a San Diego Music Foundation seminar panel, speaking about touring and recording to a rapt audience.
Work is underway on a new studio album, with a tentative title of Gates of Redemption, but in the meantime there will be a live album, due in early 2019. “I’m recording a few shows to get that done. I’m also adding a horn section to the band. Mark Bentley and I have been working on some new things for that album. He sings and plays keyboard and is one of the best cats that I’ve met down here. I’ve been lucky enough to have Mark by my side since 2006, he’s a big part of my band.” Other projects on tap include more touring and his first book, Why I Play.

With more than 50 years of music experience behind him, Vernazza finds himself busier than ever. “Without a doubt, passions still there,” he said. “I just have to take it a bit slower; the getting old is getting old! You really have to pace yourself as well as stay healthy. With all I’ve done to my body over the years in this biz, it’s an all-day job,” he joked.

What’s his favorite thing about being a musician? “To me it’s the art,” he said. “Everyone has his or her reason, but it’s the art of expressing myself. If you can’t be true to your art you’re not being true to yourself,” Vernazza continued. “Music is not an easy road to begin with but if I’m out there working my original tunes and arrangements, then I’m doing what I truly love and is close to my heart. Now, I’m not saying everyone loves what I play,” he laughed. “But at a point in time, it’s as Rick Nelson sang in ‘Garden Party,’ Ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself. Stay true to yourself and the rest will come. My best to all the young and old musicians and artists out there and never stop doing what you love, no matter what it is,” Vernazza said.


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