Record companies came sniffing around when they heard that a guitarist out of Boston sold about 8,500 copies of his self-released debut album, “Sometime Tuesday Morning,” in 2000.
Four years later, Johnny A. is part of Steve Vai’s roster at Favored Nations. And he couldn’t be happier.
“I had maxed it out regionally,” Johnny said, “so I wanted to go nationally. The labels were calling me, wondering ‘Who’s this guy getting played on Triple A radio?’ Nobody really offered me a record deal; they got nervous because they didn’t what it was or what to do with it, basically.
“I was about to try to go national on my own, remortgaging my home and getting some indie promoters and getting a national distribution deal on my own. One of the promoters I was going to hire turned my first record on to Howie Gabriel at Red Distribution and one of the labels they distribute is Favored Nations.
“Steve called me and said he dug the record a lot and offered me a licensing deal. They rereleased my first album, and from there, they signed me to a record deal for additional records.”
The first of those is “Get Inside.” A veteran of the Boston rock scene and a former sideman and musical director for J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, Johnny draws on his love for the guitar and a variety of styles – jazz, blues, rock. He weaves his magic on such originals as “I Had to Laugh” and the title track and interprets Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town” and Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” in a method all his own.
“I didn’t want to compromise musically or audio-wise on this album,” Johnny said. “I wanted to make the best music I could possibly make at the time. It’s a snapshot in time. That’s my goal.”
Early in his career, Johnny fronted bands – as a singer, no less. But he discovered he preferred to be an instrumental guitarist.
“Have you heard me sing?” he said, laughing. “I don’t mean you have to have a great voice. There’s a lot of singers out there that don’t have great song voices traditionally, but they’re great singers, like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler. Great to me is not perfection; it doesn’t mean it’s the best technique.
“Great is something that touches somebody. My guitar is delivering the melody like a singer. I don’t write from a riff base. My music is very song-oriented. It’s not about writing a riff and soloing. It’s more about constructing a song and there’s a melody in there. There’s a way to arrange that melody from verse to verse to bridge to verse in a way that a singer might ad-lib. That’s the way I approach it. And if it’s a solo, it’s meant to be as a song within a song.”
Johnny is coy about his age. He admits to having seen the Beatles and Hendrix in concert in his youth. But he’s unconcerned about being in what is considered a young artist’s game.
“Age is insignificant,” he said. “Is what you’re doing valid is more important to me. I don’t escape how old I am or try to deny it. In most every art form, whether you’re a blues musician or a jazz musician or classical or you’re a painter, screenplay writer or movie director, with age comes a certain amount of credibility and respect. In contemporary music, it seems to work against you.”
Johnny is his happiest on stage, with his band mates, doing his own thing.
“I’ve been successful in the respect that I’ve been able to play guitar all my life,” he said. “I’ve had friends who were talented players and they don’t play guitar anymore because their choices kept them from continuing on a musical path. I’m still on my path.”
ON THE WEB: www.johnnya.com.
Upcoming tour dates – June 16, New York, B.B. King’s (with Robert Cray); June 18, Lowell, Mass., Capo’s; June 19, Edgartown, Mass., Hot Tin Roof; June 29, Exton, Pa., Eagletown Concerts in the Square; June 30, Haddon Heights, N.J., Sundown Music Series; July 7, Austin, KGSR Blues on the Green; July 8, Wichita, Kan., Sedgwick County Zoo Series; Aug. 22, Asbury Park, N.J., Guitarbeque.