Johnny A Driven
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Is he hot? Oh yeah
Johnny A. chills at home after burning CD featuring cool new single
By Lisa Capone, Globe Correspondent, 4/21/2002

SWAMPSCOTT - Johnny A. sauntered into the Red Rock Bistro last weekend with the air of someone on familiar turf. Just back from a show in Pennsylvania, the black-clad guitarist greeted Red Rock owner Paul Petersiel with a hug, and commented on the music (his own) wafting from the sound system.

About a year ago, Petersiel hired Johnny A., a veteran of the Boston music scene, to lead a jam session on Sunday afternoons. The show packed the seaside bar all summer.

Since then, things have changed for Johnny A. Now the Malden-born musician packs the house far from his North Shore roots. His single, ''Oh Yeah,'' plays on 66 radio stations around the country and was the number one song at adult rock radio stations in California and Oregon this month. Two weeks ago, New York-based Artemis Records - named Billboard magazine's top independent label in 2000 and 2001 - announced it was joining forces with Favored Nations Entertainment to market and promote Johnny A.'s CD, ''Sometime Tuesday Morning.'' The Artemis Web site touts him as ''a Boston-based artist who is about to change the way people think about the guitar.''

Petersiel said he harbored no illusions last September that Johnny A. might repeat the Sunday jam sessions this year.

''I knew where he was going,'' Petersiel said. ''I feel thrilled for him. He knew what he wanted in life and he went for it.''

Home for a brief stint with his family in Salem, Johnny A. planned to audition a new drummer last Tuesday and, by Thursday he'd be back on the road, performing four shows in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky - two with blues legend B.B. King - returns home time to open Saturday's WBOS Earth Fest at the Hatch Shell in Boston. Joining a lineup that includes Bonnie Raitt and Midnight Oil, he'll play the national anthem before launching into a half-hour set.

Refusing to pigeonhole himself, Johnny A. described his sound as ''just good music.'' His album ranges from Latin and jazz to country, blues, and rock. There are no vocals - a fact that makes the radio success of ''Oh Yeah'' nothing short of remarkable, according to industry sources.

When ''Oh Yeah'' made its radio debut on Haverhill's WXRV in 2000, ''it was easily the most asked about song that we played,'' said program director Joanne Doody.

''Most songs don't emote the kind of response that song has,'' said WBOS marketing director Adam Klein. ''When we play the song, the phones light up.''

Jack Barton, progressive rock director at FMQB Album Report in Cherry Hill, N.J., a radio and record industry trade journal, agreed it's ''very unusual for an instrumental song to create this big a story in radio.''

''It's continuing to pick up new stations on a weekly basis,'' he said ''There's something unique about this one, and it just connects with people.''

With no vocals, Johnny A. said, the record's voice is the guitar and it's completely his own. It's that authenticity that matters, he said. That the catchy notes coaxed from his Gibson are creating a stir with radio listeners across the country is a bonus. For a musician who spent years in a supporting role, achieving success with his own sound is ''a privilege,'' Johnny A. said.

''I'm excited and fortunate that I'm able to take this little thing that was started as an every other Monday night gig for $60 in my hometown, and now allows me the ability to travel 3,000 miles from home and sell out a 600-seat theater in two hours,'' he said.

Johnny A. has gone by his last initial since grade school days in Malden, simplifying a long Greek name that ''everybody butchered.'' His family moved to Saugus when he was in seventh grade. Preferring to keep his age to himself, Johnny A. noted that he graduated from Saugus High School ''a while ago.''

Johnny A.'s first instrument was a drum set. He started taking lessons at about age 6, but all the while ''messed around'' with his grandfather's bouzouki, a traditional eight-stringed instrument from Greece. Influenced by the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, Chet Atkins, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and other classic rockers, Johnny A. got his first ''junky'' electric guitar when he was 11 and taught himself to play. He swept floors every Saturday in his aunt's Medford beauty salon to earn $88 for a ''decent one,'' he said.

Around age 14, he was playing drums in a band when the members decided to quit and join a rival group, which already had a drummer. He showed up one day to watch his former band mates play at a party in the parking lot behind Prince Restaurant on Route 1. It was a turning point.

The band's guitarist didn't show up and the group asked Johnny A. to stand in. He quickly learned the first set of about 10 songs, then, during a 20-minute break, he learned the next set, and, after another intermission, the third set.

''At the end, they asked me to join the band as a guitar player,'' he said. ''I never played drums again.''

Over the years, Johnny A. would start several bands, playing lead guitar and singing, as well as writing the songs. He then went on to support more established musicians. When Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band, invited him to coproduce and play on an album in 1996, Johnny A. requested a leave of absence from his job of five years selling audio equipment as a manufacturer's sales representative. His boss refused.

''I just decided to take a shot,'' he said, and quit the day job.

Wolf's record was critically acclaimed but fell short of commercial success. When the tour ended, ''I was out of work,'' Johnny A. said. It was another turning point. Tired of backing the vocally driven sounds of other musicians, Johnny A. threw the dice.

''I decided to develop my guitar voice. It was really out of survival,'' he said. ''It was just out of playing the way I want to play, but not because I thought I could get a record deal and get on the radio. It was just about working.''

With a bass player and drummer, he got a regular gig at Salem's Dodge Street Bar & Grill, where he earned little money but developed a following. Through a connection there, he hooked up with a Beverly recording studio to produce a CD. When the project became too expensive for the studio's budget, Johnny A. borrowed money to finish ''Sometime Tuesday Morning'' himself. He had the first 1,000 copies pressed under his own label Aglaophone Records in 1999 and began sending them to radio stations.

Through a friend, he got copies into the hands of Newbury Comics owner Mike Dreese, who agreed to sell them on consignment. He moved 8,600 copies that way, before someone played the record for guitarist Steve Vai last year. Vai offered Johnny A. a deal to market the CD internationally on his Favored Nations label last June. Since then, nearly 50,000 copies have sold in the United States alone, Johnny A. said. He signed with Vai to produce three more albums, and said this month's Artemis deal has the potential to ''give us more muscle and staff to push the record ... into other formats.''

''The trajectory is up, not down. We're selling more records each week,'' he said. ''It's been kind of a slow-burning thing.

''Chasing the rock star dream, that's not what it's about for me,'' added the guitarist behind the tinted rock star glasses. ''It's really about being able to continue what I love doing.''

The WBOS Earth Fest takes place at the MDC Memorial Hatch Shell in Boston from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. Johnny A. will open the concert with the national anthem just before noon, followed by a 25-minute set. For a list of other performers and additional information, visit www.wbos.com. To hear Johnny A.'s music, visit www.johnnya.com.

This story ran on page 11 of the Boston Globe's North Weekly section on 4/21/2002.

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