Friday, January 29, 2010

Local Band Out to Beat the Odds

As you know, I am a native Houstonian and have been in the entertainment business here for over 25 years. I started off in oldies radio, then to adult-contemporary, then back to oldies before making my foray into the traffic world. Now, while being in the traffic world, before TV, I delivered traffic to a multitude of radio stations, KLOL, KHMX, KRBE, KODA, KLDE, and the list goes on! You could say I've been around music my entire life and I have wide variety of tastes and that would be pretty accurate.

Now I'm no expert, but with all the years I've spent in radio listening to what is good, what is great and what is garbage, I've kind of developed an ear for what I think is going to be good, great or garbage. For example, one day a long, long time ago, I was driving down Highway 149 heading into Montgomery to go visit my aunt and uncle who live near Lake Conroe. I was listening to (in my best radio voice) 104 KRBE and a song started to play. In the first few notes I heard, I said to myself, "this song will go to number one on the Billboard charts". I didn't even know who sang the song yet, I just knew it was a hit! Well, it turned out that the song was "The Way You Make Me Feel" by Michael Jackson and of course it went straight to number one. Yeah yeah, I know what your thinking, every MJ song went to number one so it's a no brainer, but I didn't know it was MJ until after my prediction, so there. Worst part was that MJ beat out my favorite song at the time "Shattered Dreams" by Johnny Hates Jazz, which stayed at number two for weeks. MJ was just too tough and I'm pretty sure the fact that "Shattered Dreams" didn't go to number one is the reason we don't hear from Johnny Hates Jazz anymore. I digress because I wanted you to know my background before I tell you that I've heard a song (or two, or three) by a local band that has the ear markings for a hit (or two, or three).

The name of the band is the Jud Johnson Band. Yes the lead singer (and guitarist) is Jud Johnson. I've known Jud for just over 2 years now, I met him right about the time his band was forming. I'll never forget the first time I saw him, he had been hired to run the sound board for KHOU's morning show and Great Day Houston because he had vast experience with setting up bands for live shows from doing it at his church. Here comes this young stud, in his mid-twenties, driving a Porsche Boxter into the parking lot! Hey, I'm in my mid forties and I can't even sniff a Porsche! Well I figured this guy has got to be full of himself, so I paid no attention to him at first. Then one morning the battery went out in my microphone while we were live. I made a mad dash during a commercial break to the sound room where Jud kept the batteries. I come bolting into the room asking for a battery and he knows it's a big deal for me and he's rushing to locate me one. While I'm waiting I hear this music playing. It's jazzy, yet not Jazz. It has a rhythm that grabs you right away and pulls you into the song. For a moment I forgot that I was doing a live morning show! Nonchalantly, I asked Jud what group was he listening to because I was thinking it was someone that was already established in the music industry that I had heard of. You guessed it, he said "this is my band man!" The song was "One More Time" and I knew I wanted to hear more. After the show I went back in to the audio booth to hear more of his music and that's when I found out that his bass player, Scott Cole (funny guy), was one of our camera men! Needless to say, I loved their music and have become close friends with the both of them since that day and have come to find out that Jud is one of the most down-to-earth kind of guys you'd want to know. He's also financially savvy. Daddy didn't buy him that Porsche.

Thursday I met with Jud between his two shows for KHOU at Niko Niko's on Montrose. If you like Greek food, this is the place to go. It's just a couple of blocks north of Westheimer. Now Jud was pressed for time but not for words. Every question I asked he more than just answered, he gave me a complete history. I'm used to that because my father is the same way, so in a way, I felt a bit at home talking with him. When I asked him how the Jud Johnson Band got started, he told me that he had been a musician for years at his church and just wanted to put what he called a "live" band together, one that was made up of accomplished musicians, not just another cover band or "boy band", the world has plenty of those. So, believe it or not, Jud put the band together through his friends on Facebook, who were musicians in other bands Jud had worked with and respected, and the rest is what you would call history.

I should mention the band consists of: Jud Johnson, lead singer and guitarist. Scott Cole, bass. Nigel Zamora, lead guitar (Jud says Nigel is as good as Eric Johnson. You be the judge.). Zach Spruill, saxophone. And Ben Sandstrom on the drums. Now all of the guys are accomplished musicians, so when they get together it is one big jam session where no song is played the same way twice, but the funniest thing is that when you talk to any one of them, they'll tell you that they aren't the core, or the heart of the band. They always defer to one of the other members. They're very humble in my opinion and that is something you don't see out of youngsters these days. It should carry them quite far.

So the band is together, Jud has written songs and they have a play list and what they feel is a good sound. Now, let's get out there and play! Not so fast there Slim. Jud starts calling around town to different venues and nobody will hardly speak to him much less book his band. The people that do speak to him tell him that he has to be established before they'll even consider them. This goes on for 3-4 months with nothing but rejection. Feeling down and almost out, they finally find a little hole-in-the-wall bar in a tiny strip center down near Alvin that will let them play, of course for no pay. It was better than nothing, but just barely. The place had no stage, no lighting and no customers. Jud had to go to The Home Depot to buy those work lights you see with the aluminum covers, then off to Walmart to get colored bulbs for effect. The night they played, the entire audience consisted of family and friends. 14 people in all.

Since then the Jud Johnson Band's audiences have grown to epic numbers, at least for Houston. Anyone in the music business in Houston will tell you that if a local band can bring in 50 people to see them when they play, they are considered successful. Jud's band consistently brings 400+ people to their performances.

Back to my story. They called back the little hole-in-the-wall bar three weeks later to see about playing again and the place had closed. Jud couldn't give me the name of the bar because he thinks he tries to block it out of his memory. Too funny. A few months later Jud was fortunate enough to meet one of the bartenders at the popular Gingerman in Rice Village. By this time the band had made some of what they call "garage demos" which is a CD of recordings they had made in his parents garage in Pasadena. Ironically, the name of the CD is "Demonstrations of a Destiny". The sound on the CD wasn't top notch, but he handed one to this bartender, who then handed it to the manager and voi la, they received a phone call and had their first paying gig! With some excellent self-promoting, they managed to get enough people to satisfy management and they were off to the races.

After that they were the opening act at Fitzgerald's, where they brought in more people than the headlining act and because of that fact, they were the headliner the next month. They quickly outgrew Fitzgerald's and moved on to be an opening act at Warehouse Live, where again, more people came to see them than the headliner. Yes, a month later they were the headliners, bringing in 150+ people to see them every time they played. Not only that, they were beginning to sell their merchandise and fans were asking for pictures and autographs (something that Jud to this day says is still so surreal).

In the beginning, no one would talk to them. A year or so later, all the major venues were trying to contact them to play. They've now done four shows at the Hard Rock Cafe, they've been on Great Day Houston with Deborah Duncan, they've been on CBS's Early Show in New York and as of this blog, just played on Fox News this morning. Next up, headlining at the famous House of Blues.

The Jud Johnson Band is having their CD-release concert for their new CD entitled "Jud Johnson Band 2010" this coming Friday, February 5th, 2010 at the House of Blues downtown. Tickets are on sale at the bands website, House of Blues website, and Live Nation. The price is $10.00 if you buy early. You better hurry because it looks like they'll sell out. The place will hold 1200 people comfortably and they've already sold 800+ tickets. And remember, you only need to bring in 50 fans to be considered a successful band in Houston. I'll have my wife and several family members there so I hope to see you there too. If you can make it, come find me! I'd love to meet you or see you again.

Clint Black and I were neighbors for a few years when we were just kids and I watched him rise to fame. After that it was Beyonce' and Destiny's Child. Next up, the Jud Johnson Band!

Until next time,


1 comment:

  1. Darby,
    What a wonderful story about you, your career and the Jud Johnson band! Wish I could make it friday to check out the band but so hope you will do a follow up and let those of us know all about the night. Not only am I a fan of yours, but now I feel I am a fan of the band and I haven't even heard them. That's way too cool to me!!! Thanks for this article, Great Job!!!