On Wednesday January 25 it will be three years since many of us here in north-central Ohio lost a good friend, who also happened to be perhaps the most natural-born talented bass player ever. Michael Ervin Johnson, only 48, passed on thanks to heart failure.
Still pisses me off.
Back in the 70’s Michael first picked up a bass and was a natural, instantly. He could listen to a tune once and play the bass lines perfectly. Many musicians back in the day remarked how proficient, how effortlessly, how quick to adapt and learn songs he was. A truly gifted musician. And although he didn’t do it often enough, Michael was one hell of a singer, a talent that he shared with his family.
Michael played in a number of bands in the 70’s in our little region of Ohio. He was also a ready substitute and fill in for various bands and while he shown brightly as a full time member of assorted bands and permutations he probably had the most fun and most recognition as a founding member of Damage, a hard rock band out of Wayne County (primarily Orrville & Wooster musicians) that built a solid and popular reputation during the latter years of the 70’s throughout the Wayne County – Canton – Akron – Mansfield region.
In Damage Michael, a black man, played the heaviest, funkiest, sweatiest, crunchiest rock ‘n roll bass riffs around. He was untouchable, as numerous musicians have stated over the years. Talented, gifted, he could play any style of music proficiently, whether it was rock ‘n roll, R & B, funk, soul, gospel, you name it, if Michael liked it, he could play it. He was the USA answer to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.
In Damage Michael was often times ‘the show’. Meaning, if the vibe wasn’t quite right, if the crowd was moody or cranky, Michael would slap the crap out of that bass even more and start working his ‘moves’ on stage that nearly always got the crowd in a more festive, and dancing, mood. Yes, Michael knew all about ‘the show’ part of show business and the others did their best to emulate him.
Besides Michael, who also contributed back up vocals, Damage consisted of Jerry Kirven and Mark Good on guitars, drummer Tom ‘Bones’ Morrison and singer Rick Thistlethwaite. Rick Gidley joined the band as the light & sound tech (and many other duties).
Beyond the music, just as a person, Michael Johnson was one hell of a good guy. Have so many good and fun memories of him from back in the day, through high school and just beyond a bit. Michael was cool in a variety of ways, chief among his ‘cools’ was he never showed any pressure, anxiety or worry. He was cool, calm & collected.
And funny as hell!
Damn, we had some good times. (And no, I’m not going to share them with you. Unless you were with us at the time! Since the whole band was involved, I may tell the story of the $2,000 bar tab sometime….)
I’ve lost quite a number of friends over the years and it will likely continue, but sitting here tonight planning my week, it just hit me why January 25 was significant. Michael! Too young.
I remember going to the services for Michael and the place was absolutely packed, wall to wall people, standing room only! I had to smile. Of course, everyone loved Michael! The hardest part was watching his family, his siblings, send him off. The wonderful Bishop Lottie Smith handled the services with his brother Rev. Jimmy Johnson reading scriptures while his brother Rufus sang. Oh yeah, can Rufus ever sing. Ask around. As good as Michael was on a bass, Rufus is that good with his voice. Another generation of pure talent who performed was Michael’s niece, Tiffany Johnson.
And of course sister Ruth, a friend from high school, was there to comfort their Mother, Mrs. Gertrude Johnson-Howard, a precious, sweet lady who, over the years, never knew a stranger and welcomed any stray (like myself) who wandered into their home with one of her kids. A beautiful lady (and who graciously sent me one of the sweetiest, most cherished letters afterwards).
How good was Michael Johnson as a bass player? No less than Kim Simmonds, legendary lead guitarist of the British Blues Band, Savoy Brown, once commented about Michael after watching him perform with Damage: “Why the hell isn’t he in the big time? He’s amazing! That kid can go far, he feels the music. He’s bloody damn well good, he is.”