Friday, May 1, 2009

Kenney Dale Johnson, Chris Isaak's drummer, sidekick, friend

The Chris Isaak Band headlines in a few weeks at the Sonoma Jazz Plus Festival, a rare close-to-home concert that drummer Kenney Dale Johnson sees as chance to prove to his San Rafael neighbors once and for all that he really is a professional musician.

"We play in the North Bay so seldom that my neighbors don't believe I'm in a band," he says with a contented smile one unseasonably warm afternoon, sitting on the back deck of his Gerstle Park home in blue short-sleeve shirt and black shorts, sipping a tall, cool one and gazing at the inviting water of his swimming pool.

In point of fact, Johnson, who's "54 and kickin'," has always been in a band. From the time his postal worker father bought him a drum set when he was 12 (which he still

Audio: Breaking Apart

Audio: I Lose My Heart

has), he played in high school and college rock bands in his native Texas.

"It was post-Beatles, when everybody wanted to be in a band," he says. "I'm from a podunk town and everybody had a band. I don't know why, but I always wanted to play drums."

Johnson, who wears his jet-black hair slicked back rockabilly style, is a charismatic transplanted Texan who sprinkles his conversation with down-home colloquialisms like "good Lord" and "good night, nurse."

He has been Isaak's drummer, sidekick and friend for the past 24 years, a year longer than he's been married to his wife, Katherine.

"I drum and sing and crack wise," he says in his residual Lone Star twang, describing his duties as Isaak's right-hand man.

Isaak plucked him out of Ronnie Spector's band in 1984, and they've been tight as a tick ever since.

"I met Chris before he was famous, before he had any records out," Johnson recalls. "Somebody told me, 'There's a guy looking for a drummer and you'd be perfect.' When I heard what was essentially a demo of the first album, I went, 'Oh, my God.' I loved his voice and I loved the songs. I thought, 'This is right up my alley.' So I auditioned, got the gig, such as it was back then, and 24 years later we're still traipsing around the world."

With a new CD, "Mr. Lucky," Isaak's first studio album in seven years, and a new TV show, "The Chris Isaak Hour," on A&E's Bio network, they can look forward to traipsing around the world for some time to come.

Which suits the personable, self-effacing sideman just fine. In today's depressed economy, as the ailing music business tries to reinvent itself, he has no complaints.

"We still get to make records on a major label," he says. "We still get to have a tour bus. People don't understand that tour buses are far superior to flying. And people still come to see us. We're blessed, and we know it, at this stage to have people still caring. That's a big deal to us."

Johnson is fascinated by rock history, and happily recounts his own journey from the "oil patch" in the Texas Panhandle where he grew up to upscale Marin County and enduring success with a major rock band.

After high school, he went to the University of Texas in Austin, hung out with "runnin' buddy" Stevie Ray Vaughan and played in an R&B band called Steam Heat.

In 1977, "to seek my fame and fortune, I moved to San Francisco," he says.

But fame and fortune were slow in coming. Johnson arrived when the celebrated San Francisco Sound was disappearing in pop music's rear-view mirror. And for the first few years, he scuffled as a freelance drummer.

"I've played with everybody," he says. "I've played in every bar you can think of."

Even after hooking up with Isaak, a heartthrob roots rocker who favors Nudie suits and plays an acoustic guitar with his name emblazoned across the front, it was more of the same, at least at first.

"That was the day of hair bands (Motley Crue, Great White, the Scorpions) and acts like Madonna," Johnson recalls. "We made no sense. Our first album, 'Silvertone,' in 1984, wasn't a hit."

Nevertheless, it had a couple of songs on it, "Gone Ridin'" and "Livin' for Your Lover," that director David Lynch put on the soundtrack of his kinky cult classic "Blue Velvet."

"The second album, which we call "the Green Album" (real title: "Chris Isaak"), had "Blue Hotel" on it, which was a hit in France," Johnson says.

Closer to home, Isaak band gigs at the Nightbreak and I-Beam clubs in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and at now-defunct New George's in San Rafael were generating a lot of local buzz. "Around '87, before we hit nationally, It was fun being one of the biggest bands in the Bay Area," he remembers.

The third album, "Heart-Shaped World," which included the career-changing "Wicked Game," was the charm.

Lynch again played a role in keeping Isaak's music in the public consciousness when he featured an instrumental rendition of "Wicked Game" in his 1990 film "Wild at Heart."

When an influential disc jockey in Atlanta saw the movie and started pushing the vocal version of the song, he sparked a national phenomenon. Just like that, "Wicked Game" was a Top 5 worldwide hit. But the Isaak band wasn't too big to play hometown clubs like New George's throughout the '90s.

In 1997, Johnson and his wife bought their San Rafael home and have been proudly part of the Marin music community ever since.

"I bump into the craziest people here," he says, beaming. "I bump into James Hetfield (Metallica) all the time. I run into Santana at the car wash and (Huey Lewis drummer) Bill Gibson at Mollie Stone's. I see Sam Andrew (Big Brother and the Holding Company) painting in a coffee shop. He was on 'Cheap Thrills,' for God's sake. I'm a big fan. I love this place."

He and his wife were miserable when they had to live for months at a time for three years in Vancouver, B.C., during the filming of Showtime's "The Chris Isaak Show," a behind-the-scenes sit-com about the band in which Johnson played an exaggerated version of himself. "We were up there for eight months during the season. Talk about homesick. Oh, man, did I miss Marin."

Johnson won't have to be away from home that long shooting "The Chris Isaak Hour." He's able to commute from Marin to a studio in Los Angeles where the program's taped.

"It's an interview show with one artist, 30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of interview," he explains. It's kind of guerrilla TV. We can shoot an episode a day. It's good fun. Chris and I ride to the airport together. We have a lot of time to brainstorm."

During the musical numbers, Johnson, looking like a Buddha behind his drum kit, can be seen on a riser in the center of the stage, backing up guests like Glen Campbell, Stevie Nicks, Jewel, Michael Buble and Cat Stevens, who's trying to make a comeback.

Promoting the new album, Johnson just got home from a 3-week concert tour of Australia with Isaak and band.

The Sonoma Jazz Plus concert will be the last show until the band sets out on a West Coast tour from July through September.

Johnson's glad to be going. After all this time, he takes nothing for granted. He remains grateful that he's been able to make a living doing what he loves to do for so long.

"We're very fortunate because we always try to put on a good show," he says, explaining the band's secret of success. "We feel every night is an audition for the next one. We realize that people go to a lot of troublcome to a concert. They spend a lot of money, they hire a baby-sitter, so we don't want to let them down. And I think that's paid off. We still have a good draw and people still come out to see us. Thank goodness."


- What: Sonoma Jazz Plus featuring Chris Isaak and Kenney Dale Johnson

- When: 6:30 p.m. May 24 (Jazz Fest is from May 21 to 24)

- Tickets: $45 to $250

- Information: 866-527-TIXX or

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at

1 comment:

katty said...

I love the drummer sound, i feel energizer every time that i listen music where the drummer is notable. i think any band could be sustainable itself without a drummer.
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