Sunday, August 15, 2010

Interview with Roy Lee Johnson writer of Beatle's song Mr Moonlight

Blogger Note : In the tribute last Thursday to Piano Red AKA Dr Feelgood put on by Terry Adams and the Red Rockers , Roy Lee Johnson played Mr Moonlight and When A Guitar Plays the Blues ( Title of his great Bear Family album ) . The music was all great with Terry Adams playing in the style of Piano Red , mixture of Ragtime , Stride Piano and Blues . Beverly Guitar Watkins also played ( she was the nurse in Dr Feelgood ) and she can play with any guy including behind her head . Roy Lee did play a bit using his teeth .

The article below is from the Atlanta paper , Creative Loafing 

Remembering Piano Red: Roy Lee Johnson pays homage to an old friend

Posted by Chad Radford on Thu, Aug 12, 2010 at 12:13 PM

Roy Lee johnson pictured third from left with Doctor Feelgood & the Interns
  • Roy Lee johnson pictured third from left with Doctor Feelgood & the Interns
Georgia-born singer and guitarist Roy Lee Johnson is best known for penning the song "Mr. Moonlight," which was covered by the Beatles on their fourth album, Beatles for Sale. But the song originally appeared as the b-side of Doctor Feelgood's self-titled single, recorded in 1961.
Johnson sang and played guitar with Doctor Feelgood and the Interns, alongside Piano Red(the subject of Vibes feature story this week) from '61 to '65, and will performing at Smith's Olde Bar as part of the Piano Red tribute show tonight (Thurs., Aug. 12)
Chad Radford: How did you get to know Red?
Roy Lee Johnson: I played with a group called the Brassettes from Hogansville and we used to play at The 81 Theatre. Red used to be down there, and we used to come up to Atlanta every Monday night and he would let us come on after their shows. That was 1955. Robert Ward used to play with us and he quit to start a band called the Ohio Untouchables. He came back down from Dayton to Franklin, GA — to my grandmama's school — and asked if I wanted to go to Dayton with him and play. But then he told me I couldn't play no more unless I got a union card. So I came back to Atlanta to get me a union card and I met Red coming out of the union hall. That’s when he asked me if I want to play with him?
So I was torn, but I didn't want to be with them in Ohio because they fight all the time. So I made a quick decision to play with Red. About a month later he told me they was going to Nashville to cut a record and he said ‘ya'll can put two or three songs on there,’ ‘cause he didn't have enough. So I had “Mr. Moonlight” and they put it on the flipside of “Dr. Feel Good." Then the Beatles heard it, man… About two months after that Red fired me. I didn't know what I was gonna do, and one day I was sitting at home and the union office called and told me to come get my money… It was $100,000! I never had that kind of money before and it scared me to death. I thought they made a mistake! Red fired me two weeks before I got my first real check.
Why did he fire you?
He said I was trying to take his band but you don't got to make this ugly. I was trying to keep a job. I had a child, you know? And that's how I got involved with Red in the first place. I learned a lot from him. Don't get me wrong, I thank him very much. But I was young and had to make a life for my family. When he fired me I got me a band and went to the same places that he went… He was a damn good businessman, and he was a fine guy.
Bobby Tuggle and Red used to argue all the time… Bobby was the drummer. Curtis Smith was the leader of the band and Beverly Watkins played guitar. We had three guitars and an unusual sound for back then. If you hear the Beatles sound, actually it sounds like us. And Red was always on time. He didn't give a damn, he didn't get nap time, and he wanted to stop when he said he was gonna stop.
You stayed friends after you stopped playing together?
Oh yeah man. I went down to the Underground [Atlanta] and hollered at him all the time, because I appreciated what he did, and what he did for me.
Were you pretty young when you started playing with Red?
Yep, about 18-19 — somewhere in there.
Did you really need a union card to just play music in Atlanta back then?
Yeah, you had to pay your dues, man. Then you could just go on and play, that was all. Red always had some kind of job going on and if they didn't give him his price, he didn't play, and I learned that from him — I appreciate that so much man. The Beatles thing is just longevity for me.
Did you ever meet the Beatles?
I met them when they came here and played the stadium. They was having some kind of difficulties with the group, but I spoke to them and thanked them all and went on my way because I appreciated them.
Did you ever see Red play?
No. I didn’t live around here when he was playing, and I would have been too young to get into a bar.
Well people loved him because he had a unique style of playing and it was kind of like happy music. Real happy music. The band was good enough so that he could do his thing, and to me he played real unusual. A lot of people used to call him ‘one note Red.’
One note Red?
Boop boop boop boop duh loodle loop! He had some crazy terminology, too. The words he used just knocked me out. Like ‘swiggle staddle.’ I never understood what that meant? He used them like if somebody got in an argument he'd say “swiggle staddle!” and he had everyone all wound up calling me “bloche.” That's a way of not really calling you a name, but kind of giving me you a nickname.
He used to call Bobby “Wiggle Stabber.” I guess that was his way of telling him to shut up. And Beverly [Watkins] was usually pretty quiet. It was a good band — probably the most unusual band in the world.
What years were you playing with Red?
I played with him from 1961 to 1965.
When did the Beatles pick up Mr. Moonlight?
That was 1964 — the last part of ‘64.
When you went to Nashville for that recording session did you record a full album, or just a single?
I cut two more songs on there, one was called “Sea Breeze” and the other one was “Too Many Tears.” It came out on a big, 12-inch called Dr. Feel Good and the Interns. You know… I never did go to sleep when we came back on that trip, because I was afraid something might happen. Like with most cats, when they have a little drink they go to sleep and leave it in the hands of the driver. But I never did. I couldn't sleep, man. One time we were coming back from Princeton University and we came through the mountains of Kentucky. This was before they built the expressway. One night we saw a man come across the road out of the woods in the middle of the night, and it was in the middle of nowhere. He came in front of us and had hair all the way down to his legs, and nobody saw it but me and the driver! I woke everybody up and they said I was drunk, but I didn't drink.
Was it just some wild mountain man? A bigfoot?
It appeared to be man, it was the strangest thing I seen. And one time we was going, down the road — Bobby used to have seizures when he got upset. But one time he was sitting up front and Red used to sit on the passenger side up front. Well, Bobby had a seizure and we were going up North Druid Hills road in a '62 ford station wagon, a brand new one that was pulling the trailer. Bobby had a seizure and his foot slipped off the hump and landed on the gas pedal. I saw that car go from 45 to 50 then 70 and we was fighting trying to get his leg off the pedal. I saw 80 and 90 and Curtis just reached over and turned the switch off and we coasted to the side. That's when Red called him a “Bluffsgang.” It was funny, but it wasn't funny. It was scary, but it was funny and Red hollered ‘you ain’t never riding in the middle ever again!’
It seems like Red was a petty entertaining character.
He was a genuine entertainer. Sometimes he would get up and do the Charleston — that was a dance. He used to get up and do that and just kill 'em, man. And he always demanded that we have on uniforms when we played. People enjoyed it. We played for every college up and down the East coast… We went everywhere in that little old Ford station wagon.
Did people call what you were playing rock and roll?
They called it beach music. But they also called what Red played “barrelhouse.” Bar room type music. We used to play “Twist and Shout” and “Get Up On The Hill.”
Rock and roll had just started and we played behind so many people like Sam Cook, John Lee Hooker and Stevie Wonder. We played behind Curtis Mayfield and Jackie Wilson at the Magnolia in 1955 on Magnolia and Vine Streets. Right down below the college over there. And we used to play behind Chuck Berry, too.
So rock and roll was a brand new thing, but people were aware that a larger cultural thing was happening?
People had been playing it for a while, but I guess they just gave it a name.
I wrote another song when I was with Red called “When A Guitar Plays the Blues” that was recorded years later by Roy Buchanan. I wrote a lot of songs back then, but I wrote that one when we was riding in the car. I want to dedicate that song to Red at the show, because he was my friend. He was all right with me. At the time I was young and hardheaded because at that time I knew what I wanted to do. But I had to learn how to work within the structure. And Red taught me that.
(Top photo courtesy Mark Pucci Media. Bottom photo by Eric King)

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