Thunder Bay's original "Piano Man"

March 2018

It was a dark and snowy night when I pulled up to Danny Johnson’s recording studio. But each step left winter behind as we headed down the stairs, and I entered a huge, moody, red-lit space that reminded me more of a downtown jazz lounge than a Thunder Bay recording studio.

Johnson is a Thunder Bay boy, born and raised and a PACI alumnus. He started piano lessons at a fairly early age, hoping to learn to play Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ Soon, he’d taught himself John’s entire repertoire on piano, to the dismay of his classically trained teacher.

“My teacher had a Doctorate in Music from Oxford,” says Johnson. “But we realized quickly that I was not going to be a classical pianist. Elton John led to Billy Joel and that led, naturally to jazz, to great artists like Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. These became my teachers.”

It was a natural evolution from the complex, early pop of John and Joel, to the modal tones of Evans and Davis. These were instrumental in Johnson’s exploration of Modal Jazz, allowing him to ‘really get inside the piano.’ It’s a love that has followed him to this day.

“There was a guy who asked me if I could teach him some jazz in 2 hours,” says Johnson. “I tried not to laugh. Maybe if I had 2 years! Learning music is a lifelong experience.”

Johnson’s natural ear for music helped him more than once. He recounts playing in a piano bar on Elgin Street in Ottawa. It was classy with a fireplace and Victorian high-backed chairs. Customers would sit and talk and make requests, and he became a sort of ‘musical bartender.’ It is a skill that has served him well over the years.

“I was at an Oscar after-party once in LA,” he says with a grin. “It was great, but a little dry, and there was a grand piano sitting in the middle of the room. Someone asked me if I knew the tune for ‘Days of Wine and Roses.’ I sat down at the piano and played it. Soon, everyone was around the piano, talking and singing and making requests. I don’t think the party shut down until 5:00 am because of that!”

His self-taught skill on the piano led to learning many other instruments including acoustic guitar, electric guitar and drums, and soon, he had a thriving career as a singer as well as musician. He opened for Bob Dylan at the Fort William Gardens in 1992 and has toured with country legends Johnny Cash and George Jones. He’s been invited to perform with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, and most recently, he’s been the executive producer for their Into the Wonder CD, with Jordan Pal and the world-renown Gryphon Trio. And like his rock and jazz mentors, songwriting, composition and recording went hand in hand.

“I’m a Jack of All Trades,” he says of his varied career. “I’m always writing for concerts and festivals. I’m a full time travelling musician, and my next gig is in Toronto. I’ve scored some of Kelly Saxberg’­s and Ron Harpelle’s films. I’ve worked as musical director and actor for many theatres across the country, and locally for Magnus Theatre, and Superior Theatre Festival. I have my own band, 21 Gun Fun, and we can be found all over town, including Live at the Waterfront. I’m still booking gigs for weddings, special events, arts functions; you name it. I’m super busy!”

Johnson began recording first for himself, then for friends. Now, his studio is one of the most sought-after in the city, with names such as Android 16, Rodney Brown, Ian Tamblyn, Norm Sponchia, Bruce Hanson and Kim Erickson having recorded there. He has also begun working with international musicians such as Grammy Award winner, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Sham E. Ghazal on projects, making sure that Johnson’s work schedule is more packed than ever.

“When you’re a career artist, you expect the phone to stop ringing,” he says. “But it hasn’t yet. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I think it’s how I approach my work. I’m optimistic and realistic, and that’s a rare combination. When I play, people have a good time.”

I can see why. In the two hours I was there, I was treated to some Elton John, some modal jazz, some original folk/rock, some great conversation and maybe a glass or two of wine. Like Billy Joel’s Piano Man, Danny Johnson is always in the mood for a melody, and he’s got us feelin' alright.

Danny can be seen regularly performing Duelling Pianos at NV Nightclub every Friday night and will be performing with the TBSO for their April 14 Gala.

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

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