What started out as a quick bit on an upcoming three-hour gig for Johnny Owens at Gallagher’s evolved into a conversation covering the singer’s life in music. From beginnings in the church choir, Owens developed into a vibrant and expressive vocalist with a career that spans five decades of soulful singing.
“My mother got me into the choir as a little boy and I remember the pastor having a beautiful voice,” said Johnny, recalling his boyhood in St. Louis. “That’s where I discovered my love for singing.”
Owens’ next musical excursion came while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He put together a “little German band” called “Johnny and the USSR” that covered hits of the day by James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave and other popular soul singers of the time. The band name acronym, not so political as it sounded, stood for United Soul Searchers Revival, a much more pleasant moniker than that of a Communist dictatorship.
After his military discharge, Owens rambled to Tacoma, Wash., then up to Vancouver, British Columbia. Playing music along the way in various combinations he opened for Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, Ike and Tina Turner and others, staying in the business while looking for a way to thrive and survive. Following the muse, he ended up in Los Angeles, where good fortune smiled upon him.
“In LA we had a group called the CFJ Connection that played around doing O’Jays kind of stuff. Someone saw us and asked us to work with the Platters,” said Owens of his time in the mid-70s. “We traveled overseas to Australia and New Zealand. I went back to New Zealand on my own, playing three shows a night for three or four nights a week. I was doing good and making decent money. It was all right.”
Circumstances changed and from there he came back to St. Louis for a bit, then found his way to Springfield. Here he fell in with saxophonist and bandleader Henry Miles, did shows at the Muni and other musical theater productions while playing around doing blues and jazz shows with various bands.
“After that I went a little slack and am just now coming back,” said Owens. “I’m finishing up a CD we’re recording in Champaign. We previewed it a few weeks ago, but I’m going to wait until it’s all the way done and then put it out.”
The album contains mostly jazz standards, as Johnny discovered a real affinity for the classic American genre through his years of playing and living, singing and being.
“It’s really concentrated, this music. You have to really concentrate on how you play,” he explains. “You can take off, but you can’t get too far off. Besides it’s not redundant, not the same four chords. As a singer you can take your time and take liberties to say what the song is saying.”
The talent passed on through the family line, as Johnny’s son Jesse is a singer in show choir at Southeast High School and recently had a main part in the school’s production of Cinderella. With an offspring starting in the business, what does a lifelong singer tell the youngsters interested in a life in music?
“Learn to play an instrument and learn to read, to sight read. Kids really need to learn to focus on how they do the music. It can be calming and very therapeutic. Things happen when you sing music. The love of playing keeps me going. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’m strange now,” he laughs, “But I’d be a lot stranger if I didn’t have music to sing.”
Contact Tom Irwin at email@example.com.