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Jokers Wild interview with Denny Johnson & Lonnie Knight

September 30, 2013

Jokers Wild interview with Denny Johnson & Lonnie Knight

“Jokers Wild” recorded 3 singles between 1967 and
1969 in Minnesota but the complete album LIQUID GIRAFFE was never released.
Starting as a 5 man band most of the material was recorded by the 3 main
members: Lonnie Knight, Denny Johnson and Pete Huber. Later Lonnie Knight
became guitarist of “The Litter” for a while but he returned to
“Jokers Wild”.
What a powerful band this is. Huge amp stacks guaranteed a
“wall of sound” on stage. Double bass drum, cool outfits, they must
have been been great on stage.
Damin Eih, A.L.K. and Brother Clark wrote: “In ’67 I
saw two local bands that again amped up the juice, The Litter and Jokers Wild.
Both bands played original music and had excellent psychedelic-raved guitar
players,  Zippy Caplan (Litter) and
Lonnie Knight (Jokers Wild). That brought everything to a new level
(Whole interview about Damin Eih, A.L.K. and Brother Clark at: http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/
Heavy underground rock with great composed songs, fuzz
guitars, speedy drums and tight bass lines.
If you think The Litter is the one you should listen to
Jokers Wild.

There is not much known about your band, but thanks to
Thomas Hartlage at Shadoks, we have a wonderful release. How did you feel when
Thomas asked you if you are interested in having an album out after so many
years?
Denny:  It was very
flattering to have someone contact us after all this time, who had an interest
in music from the 1960’s.  It gave me a
warm feeling and of course made me smile. 
Lonnie: I was definitely surprised by this. Denny and Pete and I
have remained friends over the years, we occasionally get together for reunion
gigs, but we had no idea that there was any interest in the band outside of
Minnesota. A couple of years ago I was contacted by a company in Asia
to re-release two albums of solo material I had done in the 1970’s. As a result
of that release, I was able to do a concert tour in Japan last March. It’s all
exciting stuff.
I think it will be the best if we start at the beginning.
Where are you from?
Denny: Minneapolis, Minnesota is my hometown and I am still
here in Rogers, a suburb of Minneapolis. 
Lonnie: I’m originally from Camden, New Jersey, but I’ve lived in
Minneapolis Minnesota since the age of 5.
Your music career started in late ’65 with Dave Waggoner as
the bassist of the group The Aardvarsk, which split apart. Dave invited you,
Denny to be his new bass player in a brand new band he was forming also with
Gene Balabon, who was also in his previous band. You got drummer Pete Huber,
which was previously in a band called The Gremmies. Please share your memories
about the beginning of the band.
Denny: Dave Waggoner my old friend and neighbor called me and asked
me if I wanted to be part of a new band that he was putting together.  Gene Balabon had already agreed to join the
new band,  I accepted the offer and was
extremely happy to be in a real band that was going to play actual jobs, We
found Pete Huber (Drummer) at the Ritz Theatre where bands used to audition and
perform, David Anthony, a booking agent and promoter used the theater as a
place to audition musicians and to give bands the actual feeling of playing on
a stage in front of an audience.  He
tried to make you feel important and that he did. There were always people there
watching.  So we started with Dave
Waggoner on Farfisa organ and lead vocals, Gene Balabon on lead guitar and lead
and backing vocals, myself on bass guitar and backing vocals, and Pete Huber on
drums and backing vocals. We practiced for about a month in my basement in
North Minneapolis and then  one day Dave
Waggoner decided he wanted to focus on lead vocals and being a front man, so we
needed to find a new keyboard player.   I
knew Dave Middlemist from when I jammed with other band members and gave him a
call to see if he was interested in trying out for the new band.  At the time he was in a band called the
Cavaliers, playing guitar and he also played some keyboards, He came over and
everything clicked real well so he quit that band and joined our band which had
no name at the time. We played our very first job as The New Gremmies because
Pete had a job booked at Fararrah’s in Southeast Minneapolis by the University
of Minnesota.  We played the job and I
was so scared the first hour I stood behind my amp and then I got more
comfortable being on stage in front of a crowd, 
The feeling of playing in a band on stage was a real high, like a drug,
and I could not wait to play the next job.

Lonnie: I was initially a founding member of the Castaways, and then
in a band called The Rave-Ons in ’64, ’65 and ’66. 
You played for some time as The New Gremmies and a bit later
you were called The Chord On Blues, which was a result of being booked as some
other band, which previously fell apart. Am I right? Tell us about those early
days together…
Denny: Yes that is what happened.
How did you came to the name Jokers Wild?
 
Denny: Doni Larson of the Underbeats was playing poker with
Dave Waggoner one night and Doni suggested the name Jokers Wild to David. We
all liked the name and decided to use it. 
There was another lineup change in late ’66, when Gene
Balabon decided to leave. You replaced him with Bill Jordon…
Denny:  Yes, in
October 1966 Gene Balabon told the band he would be leaving, His schooling was
done and he was going to get married so we found Bill Jordan through a
connection with Mike Waggoner from Mike Waggoner and the Bops. Mike Waggoner’s
father played in a band with Bill Jordan’s father.  
I’m a bit confused about Dave Waggoner, is he “Dave
Wagner” of Crow?
Denny: Yes, but he changed the spelling of his last name to
Wagner when he was in Crow.
In 1967 the new lineup (tell who all was in the band now)
was playing a High Prom and there was quite a scandal, cos you played “Let’s
Spend The Night Together”. Must had been funny back then…
Denny: That was a night to remember. That version of the
band had Lonnie Knight on lead vocals, Bill Jordan on lead guitar and vocals,
Greg Springer on keyboards and vocals, myself on bass guitar and vocals, and
Pete Huber on drums and vocals.  We
played one hour for the prom dance and a student requested to hear “Let’s Spend
the Night Together” by the Rolling Stones and we did it thinking nothing of it,
as it was a very popular song on the radio at the time.  Right after the song was over, the high
school principal and some parents came directly to the stage and informed us to
pack it up and leave because they told us it was a vulgar song to play at a
high school prom dance. We left and we did not get paid for the night. Back
then it was hard to understand but now looking back it seems rather funny.
Lonnie: I joined Jokers Wild around this time. I don’t specifically
remember the incident, but I do recall a number of times when our long hair and
“dangerous” music got us into hot water. Pretty tame stuff these
days, it’s certainly a different world than it was back then.
In May 1967 you released your first single “All I See Is
You”, which was written by Lonnie Knight and on the B side was “I Just Can’t
Explain It”, written by Bill Jordan. Tell us about your first time ever spent
in the studio.
Denny: Our first time in a recording studio was really
different, we didn’t know you put the songs together in pieces for separation
and for clean sound.  It was a four track
studio, so playing the tracks bit by bit was a little confusing as you laid
down the rhythm tracks first, drums, bass, rhythm guitar and keyboards and then
you mixed those tracks down to a single track and then you had to do the lead
guitar solos on a track and do the lead vocals on a track and then do the
backing vocals on a different track after that. 
We found that recording in a studio was a great deal different than
playing songs live, with all of us playing our parts at the same time.  
Lonnie: My very first time in the studio was with the Rave-Ons, but
the feeling of going into a recording studio in the 1960s was the same every
time. There was no Pro-Tools, there were really no home studios,  there were only a couple of real recording
studios in Minnesota. Going into a studio to record was an awe-inspiring
experience. We’d rehearse for days to get everything right before going in, the
producer could only afford a few hours of recording time and we’d have to be on
top of our game. These days you can virtually carry a recording studio in your
pocket and record anything you do. bck then, when they hit the playback button,
it was the first time we’d ever really heard ourselves.
Now on you went and opened for acts like The Association and
The Five Americans and soon you began working on what became your second single “Echo/That Mans Not You”, but due to financial issues, the single never came
out…
Denny: Back then if you didn’t have a record out that was
being played on the radio you didn’t get the good jobs and the money for jobs
was less… so we wanted to put out as many records as possible, but we had to
pay for rent, gas for the van, food, and other bills and we did not have enough
money to pay for the costs of putting that record out.   
Lonnie: We recorded for a small, independent label, there wasn’t
much money available.
Bill Jordan left the band to join The Chill Hillman Band, so
Lonnie Knight became the lead guitar player and with addition of Dale Strenght
from The City Strangers on second lead guitar/vocals there was again five
members in the band. Later Dave left. Why was that?
Denny: Dale left because he wanted to go to school to be a
graphic artist.  In fact, Dale designed
the logo for Jokers Wild and produced buttons with the logo on them.
Lonnie: I think we were moving toward that three-piece Cream/Hendrix
area… some things didn’t mesh, and we ultimately decided to work as a power
trio.
Band went again through some changes. There is an
interesting story you have to share with us, that happened when you replaced
Blue Cheer…
Denny: The Blue Cheer show came about because we were a
three piece power trio and Blue Cheer was also a three piece band with a hit
record out on the radio, “Summertime Blues” and we wanted to see them. They
were scheduled to play in Joliet, Illinois on a certain date and we were in the
area on tour and had that night off, so we went to the show and sat in the
audience waiting for Blue Cheer to perform after the opening band was done. We
sat and waited a little while and our manager David Anthony went back stage to
find out what was happening and discovered that Blue Cheer did not show up for
the concert and the promoter was having a fit because he had a full house of
fans waiting for Blue Cheer and getting restless.  David Anthony suggested that Jokers Wild fill
in for Blue Cheer, as we were a three piece band and the promoter really had no
choice so Jokers Wild went on stage and did the show and we went over very well
with the audience and we even did a version of “Summertime Blues” which members
of the crowds were yelling for.  A lot of
people probably did not even know that we were Jokers Wild and not Blue
Cheer.  That is a really great memory for
me. 
Lonnie: We were on tour in Illinois and decided to attend the Blue
Cheer concert in Joliet. We arrived and found out that they were a no-show, so
somehow our manager, David Anthony, was able to convince the promoter to let us
go on in their place. We played our regular material, then we did our version
of “Summertime Blues.” We weren’t trying to fool anybody, but I do
believe that some folks in the crowd thought we were Blue Cheer.
Meanwhile two new singles were recorded “Because I’m
Free/Sunshine” and the fourth “Witch/Copper Penny”, but the latter was not out
due to financial issues. Now the story is a bit complicated. What followed?
Denny: Because I’m Free and Sunshine came out in the spring but
didn’t get the airplay we wanted so we planned to put out another single in the
fall, well Copper Penny was a different kind of song in that jug band vein in
the studio we were laughing and kept going with goofy ideas I said lets make
the bass guitar sound like a Tuba in a german band, we had great fun but the
song didn’t fit any direction the band was going so it sat in the back ideas
section until we had a Great song by Lonnie called “Witch” and we
thought we would put out a record with Witch on side A and Copper Penny on B
side to complete the single.
Lonnie: Lots of teenage turmoil. 
We did “Because I’m Free” and “Sunshine” while we
were still a 4-piece band. Gregg Springer was on keys… he and I left the band
for a short period of time to work with a group called The Litter, a
Minneapolis band with a strong foothold in the Chicago music scene. It was a
bad decision, so we came back to Jokers Wild… then Gregg left again. I
honestly don’t remember what happened with “Witch,” whether it was
released or not. 
You started recording, what should be your LP, but that
didn’t happen? Why not and what followed?
Denny: In the spring of 1969 we started recording our album
and we recorded “Peace Man” and “Tomorrow” at Mic Side Studios in
Minneapolis.  At the same time we also
recorded “The Grass is Greener”, “Park Music”,
“Stranger” “I’m On My Way” and “I See You” but we did
not get the chance to put down the vocal tracks for “I See You”
because our bookings took off and we did not have the time to go back into the
studio and finish the album that was going to be called  “Liquid Giraffe” with twelve original
songs.  
Lonnie: We simply ran out of money…
So what recordings are on Shadoks release?
Denny:  “Peace
Man”, ‘Tomorrow”, The Grass is Greener”, I’m On my Way”,
“Stranger’, “Copper Penny”, “I See You”,
“Witch”, “American Dream”, “Hard Road”,
“River”, “Have You Ever Loved Somebody” (The Hollies),
“Dissatisfied” and “Good Time” (The Easybeats). 
What are perhaps some of the most memorable memories from
recording and producing this songs and what kind of gear did you guys use?
Denny: The whole time for me is one great memory… the jobs…
the cities… the acts we played with… and most of all the friendship with Lonnie
and Pete that goes on and on.  We all
stay in touch to this day. For equipment we played through Sunn Amps and Pete
played on Rogers Drums.  By 1968 we had
enough equipment on stage for three bands. 
By 1969 Lonnie had switched to Marshall Amps and I switched to an
Acoustic 360 Amp.  
Lonnie: I
started out with a Gibson 335 and a Fender Showman amp. Over the course of time
I played a Gibson Les Paul, Vox teardrop 12-string, I had a Rickenbacker 6 and
a Rick 12 for a while. We had an endorsement with Sunn amps at one point. There
are photos of me playing through a Marshall stack toward the end, I can’t
remember if I owned it or borrowed it.
When ’60s were slowly over your lineup changed and so did
the band name…

Denny: Yes, after Pete left the band in late August, 1969,
we played a lot of jobs under the name Jokers Wild because we were booked well
in advance, but we decided to change the name because we weren’t really Jokers
Wild anymore.  With the addition of Bill
Gent on drums, it was not the same band, so we planned a name change to Flash
Tuesday that we would start using in January, 1970.  I came up with the name Flash and Lonnie came
up with the name Tuesday so we put the two names together.  It was great band but that version of the
band only played until April, 1970.  

Lonnie: Pete developed some physical problems and had to
stop playing drums, so Denny and I hired Bill Gent. It just didn’t feel right
to be Jokers Wild without Pete, our sound changed pretty drastically with a
different drummer, so we changed the name of the band to Flash Tuesday.
If we go back, how was the local scene then? Any other
interesting bands?

Denny:  The 1960’s was
a great time to play in a band.  At that
time there were so many great bands in town and so many great clubs and
ballrooms to play at. I would have to say that it was the perfect time to be
that age and to play in a rock band. We were really good friends with The
Stillroven, The Litter, The 19th Amendment, Danny’s Reasons, Pepper Fog,
Thundertree, and Canoise, just to name a few. 
The number of great bands and great musicians in the Twin Cities in that
time period was truly amazing.  

Lonnie: Minneapolis had (and still has) a great music scene.
In the ’60s, rock music was still new enough that there weren’t any old bands.
We were all kids, late teens, early to mid-twenties. It was a very unique time.
I’m not going to take the time to list all the bands I liked back then, there
were too many of them… the website http://www.minniepaulmusic.com has
eveything you might want to know.
Were you in ’70s and further down the road still in contact
with music making?
Denny: Yes, I played in many different bands in the 1970’s
and into the 1980’s and 1990’s as well. 
I only quit playing for a few years, to raise a family, and I am still
playing now and so is Lonnie Knight.
 
Lonnie: I have been active in the music business all my
life. After Jokers Wild I worked for a number of years as a solo acoustic
artist, releasing several albums, “Family in the Wind” in 1974 and
“Song For a City Mouse” in 1975, both of which have been remastered
and released on CD in Asia. I then worked with a number of different bands. I
was staff guitarist at Sound 80 Recording Studio in Minneapolis, I worked as a
songwriter and producer for Wrensong Publishing in Nashville, Tennessee. 

I began recording my own material again in 2000, and have
released several CDs:

“Big Shoes” (1999)
“Cain’s Blood” (2001)
“Better Days” (2005)
“I Wrote My Name on You” (2007)
“So We Jump” (2010)

I am currently performing solo and with my new band Mosquito
Shoals.” We are in the early stages of recording a new CD. I recently
returned from a concert tour in Japan with Don Nix.

More information is available at http://www.lonnieknight.com
and http://www.mosquitoshoals.com

Thank you very much for this interview. Would you like to
talk about anything else?
Denny:  I am sure
after this I will think of many things to say but for right now I want to say a
million thanks for your interest in Jokers Wild and to our friends and
fans.  We are all very happy that Shadoks
Music decided to put this new album out and use the name “Liquid Giraffe” which
a fan of ours suggested as an album name way back in 1969 when we had a “name
our album” contest.  I would also like to
say that I currently work on a website with local music historian Tom Campbell
that documents the local Minnesota bands from 1955 to 1975.  The website is minniepaulmusic.com. I am
enjoying my new job as a music historian.

God Bless to all… Denny Johnson.

Lonnie: Thanks! 

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2013
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