The fire of the 1970s may be distant, but that hasn’t stopped Roger Johnson’s smoking guitar.
Johnson, a Sedona resident and Jeep tour driver, was the lead guitarist of the Sanford/Townsend Band. Now, he’s jumped back into the music world as a singer/songwriter in addition to his guitar work on his latest project, “How Things Are Now.”
“This month I released an album of my own original tunes, and most of the guys [in the Sanford/Townsend Band] played on that. I was always just the lead guitarist, but later in life, I felt the urge to write and sing my own songs. I’m thrilled with how it came out. I spent years writing the songs, produced and arranged the music, and played a wide variety of instruments. I joke that it was 67 years in the making. I’m working on a second album now,” Johnson said.
“How Things Are Now” stays true to his Southern rock roots and adds in plenty of blues inspiration. In it, a retrospective of past regrets and current wisdom flow across the lyrics, as well as admission that, despite his experience, there is still much to be learned. The Verde Valley also plays its part, especially, and obviously, in the track “Arizona Recovery.”
“I’ve been playing original music for 50 years now,” Johnson said. “It’s a joy for me to be writing now. I feel I’ve absorbed the lessons and experiences of that past. Those people are inseparable from me now, and love to them all. So, it flows out of a creative tap, and I just try to go with that flow. But, the lyrics are personal.”
Johnson said that the progression of his music on his newest album is something that occurs naturally.
“We like what we like, but add to it. So, some of the stuff I wrote in my 20s sounds like me today. I still like a ‘rootsy Americana’ type of music, but I’ve naturally developed a larger vocabulary,” he said.
Rock Through the Ages
In addition to his work with the Sanford/Townsend Band, which included the Top 10 single “Smoke from a Distant Fire,” Johnson also toured with Seals and Crofts for two years. At 19, he had signed with his first band, Timber, to Elektra records. He said life on the road was wild, if tiring at times.
“I grew up during a perfect time to experience the full cultural force of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Band,” he said. “I thought, ‘Gee, that was easy. The rest of my life should be a breeze.’ And things did go great for me in a lot of ways.
“Touring with Seals and Crofts from 1973 through 1975 was amazing. At one point, they had three Top 10 hits on the charts, and we played all the huge venues, like Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl, with a 30-piece orchestra. What a feeling that was — taking a guitar solo with an orchestra up my backside.”
The Sanford/Townsend Band recorded three albums between 1976 and 1980 for Warner Brothers Records.
“We toured for five years and played shows with most of the big bands of the time. There’s a good live video of us playing that song on NBC’s The Midnight Special on YouTube,” Johnson said.
That hit would not only make the band’s mark on rock ’n’ roll history, the recording itself was an experience.
“We recorded ‘Smoke from a Distant Fire’ at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama, and Jerry Wexler, head of Atlantic Records, produced the record. For a month, we were in that hallowed place where Aretha, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and the Stones had all recorded with a legend of a man who was like the encyclopedia of R&B,” he said.
Life on the road was hard work, he said, but it had its upsides.
“I was single, but it was tough on the guys and gals with kids and family. Getting to meet some of my musical heroes was the best part: Elvis, Eric Clapton, George and Ringo, the Doobies, Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels bands, The Allman Brothers and just about everyone touring in the ’70s,” he said.
After the Music
Few bands can keep on rocking forever, though, and the ’80s brought Johnson’s touring days to an end.
“We were a blue-eyed-soul, Southern rock band, and in 1980 disco and punk music was taking over the airwaves. We didn’t score another hit single, and five years on the road was getting to us. We could have kept touring 300-plus days a year, but we decided not to. We are still close friends, and we’re still recording together occasionally,” he said.
After parting with the band professionally, his fellow bandmate and bass player Jerry Rightmer would introduce him to the world of film, where Johnson would work on feature films including “Hook”; “Batman Returns”; “Apollo 13”; “Castaway”; and “The Lone Ranger.”
“It was an exciting career, but it was also nerve-racking. For one thing, we invented the technology as we went along, and computers were evolving while we were under the gun. On each film we would be developing new systems and software. There were 80-hour workweeks and lots of pressure. Not quite the Hollywood glamour you would imagine,” Johnson said.
In 1991, he moved to the Village of Oak Creek with his wife Marion.
“Real estate was about one third of what it is now. We couldn’t believe it. We fell in love with Sedona’s natural beauty and light, and used it as a getaway in between movie jobs. Marion was also an editor and script supervisor in the film business for over 20 years,” he said.
With the new millenium came another new line of work. He and his wife would start a new publishing company.
“We’ve produced numerous life-story books, family histories and video biographies for regular folks who want to preserve their stories for future generations. A writer and book designer, Marion produces the books; I help her with photo retouching, video shooting and editing,” he said.
Then, in 2014, he began his gig as a Jeep tour driver in Uptown.
“It takes a certain type of person to be a tour guide, and I’ve made a lot of really interesting new friends. I’m out in the woods in a monster Jeep several days a week, sharing what I know about this magical place we call Sedona,” he said.
Even then, he cannot escape his musical roots.
“Occasionally, someone will ask me if I was a musician, and I have to fess up. The ol’ band still gets a lot of love,” he said.
“How Things Are Now” is available for download at all major websites and is also available for streaming on Spotify. Johnson is currently working on a website for the album as well.