A lifelong native of St. Petersburg, Florida, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton had to travel a fairly extensive road to get to where he is now. When he was in sixth grade, Johnny was a first chair trumpet player in his school's band. " I befriended the band director, and I would stay after school every day," he recalls. "I'd get free lessons from him, so I learned how to play the saxophone, the clarinet, [and] the oboe. He kind of gave me an ear for music.
"When I got into high school, I got into jazz band, and they set the bass rig behind me. That's all it took-- I looked at the trumpet, and I looked at the bass, and I went out and bought a $35 bass at a garage sale.
"I locked myself in the bedroom with REO Speedwagon and Cheap Trick, and my sister dated this kid that brought over a bunch of Black Sabbath records. I picked it all up by ear. Then in jazz band, I transposed the treble clef to the bass clef, and figured out the notes on the guitar."
Another experience that made Johnny want to be a musician was his first concert: Blue Oyster Cult. He vividly recalls the drummer with the Godzilla mask. "After that first concert, I was hooked. I was like, 'I want to be up there. I want to do that.'"
Later, at a different school, Johnny befriended a guitar player, and along with a drummer, the three formed a band called Mariah. After doing the high school scene, the band members went their separate ways. Soon, after being in a couple of failed bar bands, Johnny joined a moderately established group called Lefty, and was soon playing seven nights a week.
"We got a lot of stage experience," Johnny remembers. "We did a lot of covers, and some original. We were like a Poison before Poison. Everyone had bleached blonde hair, and wore a lot of makeup and hairspray. We were bizarre, but we would pack the clubs. We did well, but it got old."
Savatage originally offered Johnny the bassist position before Power of the Night, before the group had signed to Atlantic. However, Johnny was making a good amount of money with Lefty at the time, while the members of Savatage still had day jobs. At that point, giving up his Lefty gig was hard for Johnny to do. "Steve [Wacholz] approached me and offered me the bass gig. I said, ‘I’m not going to [work] a day job-- I’m making $250 a week.’ For me, being 19-20 years old, that was good money. I said, ‘When you can offer me a salary, come back and see me.’
"A couple of years went by," he continues, "and they got signed to Atlantic. Lefty actually opened for Savatage. That’s when one of the guys who was working for them came up and said, ‘They need a bass player. You interested now?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ So I went right to it."
Four weeks later, Johnny traveled to London with the band to record Fight For The Rock. In that time span, he rehearsed with the band, learned the entire catalog, and also had time to write with the band. "We recorded a great record," Johnny explains. "This was my first [industry] experience-- [industry-ites] took our record, mangled the hell out of it, and tried to make us into something we weren’t, when they thought the market was going more poppy. It was a learning experience."
Having his first album be for an album that the group didn’t really like was a sometimes difficult endeavor, Johnny says. "It was a scary experience, until we started playing." The band relied on older, heavier songs like "City Beneath The Surface" which, Johnny says, "ripped everyone’s heads off."
For the band’s next record, 1987’s Hall of the Mountain King, the band was determined to do things their own way. As a result, they became more fond of the material. Johnny says that the title track on the album is probably his favorite Sava-tune.
After a shaky start, life with Savatage was definitely working out. The band released two killer records over the next few years in Gutter Ballet and Streets, but the latter was unfortunately released in a period of flux in the music industry. Established bands were getting dropped from record labels, and sales were poor across the board. Johnny says that it even got so bad that the band had to pull off the road. Still, it didn't keep the group down. "It's going to take a lot to knock this band out," he says.
The band's next album, 1993's Edge of Thorns, is described by Johnny as "about my favorite record, due to the fact that I like the bass mix in it, and it was the last one me and Criss got to do together. Jon had stepped down to pursue his Broadway thing, and it was me and Criss against the world, really. Everything was against us, and we fought back and won."
Now on the verge of a major breakthrough in Europe (and potentially America), and packed with a stable lineup, Savatage is going great, Johnny says. "This last Dynamo [Music Festival] was amazing. There’s nothing like playing in front of 80,000 people and going over like gangbusters." In fact, the band outsold every other artist there in T-shirt sales.
Johnny elaborated about the lifestyle of being in a band. "The hardest part is finding guys you get along with, and can live with on a bus for 3 or 4 months at a time. I love everybody [in this band] like my brother. Being in this band’s like being in a big rolling circus family. We all get along-- nobody hates each other."
Johnny has definitely striven to make the band as accessible to fans as possible. "You get these guys who make a gold record who think they’re invincible," he explains. "Two years later, they’re selling used cars at the Pontiac dealership. I’ve been doing this since 1985. Twelve years later, we’re still doing it, because we’re normal, and not stuck up."
Having an America Online account has been quite an experience, he explained. "People flip out when I answer them back. I get a charge out of that. They’re like, ‘This isn’t you. This is someone playing you.’ I feel that the more I have to offer people, the more they get out of it, and the more in touch with the fans you are, the more you get out of it."
Playing live, his favorites include "One Child," "Chance," "All That I Bleed," and "Alone You Breathe," referred to by the band as "Criss’ song." "It gives me goosebumps," Johnny says. "It brings out emotions. I miss my buddy Criss tremendously. When you play a song about him, you realize how bad you really miss him. There’s times we played that on the last tour where I was just bawling.
"I want to make this band famous for Criss. That’s why I’m still here. I want my best friend’s music to be heard. The guy was my brother, and I feel that I can carry the torch, so to speak, and let the world pick up on it. I want my buddy's name to be as big as the Randy Rhodes name. I want to make sure everybody knows about his playing, and what could have been."
|Credits||Clay Marshall & Conversation Piece|