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The first song Johnny Lee Middleton learned to play with the middle-school orchestra was Carol of the Bells.
Even so, Johnny Lee’s own musical path took a few twists and turns. After high school, he played with several local bands before joining Lefty, a popular cover band known as much for their glam image and stage show as their musical ability. Johnny Lee honed his musical chops and stage presence in packed bars and clubs across Florida and the South, decked out in eyeliner and sky-high bleached hair—a look he describes now as “We were like a Poison before Poison.”
In the fall of 1984, Tampa-based Savatage had a deal with Atlantic records, a new album in the works, and aspirations of making it big. What they did not have was a talented bass player. When they saw Johnny Lee onstage, they were hardly impressed with the Lefty image—but they knew they’d found the musician they needed. Johnny Lee, on the other hand, wasn’t quite prepared to leave his well-paying gig with Lefty for an ambitious but broke metal band. But by late 1985, he was ready for something more than Aqua Net and spandex. And when Savatage came calling for the second time—with another new album to record, and still without a bass player who could keep up with them—he took a leap of faith and joined them.
The first decade of Johnny Lee’s worldwide adventures with Savatage brought both triumph and tragedy. High points included 1987’s Hall of the Mountain King, on which Johnny Lee received a songwriting credit. The video saw heavy rotation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, and the band toured the world with the likes of Ted Nugent, Dio, and Megadeth. The success continued with 1989’s Gutter Ballet and the subsequent tour, and in 1993, with the release of Edge of Thorns, Savatage seemed poised to finally break big. But tragedy struck in the early-morning hours of October 17, 1993. Criss Oliva, the guitar player at the heart of Savatage, and Johnny Lee’s best friend, was struck head-on by a drunk driver as he drove home with his wife from a concert. Criss was killed instantly.
In late 1995, “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24” was released as a single to hundreds of radio stations around the country—and was largely ignored. But a DJ in the band’s hometown of Tampa put it on the air. And the phone lines lit up. The song made it to New York City radio. And the phone lines lit up. “Sarajevo” was played in only a few markets that year—but in every market that heard it, record stores couldn’t keep Dead Winter Dead on the shelves.
In early 2008, after returning home from the 2007 TSO tour, and after nearly 30 years of playing bass on some of the biggest stages in the world, Johnny Lee quite literally woke up one morning and simply decided to try his hand at something new—songwriting. He pulled an old Charvel out of the back of a closet, picked up a cheap digital recorder, and started to play. He never really expected anyone else would ever hear it. But what happened, he says, “was like opening up another side of my mind that I never knew existed.” Within weeks he “fell in love with the whole process and challenge of songwriting.” And Johnny Lee decided to share.
credit - rebecca lynn, www.johnnyleemiddleton.com