His Life Was Shaved by Rock and Roll
The music and times of Cleveland rocker Johnny Fay
By Annie Zaleski
Reading time 29 Minutes
On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend
On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, a small but enthusiastic crowd gathers in the dim, sparsely decorated back room of a suburban Ohio tiki bar for a gig from local throwback rockers Johnny Fay & The Bel Aires. The Midwest isn't exactly a hotbed for anything tropical — in fact, the predominantly older audience isn't rocking any Hawaiian shirts — and the bar itself is located in a nondescript building just off the freeway, but the menu full of strong fruity drinks (and décor best described as "rustic island getaway") gives the night a casual, festive vibe.
Soon after 8 p.m., the band — fronted by a retired 76-year-old barber named Johnny Furino, who's ably backed by a guitarist, upright bassist, drummer, and background vocalist — rips through cuts from the early rock 'n' roll songbook: Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Carl Perkins' "Matchbox," Little Richard's "Lucille."
Furino is a spry frontman who clearly has decades of performing experience, no surprise given his age. During a blazing version of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A.," he steps carefully around instrument cables to come closer to the seating area, and pointedly hollers the repeating lyric "I'm so glad" directly toward audience members. At other times, he's the consummate charismatic focal point, busting out some dance moves with the backup vocalist, or directing the rest of the band with supremely confident air punches.
Perhaps most impressive, Furino's voice is strong and sturdy — weathered like supple leather on the more rock-oriented numbers, and leaning toward a lovely country tenor on other songs, such as the Elvis Presley-popularized "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" His vocals are clearly a point of pride: During songs, Furino bends over and cradles the mic stand, singing low and toward to the ground, eyes squeezed shut as if he's focused on squeezing every ounce of passion from his performance.
After the intermission-less gig, which was well over an hour long, Furino stops and chats before heading home to his wife of 55 years, Kathy, to whom he dedicated a genteel rockabilly take on "You Are My Sunshine." Offstage, he has kind eyes and a gentle demeanor, and is rather unassuming about the show he just played.
In a separate two-hour phone conversation, Furino is equally humble as he recalls his music career, even though he has every right to boast about its unorthodox musical trajectory.
In the early 1970s, he put his musical ambitions aside to focus on work and a growing family. "I played every New Year's Eve from the time I was 15," he says. "[My band and I] brought in 1972 — and that was my last gig. I told the guys in the band, 'This is it. I'm not going to play anymore,'" he recalls. "It was something that was very, very hard for me to do, to say I'm not going to do this anymore." The break was final, he adds. "I totally and completely forgot about most of what I did in that early time."
Four decades later, however, he was plucked from obscurity and musical retirement after a French rockabilly band was discovered to be performing one of his tunes: "Sweet Linda Brown," an ultra-rare 1962 single that Furino and his band — then going by Johnny Fay and the Blazers — released as on an even-more-obscure local Cleveland, Ohio, label.
Thanks to this unexpected excavation, Furino has toured Europe twice and fronted said French rockabilly band on a U.S. tour, and has returned to playing steady gigs around Northeast Ohio, including at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Beachland Ballroom.
This is the story of Johnny Furino's improbable second act.
Born and raised in Bedford, Ohio, a sleepy suburb located just to the southeast of Cleveland, Furino exhibited musical talent early. He took voice lessons at age six or seven, and started playing alto and tenor sax and clarinet at age nine — the same year he got a taste of public performing by singing at his older brother's wedding. By age 11, Furino had formed his first band with friends, the Mellotones. He played saxophone and sang, while his future business partner and (to this day) childhood best friend, Jim Damicone, played the accordion.
Two years later, the nascent band earned its first paying gig courtesy of Furino's dad, who was one of the head trustees at the Bedford Eagles. The club was a good starting point, he recalls. "If people there like you, then you're going to play for their weddings, their kids' weddings, and parties and bar mitzvahs and stuff like that. That's what we early on did, and that's what we were known [for]." Gigs at other area Eagles outposts — as well as at AmVets posts and events such as weddings — soon followed. "From the time I was 13 years old until the time I got out of the business, I was playing someplace. We just had jobs all the time, but they were dance band jobs.”
As this was the mid-1950s, Furino was a fan of the stars of the time — including Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Nat King Cole, and Eddie Fisher — while his Mellotones also favored wedding-appropriate polkas and waltzes. However, on November 23, 1956, when he was 13, his parents took him to see Elvis Presley at the now-demolished Cleveland Arena. "It was something so totally different from the '50s that you ever saw in a singer — or saw in anybody," Furino recalls. "I think there maybe were about 20,000 people [at the show], and probably 19,999 of them except me were girls." He laughs. "At least it seemed that way anyway.”
Presley had the No. 1 single in the U.S. that week with "Love Me Tender," and was backed by the most famous lineup of his band: guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D.J. Fontana and bassist Bill Black. This musicianship, coupled with the spectacle of the budding superstar, made a huge impression on the teenaged Furino. "He was so unusual, so charismatic," he says of Presley. "He had a voice that was so different from anybody else's. I mean, Elvis Presley came along at a perfect time, and that charisma — you know, he's shaking and moving around and jumping around on stage — was really what made him the king of rock 'n' roll.”
Furino also pinpoints that concert as the start of his rock 'n' roll fandom, and he soon started listening to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino. His own music also gradually started leaning that way, and by the age of 16, he and the band added a piano player, three backup singers, and a tenor saxophonist, and switched their focus to rock 'n' roll. Along the way, the Mellotones also changed their name to the Bel Aires.
The Bel Aires started playing dances at Furino's high school and became popular in surrounding suburbs, which led to them cutting a demo at a local studio and trying to catch the ears of industry tastemakers. Unfortunately, airplay from radio DJs was tough to come by, although Furino notes that Joe Finan, who was later caught up in the payola scandal that brought down legendary DJ Alan Freed, did play them.
Well-respected national labels that had Cleveland outposts, including Decca and Capitol Records, were also lukewarm. In fact, Furino vividly remembers the wake-up call he had at age 17 after he played the band's music for a Decca representative, who underscored in no uncertain terms the fortitude needed to make it in the music industry. After the listening session, the employee opened up a door behind his desk to reveal a massive archive of vinyl records, presumably from other hopefuls.
"I remember this because I think it's so indicative of whether you really have the strength to move on to do this," Furino says. "He says, 'See all these records in here, John? These are all people who are trying to make it just like you are. Some of their records are as good as yours; some of them aren't as good. Some of them you're actually better than. They're all trying to make it.' And I caught his point."
He chuckles, and notes he never heard anything further from the Decca rep. "Can you imagine what that plays on a 17-year old kid?" he continues. "I mean, you're trying to make it into the business. You're playing at your local high school and everybody in the high school thinks you're the next Elvis Presley."
Still, Furino and the Bel Aires kept plugging away and graduated to playing out in bars and restaurants. And it was at a 1961 gig at a venue called the Pinwheel Lounge when two businessmen, Jerry Lee and Don Catalano, approached the band and offered them a record deal with their new endeavor, Dani Records. However, the offer came with caveats — namely that both Furino and the band had to change their names.
"My name was too ethnic as far as they were concerned, and the band's name wasn't rock 'n' roll," Furino says. "So they came up with Johnny Fay and the Blazers. The band didn't like it; I didn't like it. But it was one of those things: 'Hey, we got a record contract here. Nobody else wants us.’"
In summer 1962, the newly christened Johnny Fay and the Blazers recorded "Sweet Linda Brown," which was released as a single in the fall, backed with an older song, "Cindy." The upbeat A-side is a two-minute dance blast waxing ecstatic about a perfect girl that's driven by fiery saxophone, a twisting tempo and Presley-esque vocal vibrato. The Chuck Berry-esque B-side, meanwhile, is an equally energetic early rock burst with hotrodding guitar licks and lovelorn lyrics.
The group promoted the 45 at record hops (including at Furino's alma mater, Bedford High School), but didn't make much headway. Within months, Furino says the Dani Records partners had an acrimonious falling out that ended with dueling lawsuits.
"That stopped everything. You talk about heartbreaking stuff. That was the next heartbreaking thing that happened, because it stopped everything." He sighs. "To my knowledge, it never was resolved, and that company Dani Records went out of business. At that time, I'm a 19-year-old kid now, and I don't know what's going on, I don't know what happened there."
The setback was deflating, although Furino kept playing music, which paid off in other ways: On Labor Day weekend 1963, he met his future wife, Kathy — who happened to be the cousin of the woman Furino's best friend was dating at the time — at a gig. "We meet on a blind date in a bar I'm playing, and the rest becomes history," he says with a laugh. The couple got married in 1964 and soon after had their first child, which made Furino realize he needed a backup plan for music. He went to barber school and eventually opened a barbershop in the college town of Kent, Ohio, with Damicone.
Over the next few years, balancing work and music became tougher. Furino's growing family — the couple soon had a second kid — moved to Kent, which was roughly a half-hour drive from his regular gigs near his Bedford. He also bought a laundromat in addition to co-running a four-chair barbershop, which further complicated his free time.
"It's the kind of thing of, 'Am I ever going to break out of just being a bar band? Or just being a guy that plays for weddings? Is it ever going to be any more than just part-time?'" he says. "And it wasn't that I didn't like doing that. It wasn't what I really wanted. I mean, I wanted to be a professional musician. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do that full time. There just wasn't the money. It finally got to a point to where I felt in my mind that I've got to make a decision as to what I'm going to do.”
After that fateful New Year's Eve 1971 gig with the Bel Aires, that was it. The retirement was firm and final. He donated his alto, tenor sax and clarinet to a local high school, and either gave away or threw out most of his music memorabilia. (He did keep a few Dani Records 7-inches, although he laughs and says his kids also used some as frisbees.) "The rest of it, I just kind of threw away because I didn't want to think about it anymore," he says. "It was too tough to do."
Over time, he completely forgot about Johnny Fay and the Blazers. He didn't even share his musical past with soon-to-be prominent customers at his Kent barbershop: several members of Devo, including brothers Jerry and Bob Casale. The then-fledgling band subsequently invited him to early shows. Furino attended, but laughs now that their music wasn't his cup of tea, although he still remembers the musicians fondly, and calls them "great guys."
Furino co-owned his barbershop until 1980, and then moved over to manage the in-house barbershop at General Tire in Akron until 1995. He made a career switch, and became the supervisor of security at a drugstore corporate headquarters before moving over to be a security resource officer at Akron Children's Hospital. He also kept his word about his musical retirement — save for singing in the church choir and the occasional family event.
"I sang at my kids' weddings," he says and starts to laugh. "I told my kids, 'You have a wedding, and you're going to have a band. That's the only thing I'm asking of you — I'm old school.’"
Furino would've probably left the musical period of his life locked away
Furino would've probably left the musical period of his life locked away had it not been for an out-of-the-blue email he received in 2011 from a Cleveland-area music historian and record collector named Matt Baker, with a subject line "Johnny Fay and the Blazers." Nearly 40 years removed from his musical career, Furino says he didn't even recognize the reference to his own band in the message, until his wife pointed it out.
However, Baker recognized the group as the kind that would frequently play around Northeast Ohio in the late '50s and early '60s. "Rockabilly and his type of music was coming to fruition because of Elvis," he says. "Back then, it went from sock hops where DJs would spin records to actually having live bands come in. There were a lot of bands blossoming in the music scene. Everybody needed a band to play at their show. Everybody had their little dance or everybody had a little dance club. On any given weekend, you could go from one dance to the next dance to the next dance to see these three local bands.”
As it turns out, Baker was looking for a copy of "Sweet Linda Brown" 45, and decided to reach out to Furino himself for help. The pair decided to meet up, which provided more shocks: Baker informed Furino that the music and band he had pushed out of his mind decades before was inexplicably popular. Not only had the "Sweet Linda Brown" 7-inch become a sought-after collector's item, but musicians all around the world were performing the tune.
"I'm amazed," Furino says. "I mean, I go home on the Internet, and I'm looking at this and I'm thinking to myself, 'My God.' I have no idea. I mean, zero. I would even find out later how big it was over in New York and places like that.”
For Baker, the fact that rockabilly remains so big in Europe explains why Furino's song resonated. "They still have rockabilly festivals. It's almost a culture there, in some respects. People dress up in the '50s gear; they wear their hair [like the decade] when they go to these shows. [It's] just like [how] a lot of South American countries love heavy metal, so you'll see a lot of the '80s metal bands actually tour South America, because there's still a big following for heavy metal bands.”
Furino emailed Jérôme Bret, the leader of one of these groups: a French band called the Megatons who were faithful devotees of '50s rock 'n' roll. He introduced himself as the song's writer, and thanked them for the version. "I thought, well, either one of two things is going to happen. He's either not going to respond, or his response will be, 'Great song, Johnny. Thank you.' And that would be that." To Furino's surprise, Bret had another idea. "Well, he writes me back and he wants to know everything about me. And he says, 'Johnny, are you still doing this?'" A phone conversation later, and Bret invited Furino over to France — all-expenses paid, and no strings attached — for gigs with the Megatons.
Although these kinds of offers are most often too good to be true, the bandleader was serious, and convinced Furino to come out of retirement and sing. But even when he had a plane ticket in hand, he hardly believed the gigs were actually happening. "Nobody can believe any of this," he says. "My family, my kids, the people I worked with never even knew I was associated with music." As he describes his what he was feeling, his voice sparkles, with the kind of excitement more commonly heard on the night before Christmas. Even though it had been several years since his return to the stage, Furino still seemed in awe that he had this second chance in the spotlight — and was still processing the tastes of musical stardom, something that ended up being so elusive to him years before.
Knowing he was rusty, Furino reached out to Matt Baker for help finding players with which to jam. Baker in turn introduced him to a guitarist (and fellow early rock 'n' roll fanatic) named Tom Fallon, who started performing with Furino and helped him find a backing band. Fallon also booked Furino two local warm-up shows for the European gigs, including a packed St. Patrick's Day 2012 gig at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. "The place is filled. I mean, I'm scared as hell," he says with a laugh. "I mean, I'm an old man. I'm not a young kid anymore, and I haven't done this in over 40 years. It was really a great night.”
When Furino finally made it over to Europe, the experience exceeded all expectations. "All of those countries over there — and, I mean, the cult and everything is so big," he says. "You know how tearjerking it is when you've got people actually mouthing back the words to your song?" The France and Belgium concerts in May 2012 went so well that, due to popular demand, Furino returned to the countries in November and also did shows in Italy, Spain and Germany. Although a follow-up 2014 European tour was scuttled after Furino had too deal with some health problems, Furino fronted the Megatons on a six-city U.S. tour in 2015 that included a memorable stop at the storied Rebel Night in New York City, where "Sweet Linda Brown" is a favorite cut.
"And the biggest thrill was when they announced me, I came on to a standing ovation, which is just unbelievable," he recalls. "And to see these people — now Americans — mouthing the words to my song back to me, and I'm putting the microphone out to 'em, you know." He starts to chuckle. "Like I'm some big star. This was absolutely unreal. I mean, it was surreal.
"And [to be called] back twice for an encore was amazing. I mean, it was just thrilling." Furino chuckles again, and the wonder and happiness in his voice is palpable.
In 2012, the French label White Lightning issued a four-song 7-inch (credited to Johnny Fay And The Blazzers) with four songs recorded between 1960 and 1962 at the Cleveland Recording Co. studio. Save for the 1962 "Sweet Linda Brown" 7-inch and an acetate of another song, "Bel Aire Rock," that Furino has lost track of, this amounts to the entire recorded output of the Bel Aires.
To this day, Furino isn't sure what happened with his band's deal with Dani Records. According to Discogs, the label appears to have released just one other 45, a proto-garage-soul single by a band called the Gravestone Four. Furino lost touch with Jerry Lee, but encountered Don Catalano in 1968, when the businessman unexpectedly came into his barbershop, looking to reboot the label and do more recording with Furino, who declined to provide requested seed money, citing his two young children. Catalano took the rebuff in stride. "He understood; he was a good guy," Furino says. "He just couldn't do it on his own. He walked out, he left, and I never did see him again. That was the only time that he actually came back into my life." (Going by public records and vintage newspaper and Billboard archives, Dani Records does appear to have come back to life in the late '60s and existed through the early '80s, although these documents yield scant clues as to whether the label released additional music.)
Today, Furino doesn't play out as often as he has in recent years. He retired in June 2018 after spending 20 years as a security resource officer at Akron Children’s Hospital. Furino and his wife also recently downsized and moved to Uniontown, Ohio, to be closer to their youngest son. However, he treasures his memories of the European tours — and is still awestruck at meeting fans who shared they paid a staggering four or five hundred Euros for the "Sweet Linda Brown" 45.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'Holy cow, these people paid all this money.' And I would joke with everybody and say, 'You know what, I never made a penny on this stuff,' which I didn't. I never made anything on it. "But what was so great about it, is that…" Furino gets choked up as he continues. "It made me feel so good that somebody liked it. Because, I mean, all the time that I peddled that song, or the song was peddled in this country, nobody wanted it. Nobody thought it was any good or anything like that.
"And to come back, you know, and have those people tell you — at least before you died anyway — that somebody liked it. Somebody thought that it was good. To me, that was worth all the money in the world. I didn't care what kind of money or anything I would ever make just to have somebody tell you that that the song was good.”
Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland, Ohio-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared on (or in) NPR Music, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Salon, The A.V. Club, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. She is working on two books: Why The B-52s Matter for the University of Texas Press and a 33 1/3 book on Duran Duran's Rio.