“I have a lot of respect for people who put their problems out there,” Cliff Johnson told me in a conversation we had in 2011 (for a now-defunct website called Rocking Chicagoland), to celebrate the release of a solo career retrospective called, Razors and Rose Petals. “I draw strength from being in a dark place. Without pain, you cannot experience joy.
“Human weakness affects music in a great way. We’re going to share our fragility and our happiness. Why not? I would not have known the humility and the joy I have in my life without having hit bottom.”
Cliff Johnson left this world last Saturday (16 July 2022) and all one can say is, they broke the mold when he first entered it 70 years ago. Heaven has a new voice.
In those comments, Johnson was reflecting on the success of artists like Eminem or Amy Winehouse, who incorporate the processes of addiction and recovery into their art.
“I took my gift for granted,” Johnson confessed. “I’ve gone through drug and alcohol rehab. I was completely sober for several years. You have to want it for yourself. Today my support comes from my family and my listeners.”
Johnson perhaps is best known as the lead singer for Chicago power pop band Off Broadway, which was signed by Atlantic Records and enjoyed a brief but memorable run in the mainstream rock game. Wikipedia offers that the band’s debut album On was released in 1979. The album reached No. 101 on the Billboard 200 and spawned the single “Stay in Time”, which reached No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100. Off Broadway released a follow-up album, Quick Turns, in 1980 and continued touring for three years before breaking up in 1983.
I saw Off Broadway perform a bunch of times at clubs around Chicago and its suburbs. Of all the rock acts plying their trade at the time, Cliff and his cohorts were among the most consistently entertaining and unpredictable.
A decade ago, Cliff he was fronting a new band called the Happy Jacks – all too knowingly named for an early song by The Who.
“It’s like starting over,” Johnson said. “Even though I’ve matured, I’m still quite a child. It’s really all about the fans now. I’ve learned to have more respect for the listeners.”
Not that audiences always reciprocated.
“I spent some nights watching 15,000 teenage boys give me the finger and throw firecrackers on stage,” he recalls.
Johnson was a musical warrior. His career spanned decades and included membership in Pezband, d’Thumbs, Off Broadway, and Black and Blonde. Yet he never forgot his roots.
“I can’t deny my influences – Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf. The Stones played it back to me. Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwin, and Peter Green of the early Fleetwood Mac – they were blues purists.”
Sadly, one project Johnson had hoped to complete appears to have never gotten off the ground – a cover album of his favorite “girl group” songs.
“My four sisters brought home every 45 that ever existed, and turned me on to songs like Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ the Shangri-Las ‘(Remember) Walkin’ In The Sand,’ and ‘To Sir, With Love,’ by Lulu. That’s the music that inspired Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders to do their own style of power pop.”
Family also weighed heavily on Johnson’s mind, as much as the hard-knock life lessons provided by 35 years in the music business, as he proudly talked about his three grown children, and a grandchild who today must be on the cusp of becoming a teenager.
“They all see the love and effort I put into my music. Dedication is a great thing to pass on to your kids. Chuck Connors and Andy Griffith were the best role models on TV in the Sixties. They instructed their boys. Gregory Peck knew what to do when Scout ran from the dinner table in To Kill A Mockingbird. That’s the epitome of a good relationship with your parents.”
Rest in power pop, Cliff Johnson – a showman and shaman for the ages.