Riverside resident Dennis Keith Johnson has been laying down bass lines onstage and in recording studios for nearly 50 years.
This Friday and Saturday, Johnson and some of his old band mates from the powerhouse jazz fusion pioneer band Chase will close the book on his first big success.
Forty years after the death of band founder Bill Chase in a plane crash, his namesake band will reunite to play three final concerts at Reggie’s, 2105 S. State St., Chicago.
Johnson, 64, who grew up in Phoenix, played clarinet in high school and learned to read music. But when a local band needed a bass player, he just stepped in and played it, despite having never played the instrument before.
“I just got it for some reason,” he said. “I was playing in bars since I was 17.”
It became his future and his fortune.
Just 20 and playing with jazz singer Lee Meza in Las Vegas, Johnson dropped by the old Pussycat A-Go-Go, a popular hangout for Vegas musicians.
Chase, already formed but not yet touring, had a problem — their bassist played in three clubs, earning a hefty $1,500 a week, and wasn’t willing to take a pay cut to go on the road with a new band.
Johnson struck up a conversation with Chase band member Jay Burrid. When Burrid learned Johnson played bass, he “grabbed my arm and pulled me over to Bill.”
“Do you want to come over and play with us tomorrow afternoon?” Bill Chase asked.
Johnson smoked the audition.
“That’s the guy,” organist Phil Porter proclaimed after running through a few blues numbers.
Things proceeded slowly.
“They still had dues to be paid,” Johnson said, and equipment to purchase.
“The first time we came to Chicago (to play the old Rush Up on Division Street) we didn’t have a PA,” he recalled.
“Does anyone have any money?” Bill Chase asked. Johnson volunteered to borrow $1,100 against his life insurance policy.
He recalled staying at a hotel on East Delaware, “one step up from a flop house.”
But no one cared. They were young, and the times were different.
“We were having a ball,” said Johnson. “We didn’t know what we were doing or what we had. We were just doing it.”
Youthful endurance helped.
“We did that first album in 10 days, start to finish,” Johnson recalled, even while gigging every night.
“Youth,” he said with a laugh. “It’d kill me now.”
The single from the album, “Get It On” was on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 13 weeks starting in May 1971. It sold more than 400,000 albums, great numbers for a jazz album.
With strong radio play and excellent management by Chicago-based Beacon Artists, the band took off, playing as many as 28 ninety-minute one-night stands in a single month. With such strong revenues, Chase was able to purchase the DuPont chemical company’s old executive DC-3 and was flying to gigs as far away as South Africa.
“You get chops of steel,” Johnson said of the constant playing. “Boy, did we have chops.”
But after recording a second album, a disastrous management decision brought Chase to a screeching halt in 1973. Beacon Artists was dumped in favor of a larger, more prestigious management company.
“They didn’t do anything,” Johnson said of the new booking firm. “They didn’t book any gigs.”
Bill Chase asked his band mates to take six months off, a hiatus that effectively killed the band.
“By then [drummer] Gary Smith and I were in Miami playing as ‘X,’ Johnson recalled. “We even got a record deal. So we weren’t about to come back.”
Johnson and Smith would return to Chicago in 1975 to do steady session work as Shy Rhythm, earning “$50,000 to $60,000” annually.
Shy Rhythm backed former Ides of March guitarist Jim Peterik on his Don’t Fight the Feeling album.
Ironically, Peterik had penned a song on the first Chase album, called “Boys and Girls Together,” something Johnson didn’t realize until many years later.
Johnson and Smith toured with Peterik for a couple years, until they had an idea.
“We think you’ll be more successful if you’re just a member of a band,” Johnson recalled telling Peterik. Johnson said Smith even came up with the name, saying, “We’re all survivors of the [music] industry.”
Johnson and Smith brought in singer Dave Bickler and with the arrival of Frankie Sullivan, Survivor was born.
Johnson and Smith left Survivor in 1980, before the second album.
“It was mutual,” Johnson recalled. “Gary and I came to the conclusion it was the wrong purpose with the wrong result.”
Two years later, as most of the world knows, Survivor shot into the pop stratosphere with “Eye of the Tiger.” By then Johnson and Smith had teamed up with another talented local musician for their latest project, “Software,” with songwriter Pat Leonard, formerly of Trillion. Leonard would go on to write half a dozen songs for Madonna’s breakout album.
One last hurrah
The last 30 years, Johnson has earned his living with the multi-faceted Dennis Keith Johnson Band, formed with his wife Cherryl. It provides a wide array of live musical services for corporations and other clients, including commercials.
“We’ve got the best musicians in Chicago,” he said. “We’ve played in Paris, Jamaica, Maui.”
The really fun part for Johnson is “Guitarola,” a play on the Rockola jukebox name. He and his mates offer some 1,400 songs in just about every genre.
This weekend, Johnson is taking one last look at how it all started for him.
He’s excited with the lineup for the final Chase show, particularly Japanese trumpeter Eric Miyashiro, who will take Bill Chase’s chair.
“He’s famous everywhere but in America,” said Johnson. “He grew up playing Bill Chase albums.”
“We’re doing the show for ourselves,” he said, “but we’re inviting people to come along and witness it.
“Music is a language,” he explained. “Groups of notes or riffs are like words.”
Johnson admits he’s feeling the effects of time, that he’s not the musical athlete he once was.
“It’s a challenge to play this music again. My vocabulary has changed.”
Johnson admits he’s not the guy he once was, but he’s still standing, bass in hand, ready to get it on one last time, give it all he’s got — to close out the Chase legacy in style.
“It was an extremely powerful band,” he said.