Born John Matthew Pocisk, 29 August 1940, Walbridge, Ohio
I clearly remember my first encounter with the music of Johnny and the Hurricanes. It was on Sunday July 19,1959, when "Crossfire" was played at the end of Jack Jackson's weekly "Juke-Box Show" on Radio Luxembourg. This was a non-stop show, sponsored by the Decca Record Company in the UK, with a quick rundown of the records played at the end of the 30-minute programme, while an instrumental record was playing in the background. In spite of all the talking over the music, "Crossfire" immediately made me sit up and take notice and luckily it got lots of more spins on Radio Luxembourg.
Johnny Paris was the leader of Johnny and the Hurricanes, a combo that must surely rank among the five most influential acts in instrumental rock and roll, along with Duane Eddy, the Champs, the Ventures and the Shadows. It has often been alleged that John Pocisk was of Polish descent, but his family was Ukrainian from his mother's side and Czech from his father's side. At age 14, Johnny started playing the saxophone and mastered the instrument without any formal education. In 1955 the Pocisk family moved from Walbridge to Rossford, also in Ohio, and it was there, at Rossford Catholic High School, that John formed his first band, the Orbits. This five-piece outfit experimented with rock 'n' roll, appeared on regional television and occasionally accompanied singer Mack Vickery and other acts. Among these was the vocal group Fred Kelly and the Parliaments. They had been invited to audition for Harry Balk and Irving Micahnik of Talent Inc. in Detroit and asked John (who already called himself Johnny Paris at this stage) to back him with the Orbits. Balk and Micahnik didn't think much of Kelly, but signed Paris and his group to a record and management deal. Renamed Johnny and the Hurricanes, they cut their first record in February 1959 in a disused cinema. "Crossfire"/"Lazy" was first released on Balk and Micahnik's Twill label (1001), but soon leased to Warwick Records in New York, a new label owned by Morty Craft. "Crossfire" was a hard-driving, sax-led tune, which went to # 23 on the Billboard charts. However, it did not yet have the sound with which Johnny and the Hurricanes would become associated. That sound, with a prominent place for Paul Tesluk's piping hammond organ, came to the fore on their second single, "Red River Rock", based on an old cowboy tune, "Red River Valley". Peaking at # 5 in the US and # 3 in the UK, it was their only million seller. Balk and Micahnik had now hit upon a scheme for making money. They would seek out familiar tunes that were out of copyright and ask the band to record rock 'n' roll versions, whilst they would be listed as composers, under the names Tom King (Harry Balk) and Ira Mack (Irving Micahnik). So while the Hurricanes, especially Paris, did the rehashing, King and Mack got the credit, also through their publishing company, Vicki. It was only later that Paris worked this out and managed to get credit for his contributions. "That was one of the misfortunes of being young in the music business", said Paris. "I was simply too naive". "Red River Rock" was followed by more hits : "Reveille Rock" (# 25 US, # 14 UK), "Beatnik Fly" (# 15 US, # 8 UK), "Down Yonder" (# 48 US, # 8 UK) and "Rocking Goose" (an original composition this time, not a revamped oldie, # 60 US, # 3 UK), all in 1959-60. The B-sides of these recordings often had more lasting value than the gimmicky hit sides, especially so in the case of "Sand Storm" (flip of "Beatnik Fly") and "Sheba" (flip of "Down Yonder"). As the chart placings show, the group was more popular in the UK (and also in Germany, Sweden and France) than in their native country.
"You Are My Sunshine" (# 91 US) was not released in the UK, at least not as a single and then came the rather disappointing "Ja-Da", which still went to # 14 in the UK (# 86 in the US, their final chart entry there). However, "Old Smokey"/"High Voltage" (1961) was a strong double-sider (# 24 in the UK). After this single, three members left the group, dissatisfied with the management. In spite of the changes in personnel, the group would continue to release good singles, like "Salvation" (featuring trumpet and piano instead of sax and organ), "The Sheik Of Araby" (not released in the UK, for reasons unknown to me) and their final Big Top single "Rough Road"/"Kaw-Liga" (1963). The group had switched from Warwick to Big Top Records in 1960. In Europe, this change went largely unnoticed, as their records continued to be issued on the London American label.
A switch to Mala Records in 1964 yielded two singles, but no sales of any significance. Paris decided to grow his hair long, jumped on the Beatles bandwagon and started his own record label, Atila Records. A new group of Hurricanes recorded a live LP at the Star Club in Hamburg, where Paris and his group had already played in 1962 (as the headliners), with the Beatles as their opening act. In 1980 Paris moved to Germany, where he met his second wife, Sonja Reuter (now the executrix of his estate), and performed all over Europe with a mix of Swedish, German, British and American Hurricanes. Johnny and Sonja moved to the US (Ohio) in the early 1990s and married in 1996. Johnny Paris was the only constant factor in the history of Johnny and the Hurricanes. He estimated that there have been around 300 different Hurricanes over the decades. The most famous line-up is the one pictured on the cover of their second LP, "Stormsville" : Johnny Paris, tenor sax ; Paul Tesluk, organ ; Dave Yorko, guitar ; Lionel "Butch" Mattice, bass ; Bill "Little Bo" Savich, drums.Savich died in 2002, Mattice in 2006. Though he ventured into other businesses for a short while, Johnny Paris devoted all his life to music. He continued to perform until 2005, bowing out with a final tour of Johnny and the Hurricanes in Sweden. He died at the University of Michigan Hospital at the age of 65, not from leukemia, as was reported in most obituaries, but of (quote from his widow) "sepsis, pneumonia and pancytopenia treated splenectomy".
CD recommendations : Those who want everything by Johnny and the Hurricanes are advised to look out for the three Repertoire CD's : Red River Rock (REP 4739), Stormsville (REP 4740) and The Big Sound of Johnny and the Hurricanes (REP 4741), though these are now out of print and hard to find. They feature the three original LP's by the group, digitally remastered and all with 10 or more bonus tracks. The Charly 2-CD set "The Definitive Johnny and the Hurricanes" from 1996 is marred by incompleteness, varying sound quality and defective liner notes by Adam Komorowski. But there are also several good (legal) single-CD compilations, like "The EP Collection" on See For Miles.
Official website: http://www.johnnyandthehurricanes.com/index.html
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