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One Man Band for the Digital Age

Dan Johnson once played in an LA band called December's Children.  .  "We produced a song called 'Something Fresh.'  It was rated #99 in the Billboard Magazine hit parade."
Dan Johnson once played in an LA band called December's Children. . "We produced a song called 'Something Fresh.' It was rated #99 in the Billboard Magazine hit parade."
Don Morreale

Musician Dan Johnson is not the kind of one man band you think of when you think of a one man band -- a rumpled old guy on a street corner with a bass drum strapped to his back, a banjo at his belly, and a complicated array of horns, whistles and harmonicas draped around his neck. Thanks to a computer program called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), Johnson can sound like anything from a country and western band to a symphony orchestra. He provides the guitar work and sings in a voice that sounds a little like Willie Nelson, though ask him and he'll tell you it's the other way around.

Dan Johnson
Don Morreale

Johnson has managed to carve out a niche for himself playing gigs at nursing homes, senior centers, and rehab facilities. "The old folks appreciate you comin' in," he said. "I call what I play 20th Century Music; rock songs, pop tunes like Jeepers Creepers and Johnny Be Good, a lot of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Chuck Berry. I try to give a history of the song, or I'll ask 'Where were you in '52?' and then play a tune from that era." He averages four to eight jobs a week and last year played over 240 gigs.

He's been at it since he was a kid. At age 12, living in Southern France where his dad was stationed in the military, young Dan heard an English rock band playing Chain Gang. "It hit me that I should be a guitar player," he said. "My dad bought me a Sears-Roebuck electric guitar. I hung out with the GIs down at the servicemen's club and learned a lot of different styles."

In 1966, just out of high school, he joined a Denver rock band called The Wild Ones. "We opened for Herman's Hermits, Charley Rich, and The Dave Clark Five," he said. "We almost got the gig opening for the Stones, but we were out of town that night."

A tour of duty in Viet Nam interrupted his budding career as a rock 'n' roll musician, and when he came back he went to work for the Postal Service. But his love for music remained undimmed and he continued to play guitar and sing in rock, country, jazz, and night club style pop bands all around the state.

In the mid-90s he was sent to Gunnison to supervise the local Post Office, and it was there that he learned the MIDI system. "I built a rig in the back of my pickup with amps, microphones and speakers," he said. "It was like a mobile stage. I'd go out to the campgrounds and offer to play for the tourists for free. I came home that first night with a whopping six bucks in tips."

Not a particularly promising start, but by Labor Day he'd played 90 jobs at the campgrounds, and earned enough in tips to pay for his gas, a new stove for his wife, and a year of college for his son.

"I was having the time of my life," he said. "I got better at arranging and playing. Plus it was something to look forward to. I did it after work and met lots of folks in their RVs." It also saved him from going postal working stress-filled eleven-hour days at the Gunnison Post Office.

In 2005 he retired from the postal service and moved back to Denver. "I could have got a minimum wage job after I retired," he said, "but I wanted to do something fun and stay in the game."

"If it wasn't for music, I think my mental health would have suffered," he said, looking back on nearly 50 years as a professional musician. "Music takes you away from reality. You can go to places in your head in a song you can't go otherwise. I'm always learning new material. I don't think you can never learn enough."

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Coming Soon: Cowboys, Yogis, and One-legged Ski Bums, Don Morreale's collection of the best of his Examiner stories.

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