Johnny Ferreira: Rock n' Roll Saxophonist
An Interview by Neil Sharpe
Part 2: The Promised Land
“Over the next few years, we toured with Steve Winwood, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Plant, ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and Keith Richards, to name just a few. Those particular tours were very painless; if we weren't flying, we'd be in a big tour bus. We’d stay at nice hotels, eat catered food at the venue everyday, and were able to do a lengthy sound check immediately after the headliner. At night, we'd do a 35 minute set, watch their set, and then have a few drinks with them and local radio people, contest winners, etc. Like I said, very painless. With these musicians, you never deal with promoters, you have a tour manager to do that.”
“The biggest thing I learned from these so-called ‘rock stars’, people like
Robert Plant, Keith Richards and Billy Gibbons,
is that these guys are so full of self confidence and respect for themselves and others around them, that it
rubs off. They don't come off as snobs or egomaniacs. I've heard of some that
do, and people will say ‘Well, they have a right to be that way because of who
they are’. Maybe that makes it acceptable to some people, but when you start
meeting people that you've admired since you were a kid and they're down to
earth, then it's a positive experience, and you get something from it as opposed
to, ‘Man, I wish I never met him!’ I've met some famous people that fit into
that category as well.”
had a real impact on our band. We had just finished up a two week
tour with the American band “Little Feat”, were out somewhere in North Carolina,
and flew directly to Boston to start another tour with Keith Richards and his band ‘The Expensive
Winos’. It was The Fox Theatre and it was a real thrill for us. We were like
giddy high school boys. It was kind of surreal, actually being there with
this guy Keith Richards. We were all big Rolling Stones fans, and this guy was
the heart and soul of all of that. It turned out to be a very valuable
experience for us as musicians, and it had a definite and positive impact… it
was like going to ‘Rock & Roll School’, and we had a class with Keith everyday!'
The second album of the Colin James Band, “Sudden Stop”, was released in 1990,
completed by ZZ Top producer Joe Hardy in Memphis after the bed tracks had been
recorded in Vancouver. “Sudden Stop” went gold then platinum. Johnny played both tenor and baritone.
The album also featured guest appearances by Bonnie
Raitt, Bobby Whitlock,
and The Memphis Horns.
The single “Just Came Back” hit # 7 on Billboard’s Main Stream Rock Charts, followed
by “Keep on Loving Me Baby” at #21.
Then, in 1993, Colin James decided to return to REAL rock n’ roll, the jump and swing blues, with the album
“Colin James and The Little Big Band”
a selection of late-forties and early-fifties jump-blues tunes. Produced by Chis Kimsey of The Rolling Stones, the album featured Johnny Ferreira and Greg
Piccolo on tenor saxes (Gordon “Sax Gordon” Beadle later stepped in for Greg for some of the
tours), Rich Lataille
on alto, Doug James on
baritone, the Roomful of Blues horn section,
and Reese Wynans on piano, drummer John (The Fly) Rossi, and organist Chuck Leavel.
Entertainment Weekly called the CD "... a side trip into pre-rock blues and jump tunes...this album is an uninhibited
love letter to an era when music was for dancing, not thinking..."; Rolling Stone wrote, "The music is swinging stuff,
too rarely heard...reactivating this particular jukebox is one cool move...."
“That's where it all comes from- jump and swing blues. I grew up on rock & roll, or as we call it: ‘Rock’. Rock & Roll lost its roll sometime in the 60's. I mean Led Zeppelin is Rock but not Rock & Roll. I'm talking about before Elvis Presley in the 1950’s. I've heard R&B records from the late 40's and they're singing, ’Let's rock, let's roll’ etc. Did they call this ‘Rock & Roll’? No, because the term hadn’t been coined as of yet, but, it was Rock & Roll. The roll means just that, it's the swinging element of the music. Back in the 40’s, the drummer would be swinging and the bass & piano would rock over top of him...this was the REAL rock & roll.
Big Jay McNeely
up on Motown, Funk, R&B, I liked it all, but at the end of the day, I find
the swing/rock & roll style to be the most expressive and the one that lends
itself to fun and crazy lyrics. Just listen to Louis Prima or Louis Jordan or 'Little
Charlie & the Nightcats'.”
A great example of this hard driving style is Johnny’s solo (his main tenor is a Selmer Mark VI with a Dave Guardala mouthpiece, the "Michael Brecker "model) on “The Boogie Twist (Part Two)” on “The Little Big Band” album. “The solo on Boogie Twist was a one time only take. We learned that song in the hallway of the recording room and went inside and just played it. I didn't know when my solo was going to come; Colin looked over, and away I went. When I heard the playback, I asked the producer if I could do it over and he said no. In this case, I could have gotten my way, but after a couple more listens, it grew on me and I started to like it. This is one of the reasons why people hire producers. I guess I always think I can do a better one; but sometimes you can and sometimes you can't.”
“I have studied theory, jazz, classical etc., but when it gets to blues/swing etc a lot of that stuff just goes out the window. It's more about sitting with a piece you like and studying the crap out of it...copying the guy’s licks, subtleties in tone like growls, breath, etc. Basically I'm not the guy to talk about mixolydian scales. I just assume the student knows all this- if they don’t, then they obviously should.”
“My favorite players are Gordon ‘Sax Gordon’
Beadle and Gregg Piccolo. I'm also
proud to call them friends of mine. Gord has a number of great CD’s out, like,
’Have Horn Will Travel’. I haven't heard this one in a long time ‘cause I
lost it. Gord, if you're reading this, send me another one! A more recent one is
‘You Knock Me Out’. Believe me, this one will knock you out. Some cool tunes
and great sax playing. Gord has played on all sorts of stuff as a sideman as well;
you can find a list on his website.”
In studio, with Sax Gordon and Doug James
Piccolo has one of the best tones you'll ever hear on the tenor. ‘Heavy
Juice’ is a great swing/R&B CD of his (and check out his great solo on Jimmie
Vaughn’s Grammy nominated song, ‘Ironic Twist’ off the album ‘Out
There’). He also plays guitar and writes in other styles; a very talented
musician. Greg said that when he started out he tried to practice the tone and
styles of great players like Purvis Henson (of the Buddy Johnson Orchestra), Red
Prysock, and singers like Roy Brown.”
playing along with Red Prysock. He really raises the bar! The LP ‘Battle
Royale’ between Red Prysock and Sil Austin really opened my eyes.”
“It was Greg who turned me on to the players from the 40’s. And that’s when
things got really interesting. It turns out that I naturally had the same style
of the saxes who had backed up the great singer Roy Brown. It wasn’t deliberate or practiced or anything. It was just the way I played!”
“I’ve had my own band for the past few years, The Swing Machine, with frequent tours in Europe, although it is expensive. First, you have to get the band there, and airfares to Amsterdam or Frankfurt are expensive. Winter is cheaper, but most of the festivals are in the summer. The first few years, I took seven or eight musicians, a three piece rhythm section, brass, and two girl singers. The way I was able to do this was to release
a CD, thanks to financial help from FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records). Canadians will know about FACTOR, if you don't you should. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything like this in the U.S. There should be.
Johnny and The Swing Machine
On my last tour, I used a great band from Hanover, Germany called 'B.B. and the Blues Shacks'.
They're really into the swing/R&B style from the 40's and 50's, so we get along just fine. I would like to take my band from Canada, but you can't rely on FACTOR year after year; flying eight people every time is just too expensive.
A band leader likes to hire someone who can bring something to the group, elevate it to another notch. Acting professional and looking good really helps. I always hire someone that I'm either familiar with, or who comes highly recommended by someone I trust. A lot of musicians move in the same circles so it's not hard to find or get to know people."
Johnny and Sam Butera
"There are noticeable differences with audiences in Europe. I find the audience response a bit better, very attentive. There are many festivals that are very well attended, and even playing in clubs during the week there is a good turn out.
Touring in Canada can be very difficult because of the great land mass and relatively small population (nearly 33 million). Also, most of the country is covered in snow for several months. Having said this, I have done it many times. For example, driving from Vancouver, (in the province of British Columbia) to the next major city, Calgary, (in the province of Alberta), will take about 12 hours. Some spots in Europe you can go through 2 or 3 countries in that much time. Same for the U.S., especially on the East Coast, where New York to Philadelphia is two hours.
Getting gigs always requires some work and hustle. You may have a couple good months and then go through a couple of bad months. During slow gig months, I keep myself busy in my studio working on all sorts of things from new songs to new promo. There is something that needs to be done everyday."
I have supported my family, bought a house, car, all the normal type things other working people do. So, yes it certainly is possible to do it. As for being typical or atypical, I don't really know. I do know many musicians who just do gigs to make their money, and some do well at it and others don't. I have been writing music (some of my songs have been used in movies and TV) and selling CD’s so this has created multiple money streams. Sometimes, there will be a very slow month for gigs, but then a royalty cheque shows up....
I've been a professional musician since around 1985. It's the only field I've worked in during that time, and I have no thoughts or plans of a career change, quite the opposite. Things are getting more interesting and busier for me, especially with my new CD that is getting airplay around the world.