Posts Tagged ‘debb johnson’

Found In The Bargain Bin

April 17, 2011

Originally posted March 12, 2007

One of the things I’ve learned about collecting records is: When you see a pile of records, take a look. That’s because you can find the damndest things in the damndest places.

We’ve all heard about those lucky stiffs who find a copy of the Declaration of Independence stuck inside the back of a picture frame or a copy of the rare Honus Wagner baseball card stuffed into a cigar box.

No, no, I haven’t found a copy of the Beatles’ butcher-block cover for Yesterday & Today. And no, I haven’t found the legendary thirtieth recording by blues icon Robert Johnson. Still, every time I see a pile of LPs – or a stack of vintage 78s – in an antique store/junque shop/thrift store, I look. Because you never know. Well, you never know except in the case of that thirtieth recording by Robert. It likely doesn’t exist. But I might find one of the twenty-nine that do, as unlikely as that would be here in Minnesota, where the 78s from that long-ago era were more likely polkas than blues.

One of my better finds, cherished because it resonates with my past, came because of a traffic jam. During some of the years I lived in south Minneapolis, I worked for a newspaper in the suburb of Eden Prairie, my office being about fifteen miles from my home. The hours were fluid. Often, to cover meetings or sporting events, I stayed in Eden Prairie into the evening, sometimes late into the evening. On slow days, to make up for those late evenings, I was occasionally able to leave in mid-afternoon. It’s like that at most weekly newspapers.

What that fluid schedule meant was that most days, I avoided driving those fifteen miles home during rush hour. Although there is almost always some traffic in the Twin Cities any time of day, the times when I found myself driving home were rarely the freeway-clogging hours between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., and traffic was rarely a concern as I headed home. On occasion, however, I would be caught in one of the stagnant pools of traffic that seemed to happen more frequently on the Twin Cities’ southwest side than anywhere else in the metro area. (That may only be my perception, formed by my being more aware of that area than the others. But it doesn’t really matter whether the jams were more frequent or not along the route I drove. It was still a massive annoyance to be standing still on a roadway designed for 65 mph!)

So I began to develop alternate routes, learning a network of surface streets where I could find refuge from the traffic jams and which I could use to wend my way home. One of those surface streets was Penn Avenue through the suburb of Richfield. And the first time I drove north on Penn, on an evening in September 1993, I saw a branch location of Down In The Valley, a chain of music stores with its headquarters store located in the suburb of Golden Valley. Even on the surface streets, the traffic was sluggish that day, so I pulled over and parked, crossed the street and went in.

Turned out that this location was clearing out its vinyl. I spent a happy hour rummaging through the displays, pulling album after album out, giving each a quick scan for major scratches and stuffing the ones that passed muster under my arm. The prices for most were fifty cents. A few were going for a dollar. And a few were twenty-five cents. I walked out of Down In The Valley with records by Chi Coltrane, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Arlo Guthrie, C.W. McCall, Jimmy Webb and a couple of K-Tel collections. (I love one-hit wonders!)

And I walked out with a self-titled album by a group called debb johnson, which was one of those that had cost me a quarter.

Something about it resonated with me when I saw the cover: seven men, shot from above as they stood in what appears to be a gray expanse of desolate beach or desert. The camera was far enough away from them to keep their faces from being recognizable, and their shadows stretched across the ground in front of them; the picture was shot at either sunrise or sunset. And in the upper left corner, it read debb johnson, all lower-case.

As I wrote, something about it resonated with me, but I couldn’t figure out what as I looked at it in the store. I shrugged. It’s a quarter, I thought, and I shoved it under my arm and went either to the next rack of records or to the counter to settle up.

And when I got home, I put debb johnson on the stereo, sat down with a beverage and looked at the back of the jacket.

When I was in college in the early 1970s, I hung out – in modern parlance – with a relatively large group of people that gathered in the student union at St. Cloud State. From the time the building opened at 7 a.m. until late in the afternoon, there was almost always someone at The Table, as we called it. One of my friends there was a fellow named Stu, going to school after a stretch in the Navy; that stretch included, I think, service in the waters near a little country called Vietnam. Stu was one of several fellows who gathered at the table who had served in the Armed Forces and thus were a little bit older than the rest of us.

One of the other folks who occasionally stopped by The Table during those years was Doug Bronson, Stu’s brother-in-law. I remember him saying during 1974 or 1975 that he’d spent some time playing trumpet in a band in the Twin Cities. And as debb johnson played on my stereo that evening in 1993, I saw on the back of the jacket in the list of the group’s members: “Doug Bronson – trumpet, flugelhorn.” And I knew where I’d seen the jacket before: During a party at Stu’s apartment sometime during those college years, his wife, Nancy, had pulled the record out of a box and put it on the stereo. Doug was Nancy’s brother.

(The group found its name because three of the seven members were named Johnson. They then took the first letters of the last names of the other four members and combined them into the word “debb” and called themselves debb johnson.)

The record was pretty good, I thought when I heard it at the party back in the early 1970s, with a sound clearly related to that of Chicago’s first two albums. That’s a judgment I seconded about twenty years later in my Pleasant Avenue apartment after my visit to Down In The Valley.

And I stand by that judgment still, after ripping the record over the past few days to present it here. All but one of the songs is original to the band (the other is a nice cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “A Little Help From My Friends”). Clearly, the sound is of another time, both musically and lyrically: Calls to action, tributes to brotherhood, the desire to leave the city and find a simpler way of living, some backed with guitars that have just the right amount of acid and backed as well by tight, whirling horn charts, and others backed with lighter arrangements that include flute and delicate guitar parts. It all clearly belongs to the sounds of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but still works today. As critic Dave Marsh put it while writing about a different piece of music: “Dated, but never out of date.”

Track listing:

Dancing In The Ruin
On Your Side
When The Time Is Right
Top Of A Hill
City Blues
Sittin’, Thinkin’, Listenin’
Thrust, Part I
With A Little Help From My Friends
It’s Gonna Get A Whole Lot Better
Thrust, Part II/And A Dream

debb johnson, Self-titled, about 1970