Johnny Rabb – A Day Around the Jukebox

Written by on January 3, 2024

The first thing you notice when you go to the house of one Johnny Rabb is the pervasive calm. Next is the unbounded energy of Johnny himself, but past all that, you see the jukebox. And you won’t have a whole trip there is Johnny doesn’t punch a few buttons and serve you up some tunes.

I sat down with Johnny and we mulled over good times.

RRX: You said there are places that aren’t around anymore, and I’m a younger guy, I maybe never knew some of these places, or maybe I was a little kid when these places were around. What’s one place you can think of that you really wish could come back.

JR: 288 [Lark Street]. But it never will because that time is over. But it was sensational. Because punk had finally arrived. Not only from England and Los Angeles, which is where I was living at the time, but also it filtered down to New York City, and then that exploded, and then it kinda made its way up to Albany because I mean it’s a good place to play. So all of those bands were playing up there, you know, Albany, and yeah, it was great.

RRX: I’ve always found with rockabilly, and when I look at that and punk, that they are different, right, they’re clearly different.

JR: They certainly figure together.

RRX: Yes. They have that synergy.

JR: Right.

I’m jumping ahead, but that’s why The Neanderthals work. Because of Eddie Angel, obviously – he had this Planet Rockers, which was this band, and he had very good people to work with, good musicians and Eddie’s brilliant at what he does. You know nobody plays like that. And where he plays, tonight, wherever he plays… he plays right now like he’s always been… it’s just stone cold rock ‘n’ roll rockabilly.

When I first met Eddie, I was living up in Brockport. He came up to visit a mutual friend, and we were just sitting there, whatever; it was a band house, so there was all this equipment, and we got up and jammed. Eddie said “what do you want to play? You guys know any Elvis?” This was not an Elvis band, but I was an Elvis guy, had all his records in my bedroom still. So as soon as we got done with the jam, I said “Eddie, c’mon over here.” My room was right there. So he comes in, and I show him all my Elvis records. And he tells me about his sister, big Elvis fan. And it just sprouted from there, you know? And we ended up doing many projects together. Dakotas, it started with that, but then on and on and on and on.

RRX: So this was one thread that launched a lot of threads.

JR: Yes. Sometimes nothing happens for a couple years. But it didn’t matter. One day he calls me up and goes, “Rabb, what do you think about putting on a Zorro mask, and playing some songs and selling it like that?” Yeah! I’m in. So eventually it evolved into The Neanderthals.

RRX: What I’ve noticed about Rockabilly, and this musical area, because I look at it as a graphic designer, what I am other than a writer, there’s a certain look and feel to it all. I like it. I think it’s cool and kind of timeless.

JR: Yeah, its its own thing.

RRX: For sure.

JR: Like when we play with the Neaderthals, and we play these festivals, in Spain or wherever, Italy, Germany, whatever – they hire us, but it’s not a garage rock thing. It’s either a stone cold rockabilly thing, or it’s for gearhead, car guys. And they love the Neanderthals. They think it’s outrageous or something I guess.

And the good music of the band.

RRX: So now it’s 2024, which caught all of us by surprise. So a lot of people into rockabilly now are older. What do you think is going to bring younger people into it? Because younger people have to come into it or it ages out.

JR: I don’t see a lot of hope there. There was this band about twenty years ago called Rocky Velvet, Graham Tichy and Ian and Jeff and Mike and they came out as a rockabilly band, The Stray Cats. But that was pretty much the only thing I’ve seen. So I don’t see it; maybe it’ll surge on. I don’t know if it’ll ever get to be the Straight Cats mania thing. That was pretty wild, you know, that scene.

We play at these festivals, which are rockabilly festivals, or gearhead festivals, and you show up with the Neanderthal thing – it’s amazing how much these people know, they know more than any of us about the genre. Because that’s what they do. That’s the way they live. I mean, the girls have the Betty Paige thing, and the skirts, and the guys with the big hair, and the cars – they got it all. They must have deep pockets. It costs thousands of dollars. We were there for a week, but they had the money, and it doesn’t matter.

RRX: You’re looking at a time period in American history, the 50s, that ‘big cars, big overwhelming promise of America. There were no limits to what we could do.

JR: And chicks. Dressed incredibly.

RRX: Right? And also, it seemed like there were no problems.

JR: It seems like that. It was an escape for sure. And it still is. I don’t know how you would project that to other genres, but yeah.

RRX: Maybe New Wave.

JR: Absolutely. I think that’s where it reared its ugly head. Look what the Clash did. Their first album was Elvis’s first album. They all dug Elvis. For what he was and what he did and what he represented. As opposed to “oh Elvis.”

RRX: For someone who really has been involved in that whole sound, that whole scene, what was it that Elvis represented that really got you hooked? Was it just the music, or was it something else?

JR: I think it was the whole thing, but I never turned into a slick-back hair rocker. When I did wear my hair up in high school. But eventually you gotta let it go and let your hair down.

I have three older brothers, Lynne, Wayne, and Lee. My oldest brother Len was the brother that bought the records, had the record player. He was the one. And so that’s where I got it from. Because I wasn’t old enough in 1956 to get that. So he brought it into my life anyway.

RRX: Because that was like contraband in 1956, Elvis. It wasn’t something you would send a kid to go buy.

JR: He looked like he was from Mars or something. If you can put that into perspective in 1956, 57, when that whole thing happened. He looked like an alien, and what was his music, you know? Now it’s tame, but still excellent music. What’s great is you talk to any musician that’s coming up, reached some sort of maturity, ask “did Elvis have any inspiration for you?” and they’ll inevitably say “Yeah.” He was there when nobody else was. John Lennon said, “Before Elvis, there was no one.”

So he was my favorite solo artist and the Beatles were my favorite group.

Don’t miss Johnny Rabb at Elvis’s 88th Birthday Bash at Hangar on the Hudson on Saturday, January 21st at 6pm.


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