Mike Johnson, right, poses with his new partners in The Troika, Kin Vassey and Karen Brian. The young Denverite, now appearing at Taylor's Supper Club, recently returned from a 3-month tour of the Orient.
By Pat Hanna
Rocky Mountain News
Mike Johnson, wearing a black chalk striped zoot suit and slightly in need of a haircut, came home triumphant this week.
Since the young guitarist went to the West Coast last spring, he has become the protégé of folk-pop impresario Randy Sparks, the man who made millions by building groups like the New Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority.
Mike is appearing with the BPM in their current appearance at Taylor's. He's head of the Troika, a new folk-pop trio that has Sparks' backing, and has just returned from a 3-month tour of the Far East.
"About 80 percent of our shows were for military entertainment. The others were for non-English-speaking civilian clubs. Those audiences enjoyed the music and that's all we were trying for," he reported.
And how were the shows received? "Well, there were only seven shows on the entire tour where we did NOT get standing ovations . . . and two of those were in hospitals," he grinned.
Shows were given in Saigon . . . Taipei . . . and Da Nang, within the range of gun fire. "We could stand on the roof of the place where we stayed in Saigon and watch the war -- see the helicopters firing on the airport," he reminisced. "And we were about 30 feet from our cannons in Da Nang."
He smiled as he spoke of the troops' reaction to the entertainers' long-ish locks. "They didn't go for the long hair at first but they didn't really do anything about it. After we showed we were Americans and not from Liverpool, they even liked us!"
Worse part of the 3-month tour, he said, was "getting used to the food. It's really different from one country to another and it takes some adjusting."
Several of the entertainers suffered reactions from Bubonic plague and typhoid shots. "There was no time to be sick -- we still had to go on with the tour."
Other problems: Carrying everything everywhere because there was no home base and periodic language barriers. "For instance, we had a Japanese road manager in Thailand. He spoke no English and no Thai. It made things a little difficult . . ."
The constant movement, humidity and heat took their toll on the guitars as well as the musicians. "The guitars all fell apart. We patched them as we went but we had to take them to the shops to be rebuilt as soon as we got back to Los Angeles."
His favorite stop on the trip was Hong Kong. "I played one classical guitar concert at the Peninsula Hotel there -- then went shopping for suits and shoes -- everything but Japanese guitars. I'd really like to go back some day under different conditions."
His performance on the trip won him high praise from Sparks, who said: "Mike was one of our star performers on our tour of nine countries in the Orient, and I can truthfully say I have never seen a more talented performer in as many directions. For what he does, he is the finest, both instrumentally and vocally, and we are pleased to be associated with him."
Mike, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward O. Johnson, takes the praise from his mentor in stride. He's had his day in the sun before as winner of a national talent search while he was a music major at Colorado State College in 1964. That's when he left school to take the plunge into show business in New York. While there, he recorded for Epic.
Fame and fortune did not beat a path to his Village door so he came home to start a 3-month run at the Tangerine Room, a small club on Colorado Blvd. That helped pay the fare to Spain, where he studied classical guitar and worked for seven months in 1966.
When he came back to Denver, the job at the Tangerine was waiting for him -- 8 months worth. And that's where he first came to the attention of Sparks.
"Gary Miller brought Randy in to see me," Mike reminisced. "Gary and I worked together at the Tangerine before he went to the West Coast and started working for Randy."
Sparks was impressed with what he saw and offered Mike a job with the New Society, another of his groups. Mike had to turn down the offer because of his contract with the Tangerine but sought out Sparks when he went to the West Coast last April.
The future looks promising now with a recording session set for soon after he returns to L.A. with his new partners, Karen Brian and Kin Vassey.
"We hope to develop a new sound -- a folk background with acoustical guitars and fairly modern harmonies," he explained. "We'll all innovate in our own things, either specific songs or ideas. Kin does blues, I do jazz and bossa nova. Between that and Karen's voice, we should come up with a brand new sound."
And what does his family think of his progress? "Well, mother likes everything but our costumes. She really doesn't like our skunk suits at all!"