FROM the late ’70s through to the mid-’90s Tony Johns was a musical fixture in hotels and clubs in the Hunter Valley.
With just a guitar and his voice he kept local pub-goers entertained bashing out the songs they knew and loved. He held residencies at the Cricketer’s Arms, the Hotel Delaney, The Beach Hotel, The Bel Air Hotel, and the Hunter Hotel in East Maitland. At the end of the final set the whole pub would often sing along to Johns’ version of Don McLean’s American Pie.
“I just played the songs everyone knew,” Johns said. “Just fun songs … songs that everyone knew the words to”.
He drew on material from the likes of Neil Young, Donovan, Bob Dylan and John Denver, the singer-songwriters he admired. Johns said he knew his ‘bread and butter’ was playing covers in pubs.
“To satisfy my ambition I recorded my own songs to see if people would buy them,” he said.
There were three albums featuring his original material, songs he peppered through his cover-heavy sets. A single written in 1981 about his experience getting charged for driving under the influence of alcohol, PCA the Easy Way, received local radio airplay.
“That put me on the map, that set things off,” he said.
But in 1997, married and with three children, it all came to a crashing halt. He was mid-performance at Harrigans Irish Pub, Pokolbin, when he realised something was going wrong with his voice.
“In the middle of an easy song to sing, not a high range, in the middle of that song … a vowel wouldn’t come out,” Johns said.
“It kept happening and it frightened me.”
The Pokolbin gig would be the last time he would sing in public. And it would be years before he would be diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder where involuntary movements or spasms occur in the larynx muscles during speech. All the treatments he tried failed.
At the time he was working on his fourth album, Natural, having recorded three vocal guide tracks. The recording was all but abandoned after Johns lost his voice. But quietly in the background Newcastle’s godfather of rock’n’roll Mark Tinson continued to whittle away at the project over a period of almost 20 years.
Natural was released this month with a gig featuring a star-studded line-up of Newcastle talent at Lizotte’s. The full length recording features three tracks with vocals by Johns, laid down in the 90’s.
Natural is available at Black Pug Records, 80 Maitland Road, Islington.
It is also available via Johns’ Facebook page. Go to facebook.com/tonyjohnsmusic.