Since their first gig in Denver last spring, Jon-Paul Johnson & the 3rd Degree have made rapid-fire gains on the local circuit. The high-octane blues trio (guitarist Jon-Paul, brother/bassist Adam Johnson and drummer Jeff Hieatt) has opened for Dick Dale, George Thorogood, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and a handful of local stars-in-the-making. They've performed at venues such as the Bluebird Theater, the Ogden, Herman's Hideaway and Brendan's Pub.
While much of the band's success can be attributed to Jon-Paul's roaring Stevie Ray Vaughan-style guitar playing, he claims the props go to someone else. "I have to give most of the credit to my mom," the guitar ace says. "She's the one who booked all these gigs."
Considering that Johnson is all of seventeen years old, this arrangement makes sense. And while some adults may shudder at the thought of their kids playing in a working band, the elder Johnsons consider it a blessing. "My parents used to close the door and beat on it and tell me to turn it down," recalls dad Court Johnson, a local homebuilder who played in bands as a teen. "But when I come home from work, I open their door. It's a wonderful thing. Rather than sitting down and turning on the TV, I'm listening to great blues from my kids. Cindy and I love it."
Show business is in Cindy Johnson's genes. Her great-grandfather was the voice and physical inspiration for Happy, one of the dwarfs in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and her grandmother worked in silent films alongside Buster Keaton. When Cindy discovered a couple of years ago that her sons had a gift for music, she took them out of public school and began tutoring them at home, to allow them more flexibility in pursuing their creative efforts. The arrangement also led to the brothers' finding their current drummer. Hieatt served as Adam's math tutor; following a study session, he jammed with the Johnsons and has remained at the kit ever since.
Court Johnson did his part for his kids' education by turning them on to blues pioneers such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson. Exposure to Jimi Hendrix completed the boys' history lessons and led the brothers to their present genre. "We still love all that alternative stuff; we love Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Bush," Jon-Paul says. "But our sound is definitely getting more modern, though not in a way that would be offensive to other blues players."
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The band is recording new tunes that stray a few steps from the twelve-bar format. They're also honing a sound that stretches beyond their influences. "We've cut out all of the Stevie Ray songs," Jon-Paul says, "though I love him and it's tough for me to do that. But we're definitely trying to move away from it."
Johnson says his youth hasn't hindered him from being accepted in the Denver music community. "At first people are a little shaky, but we haven't had a bad response from anybody yet," he says. Court Johnson says Jon-Paul's being modest. "People are blown away by them," he says. "When they see them walk on stage in a blues club, they kind of snort, thinking, 'Gee, these are kids' and they continue playing pool. But when these guys start playing, everything tend to stop."
Jon-Paul Johnson & the 3rd Degree, with Curtis Salgado, Saturday, November 28, 7 p.m., The Casino, 2637 Welton Street, Denver, $15, 303-292-2626.