After decades in dormancy, Johnny Rey is eager to reenter the Minnesota music scene with a bang. Rey’s previous bands Flamingo and Johnny Rey and the Reaction were standbys at Jay’s Longhorn Bar (1978-1980) in downtown Minneapolis. I recently sat down with Rey, his wife Sharon, and their spunky Maltese Murphy to discuss his reasons for launching a comeback 30-plus years later. We easily filled an hour with stories spanning beyond my lifetime. With a squirrelly puppy in tow, Rey and his wife shared tales of raising their son—Paper Tiger of Doomtree—of discovering a vocation for songwriting, and of the glory days of which my generation can only dream.
Rey will take the First Avenue Mainstage on Friday, March 28th, opening for longtime friends The Suburbs. This is technically Rey’s second debut at First Avenue as his previous band Johnny Rey and the Reaction made their premiere when the venue still donned the name Sam’s. Tickets available here.
After a few decades, why do you feel you were drawn back into the music scene?
John: After Johnny Rey and the Reaction decided to take a break, I was recording as much as I could. Back in those days, you had to actually go to a recording studio which cost money so I just had these little bits of recording here and there. The next thing I know, 20 years have gone past, but this whole time my whole focus was to get the songs I had written recorded. Really for posterity—if you have it recorded, it lasts forever. One day about seven or eight years ago I just thought, Wow, this would be great to play live. The more I thought about it, the more momentum started building. The next thing I know, I’m back full circle. And I told this friend of mine who’s in another band that I have the secret of getting a band together: find all the right people who are way better than you. Everybody is just so good in my band. Even at my rehearsal I just sit and smile because they’re so talented.
Sharon: There’s also something that I kept saying and even John’s mother kept encouraging. If you’re really passionate about something, don’t ever give it up. Don’t ever think it’s over just because of your age.
I’ve heard you call yourself a songwriter/singer instead of a singer/songwriter. Explain.
John: Yes! Most people are singer/songwriters. They’re singers but they also write. I’m a writer who also sings. I feel my strength is my songs. Yeah, I can sing and play instruments. But what I have to offer that no one else does is my particular song style. It’s the whole foundation; I don’t care if its two rocks banging together with reverb, there has to be a song.
You’re opening for the Suburbs. What’s your history with them?
Sharon: I knew the Suburbs before they were called the Suburbs. Before they were in any band, actually—we were in high school. Me and Hugo, the drummer, have known each other since we were 16. We all used to play together at the Longhorn. We are so grateful that the Suburbs are letting us [open for] them. For us to still have that friendship and connection, it’s great to share that mutual excitement and support for each other as people and artists.
You’ve worked with quite a few powerhouse performers. What are some of your most memorable experiences collaborating and performing with other artists?
Sharon: Those bands weren’t as big back then. Like when he [opened for] the Police, they weren’t the Police. They were just a band that was touring. They were on their way up.
John: We did [open for] Patti Smith at the State Theater. That was unbelievable. But at the Longhorn, my favorite was a Saturday night Valentine’s Day when we opened for Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Talking Heads, B-52, Mink DeVille—we opened for all these bands in this little Turf-Club-sized bar. It’s almost crazier now when you think about who they really were. Then they were up-and-coming—now they’re like legends.
How does your current music style differ from the music you used to play in the 70s and 80s?
John: It’s not all that different. My songwriting has matured I suppose, but it’s still totally me. I found out who I was—my style, my voice—everything about me came together when I first started writing songs. So much so that after a year and a half I quit the band I was [initially] in because I thought, I’m way different than this. Even the very first song I’ve ever written, I still want to perform with this band. Some of my songs do sound dated to me, but most I could have written at any time period, which is very lucky, believe me.
Sharon: I think the only difference—and that’s natural with just life itself—he’s slowed down just a little. You can’t expect to be doing the same crazy jumping and kicking around with your guitar at 60 that you did at 25. He still rocks it; he just age appropriate rocks it. When I saw him perform at the Amsterdam last year I was like, “Wow, he’s still got it!”
How do you think the Minnesota scene has evolved since your days with Flamingo?
John: In the early 60s and 70s when we were first starting out, I could name any band in the country, easily. Geez, I sound like an old man. There’d be 10 or 12 in this whole metro area, and now there’s that many standing on one block of Minneapolis. There’s so much music out there.
Since I’m just a baby in college, can you paint a picture for me of what it was like back in the glory days at the Longhorn?
Sharon: Our son will ask, “Well how did your friends find you?” We didn’t have a pager or a cell phone. We’d all go down to the Longhorn and meet up. We’d all go party together, see each other play. We’d support each other.
John: But there was that friendly competition like, “Hmmm, how did they get the New Year’s gig instead of us?” In the Longhorn days, we just took things for granted. We didn’t realize how great it was.
Sharon: There was this free parking ramp next door that we’d all park in and then go inside. And what a weird name; the Longhorn sounds like a Texas steakhouse. But it was a punk bar!
John: Well, first it was a jazz bar…before we took over!
I’m sure you had a huge influence on your son’s desire to pursue music. Do you have any favorite early music memories as a family?
Sharon: With parents like us, there was reading, writing, arithmetic, and rock ‘n’ roll. When he was three, the Stray Cats were huge. Screw toys—he’d stand on top of his toy box singing, “Rock this town, rock this town!” So when they came to town at Northrop, we brought him and put cotton in his ears. He was up on his dad’s shoulders clapping and wanting more. That’s when we knew he had in his blood.
John: In 1984, Johnny Rey and the Reaction had an outdoor picnic concert in St. Cloud. Before the set, they were playing music over the speakers, and John-John was up on his feet doing his best air guitar with his diaper on.
Sharon: At the end of the performance, he stood up and turned around to the audience yelling, “Clap! Daddy! Clap!” I was in hysterics. It actually got written up in the St. Cloud newspaper.
What are you most looking forward to about returning to the music scene and kicking off a new stage of your life?
John: The motivation is different. I’ve never been less nervous in my life to go play. I can’t wait. There’s no heavy pressure anymore of trying to “make it” or impress a record label. And just wait until you get to be my age—you don’t care about nothin’! It’s cool. There’s nothing left but the fun. I’m at a place where I just didn’t picture myself being here and it’s awesome. I never would’ve dreamed this would be happening.
Selena Carlson is currently tackling a double major in journalism and music business at Augsburg College.