2007 - Individual Artist
Hometown: Odebolt, IA
Bio: Odebolt native Gary Johnson is a unique performer. He was stricken with polio as a boy and lost the use of his right arm. In spite of this limitation, he developed a way to play the guitar.
He tunes his guitar to a D chord (D-A-D-F#-A-D) and frets bar chords with his index finger and strums the strings with his little finger or ring finger. He also plays the electric bass guitar with one hand "by percussion", that is, fretting the guitar string forcefully enough to produce the bass note.
His professional career as a vocalist and guitarist began in 1967 and he continued to perform in supper clubs, dance halls and other venues until 1984. He did 150-225 performances a year in Iowa, eastern Nebraska, southern Minnesota, and eastern South Dakota. Most of those performances were done as a solo act, with the exception of three outstanding years when his brother, Dean Johnson, played with him. Many of the venues he played had a dance floor such as Cobblestone Ballroom in Storm Lake or Lakewood Ballroom in Lake View, both great Iowa ballrooms.
Several factors allowed him to be accepted as a "dance band". First, his guitar style was very rhythmic. Secondly, he used an electronic "drum machine", and designed a foot-controlled console that allowed him to control the tempo and volume of the rhythm. And third, he favored songs with a strong backbeat, such as the classic songs of Chuck Berry.
As time passed, he had more opportunities to do concerts rather than dances and clubs. His repertoire then expanded to include more ballads, folk, and country style songs. For this type of material the open tuning guitar was too limited, so he taught himself to play guitar in standard tuning. He then used a double neck guitar which allowed him to switch between open and standard tunings. Some of the highlights of those years: Cedarwood Publishing in Nashville, Tennessee published twelve of his original songs in 1972.
During the late '70s he received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council to spend the summer performing in various facilities that do not normally experience live music. He did concerts at Handicapped Village in Sheldon, Florence Crittenden Home in Sioux City, Hope Haven in Rock Valley, Iowa Home for Boys in Le Mars, New Hope Village in Carroll, Tommy Dale Home in Sioux City, Faith Hope and Charity Home in Storm Lake, and the Senior Center in Sioux City. When the project ended, he was invited to do a concert in the Capitol Building for then-governor Robert Ray.
When he was in high school, he went to dances at Lakewood Ballroom in Lakeview, only a few miles from his home in Odebolt. Years later he became a regular performer there. The ballroom, which dated back to the 1920's, was destroyed by fire in 1975. He was one of many people who were saddened by the loss of this landmark. This led him to write and record a song, "The Last Dance at Lakewood", which was sold as a single throughout the area.
In 1980 he was a member of the Board of Directors of the Iowa Committee on Arts for the Handicapped. He was also selected by the Iowa Arts Council to do concerts as part of their "Solo Artist" and "Artists in the Schools" programs. In 1980 he received two grants to do concerts in Iowa schools. He did 10 concerts in the Waterloo area high schools, and later 10 more concerts in Bettendorf area high schools.
In 1982 the Iowa Easter Seals Society selected him to receive the "Personal Achievement Award" for demonstrating "extraordinary achievement in adjusting to a severe physical disability".
He recorded five singles and two albums that were sold "over the bandstand".
In the early '80s, he began doing concerts in churches. He received such a strong response to these programs that in 1984 he decided to attend seminary at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. During his years in seminary, he did concerts and programs in churches throughout western Missouri and eastern Kansas. He also produced an album of original material entitled "Songs of a Seeker". Following graduation from seminary in 1987, he worked for three years as a chaplain at Baptist Medical Center in Kansas City. In 1990 he took a position as an addiction counselor at Baptist Medical Center where he worked until 2004. He continues to do occasional performances in the Kansas City area and special events in Iowa.