"I joined San Francisco’s Local 6 in 1963 with a note from my mom," says guitar god Johnny Vernazza. Born in San Francisco and raised in Daly City, California, his bands Fox and Day Blindness both included Bostonian and future guitarist Gary Pihl.
In the 1970s, he toured with a gospel band and recorded with blues players like Commander Cody, Luther Tucker, Sunnyland Slim, Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Steve Miller, Charlie Daniels, and George Thorogood. Vernazza also spent years with blues-harp player Norton Buffalo and his band the Knockouts, with whom Vernazza still occasionally tours.
He played with the Elvin Bishop band for six albums, being heard on tunes like the 1976 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (which rose to #3 on the charts) and “Struttin’ My Stuff.” At his 1970s-era peak, Vernazza played 290 dates a year while appearing on music television shows of the day.
He can be seen in sideman mode in DVD reissues of NBC’s Midnight Special, where he performed a record ten times with the Elvin Bishop Band. As can be seen in the reissues, he was also once pressed into service on air by Van Morrison, who arrived for a taping without a band.
Though he tours the U.S. with his own group, Johnny V, Vernazza has always preferred the role of sideman. It wasn’t until he relocated to the San Diego area in 2001 that he put together a group and began to promote himself as a solo artist.
He had played San Diego several times, with Bishop and as a bandmate of harmonica player Norton Buffalo, but it wasn’t music that caused Vernazza to uproot. “The Bay Area was getting too crowded,” he said. “I was born and raised there, but it was getting to be a nightmare to get around. My wife and I came down here for a vacation and thought, this is a lot nicer than it is up north.” In San Diego, he joined Dale Conover in a band called Bonehead.
He earned a gold record (500,000 sold) for his signature guitar part on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and the song can be heard in numerous movies (Boogie Nights, Big Daddy) and TV shows (Entourage, Brotherhood), but it’s the tune’s noncommercial uses that make Vernazza happiest.
“It’s strange where that song pops up,” he laughed. “You run into people who got married to the song. I’ve heard Muzak versions in elevators and the real thing while grocery shopping. I love those surreal moments.”
Vernazza’s solo album Jungle Out There was recorded in 2009 at Studio West in Rancho Bernardo. In his down time, he can often be found playing sideman to local blues cat Len Rainey.
In May 2011, Vernazza played the Zydeco-and-blues fest Gator by the Bay, which included reunion sets with former bandmates Elvin Bishop and Norton Buffalo. It was only the second such reunion with Bishop since Vernazza left the Elvin Bishop Band in 1978.
In 2012, he picked up an endorsement deal with Dean Markley Strings. “I was with them back in the '70s,” he says, “when I was with Elvin and they were a young company.”
Around the same time, he recorded a new full-length, Lions and Thieves, released on local Blindspot Records in summer 2013. “The title comes from a line in the opera Salome, where the jealous stepfather tells Salome that he saw one of her male interest 'resting in the shade with the lions and thieves.'”
The album features originals, tunes written by friends, blues standards, and a cover of “Black Coffee” by Humble Pie. Contributors and players include Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Charlie Daniels, Albert Lee, and famed L.A. Wrecking Crew producer Don Peake.
“I engaged the service of my good friend Don Peake as my producer,” says Vernazza. “Don started his career playing guitar with the Everly Brothers in 1961 and was later hired by Ray Charles in 1964, a gig that lasted well into the '90s. In the '60s...Don later composed the music for the Knight Rider TV series.”
Also twisting knobs: Route 44 Studio owner Harry Gale (Lloyd Jones, George Thorogood & the Destroyers). “I've worked with Harry on many projects,” says Vernazza. “He's brilliant, innovative, [and] always brings great ideas to the mix. He has no fear of pushing the boundaries to achieve something new. Harry contributes so much to everything he's involved with.”
In 2011 and then again in September 2013, Vernazza performed at the Iwakuni Summer Music festival held at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan. He considers the blues to be popular in Japan, but only to a point. “They love all genres’ of music,” Vernazza says. “ In fact, these gigs remind me of the way festivals were in the late 1960s and 1970s when we would do shows with E.L.O. or Rod Stewart. They were just concerts and not blues or genre specific. It was just music lovers loving music.”
His May 10, 2014 appearance at Gator By the Bay included guest players Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag), Nick Gravenites (Big Brother & the Holding Company), Mark Hummel (Blues Survivors), and Deanna Bogart (Root Boy Slim).
Vernazza reunited onstage with Elvin Bishop at the 2018 Kaaboo Del Mar music fest, performing their hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." The following summer, he played the Stomp & Twang Festival in Cornwall, UK, running May 31 through June 2 and headlined by Yola, Lucas & King, and Emily Barker.