Master of Illusion
Cult hero and Rockabilly Hall of Famer Johnny Legend on the art of winging it
What does it take to be a legend? If you ask Johnny Legend himself, he’ll tell you all you have to do is act the part.
You can call it bluffing, fast-talking or outlandish salesmanship. You could even call it bullshitting. Call it what you will, the fact remains that this wiry, white-bearded Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee has had success in everything from music to pro wrestling, movie producing to acting, Disney voiceovers to porn.
Every one of them, he says, he went into with little or no experience. If Legend believes he can do something or has an idea he thinks will work, he’ll go at it with six-guns blazing.
His tastes are a little campy, definitely not mainstream, which has worked to keep his renown at “cult” level. Slicker than a politician and as crafty as a shaman, Legend is a master of illusion.
“Yeah, I go from Disney to Deep Throat without missing a breath,” says the Hollywood underground icon. “I guess I’m just an equal-opportunity asshole!” He laughs heartily. “What I really do is, I don’t discriminate, not even in small ways, and somehow my various travels just take me all around the map.”
Born in the 1950s (he won’t say exactly when) in the San Fernando Valley, Legend first achieved success with a band in ‘71 called the Wildcat Shakers, whose first-ever high school gymnasium gig, at lunchtime, resulted in a riot. Along with the group’s other members, Ray Campi (bass), Jimmie Lee Maslon (drums) and Billy Zoom (lead guitar), Legend and his band eventually were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame under what became their moniker five years after they started, the Rolling Rock Rebels.
Billed as the first true American rockabilly band since those of the ‘50s (acts such as the Johnny Burnett Trio and Jerry Lee Lewis), the band more than earned its 1997 induction by touring and living the lifestyle of the music.
The group would again change its name to Rockabilly Rebels (also inducted) and release several rockabilly, rhythm and blues, hillbilly rock and swing-bop-styled albums under both names in Europe on the small but famed U.S. label, Rollin’ Rock Records. From the start Legend “faked it” as a way to get by.
“There was at least six of us that started out,” said Legend. “It was really just a jam session with, basically, all of the hardcore rock-'n'-roll enthusiasts in the LA area. Y’know, not even the smaller sub-genre of rockabilly, but basic rock ‘n ‘roll like Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Well, there were five singers in the band, so it became appropriate for me to play guitar. But I didn’t really know how. Let’s just say I haven’t played live since those days. But from that experience, it suddenly dawned on me to just assume that I had been in the business for years and proceed from there, like I’ve wound up doing with half the things I’ve accomplished in my life.”
Today, Legend still intermittently tours with a rotation of musicians (which has included local guitar celebrity Matt Hogan) in a band dubbed Johnny Legend and the Rockabilly Bastards. He recently released an album, Bitchin, on the Dionysius label and unveiled Web page www.smut-zine.com/ legend and site www.johnnylegend.com.
The guy admits he’s a hustler—a guy who claims to know what he’s doing even when he doesn’t. He somehow makes it work. Take his pro wrestling career, for example.
After several years of hanging out with the right people and a year and a half after he produced the late Andy Kaufman’s last movie in ‘79, My Breakfast With Blassie, Legend started the Rock-n-Roll Wrestling Show and Tour with Jerry Lawler, which combined for the first time live rock-'n'-roll music with strange wrestling events. Legend eventually will be recognized as a pioneer of this now commonplace pro wrestling presentation.
Thus was born the wrestling promoter. This led to more promoting, the eventual managing of wrestlers, then scripting drama and, finally, to wrestling women (taking a feather out of the entertainment cap of his close, now deceased, friend Kaufman). Legend has been the A.I.W.A. Women’s World Champion since he defeated Cheryl “Lightning” Russa in 1996.
Producing several wrestling movies and spoof docudramas led him to acting in, writing for and producing cheesy horror flicks and other B-grade movies (Pot, Parents and Police, Prison Ship, Bride of Re-Animator, Severed Ties, Children of The Corn III and Blattella, starring Randy Quaid and, from Star Trek TV fame, James Doohan and George Takei, among others). There also have been several low-budget, cult porn movies, and he worked with Quentin Tarantino in the re-release of the ‘76 cult-classic movie Switchblade Sisters in ‘96. Although he couldn’t elaborate at the time, Legend will be doing a voiceover for a “Merlin-like” character for an upcoming Disney movie.
“And I just did a movie called Rat Race with Whoopi Goldberg and a bunch of other idiots,” quips Legend. “But I still love doing the music. I’m able to incorporate many aspects of wrestling into my live performance. And I’m trying to bring back that old Bo Diddley tactic where he would have these thundering rhythms and these sleazy women on stage that didn’t seem to really have anything to do with the show. But there was this whole jungle vibe and people would get loose and crazy. I really try to push the limits at my shows, and people do go crazy.”
Running around various venues brandishing his hand-carved, wooden scepter, long beard flying over his shoulder because he’s moving so fast, Legend works his particular brand of magic to the delight of fans. He may even rub on a few women too if they get close to him.
All of this seems reason enough to catch Johnny Legend and The Rockabilly Bastards when they appear at Mr. Lucky on Saturday, March 31. Doors open at 9:00 PM. Show starts at 9:30. Tickets are $5. Yeehaw!