The same name came up when Dad was telling stories: “Wait until ye hear what Johnny did” was the start of many a story – and sure, why wouldn’t it be? Johnny Anderson, the eldest of the clan, is Dad’s older brother by eight years. Always ahead of the crowd, he was a musician before the showbands, emigrated to Canada before the scene started, and moved off the grid before most of us knew about the grid.
We jumped on a call with Johnny as he lives in Canada. He has just turned 87 and is still one step ahead of everyone. It’s not hard to see why Dad idolised his big brother. Johnny shares his memories of Dad. As you would imagine, he has many stories.
The kid won’t make it.
Johnny tried to teach Dad the trombone when he was small. Johnny realised that ‘the kid’ wouldn’t make it. But he struggled to work out how to break it to him. In the end, he just blurted it out. Dad responded, “Great, I’ll get my guitar.” Hence Gerry disappeared up to the top room in Sackville Street in Derry and emerged six years later as a musician, just like Johnny.
There was music in the family, but never in a formal sense. Johnny remembers the sessions in Shandrum in Donegal, the cottage where his mother grew up. The family was full of fiddle players, singers, and storytellers. And that was nothing special in those days. The biggest worry was ensuring you didn’t sing someone else’s song.
Skipping the Guest List
Fast forward a few years later, and Gerry was playing in Dublin. In the famous TV Club, there was a special gig planned with all the music heads in Dublin. Johnny was on the road at this stage and stopped in Dublin for the night. Gerry told him, “The guest list is rammed, so it’ll be hard to get in, but come down and stand in the queue at seven o’clock.” He was hatching a plan to get his big brother in.
Johnny was standing in the queue, minding his business, when Gerry barged past the bouncers and started giving out to Johnny:
“What time do you call this?”
“You said seven!” replied Johnny, playing along.
“What are ye talking about? You don’t know the new songs; you missed rehearsal! I told you three o’clock!”
“I can pick them up; we have plenty of time.”
“Would ye shut up? You are this close to getting kicked out of the band – now come on, t’ blazes”.
The bickering continued as they both stormed past onlookers and the bouncers.
When they entered the door, Gerry turned to Johnny and said, “What are ya drinking?” There is always a way. You just need a little front.
When a door closes, a window opens.
In the early 1970s, Dad played in Toronto with Ronnie Hawkins – just a short distance from Johnny in Ontario. Not that he ever admitted this, but Dad found the cycle of playing, partying, rehearsing, and living at the club tiring. He confided in Johnny that he wasn’t getting any headspace, and Johnny said, “Hey, we have a band apartment in London, Ontario – you can stay there; we never use it.”
Of course, Dad lost the key and had taken to entering and exiting through the window. Imagine the shock one evening when Johnny and his band returned to the apartment for a few drinks, and Gerry appeared through the window in a white suit and holding a guitar.
The Toronto years are blurry, but Johnny remembers hanging around with all sorts of rock superstars in those days. He particularly remembers Gerry trying to talk Ronnie Hawkins out of going on drinking with Kris Kristofferson before a show!
Johnny and his secret to show business
Gerry’s Fender Bass Guitar, which he played for his whole music career, has seen sights. Johnny asked Gerry if he would ever get it painted red again, like when he bought it in the 60s. Gerry replied, “No, never – every scrape, dent, and notch out of that guitar reminds me of something – it’s too special to paint.” Gerry retired aged 40. Johnny played on for a little longer.
He’s recently retired, aged 85. He says, “When I retired, I didn’t have any bad critics,” then he stops and looks at me, “David, that’s the secret of show business – you have to outlive all your bad critics.”
Gerry loved to visit Johnny in Canada, and Johnny has been back many times. Sure, whenever the two of them had been larking around Toronto, and they met someone, Johnny would always introduce Gerry – “this is my wee brother,” which suited Gerry just fine.