Downtowner releases new album
1950s British chart-topper and Broadway composer sings blues, jazz
By Mike Easterling
Johnny Brandon sits in his apartment on the corner of Third Avenue and 17th Street, a place he has called home for nearly fifty years. One of the first tenants in the building, he moved there because of an impending rent raise in his previous Greenwich Village apartment. He would have had to pay $170 a month, a price he couldnt imagine.
The name Johnny Brandon, now 80, may not sound familiar to New York Citys average music listener, but in fact he was a chart topping musical artist in his native London in the fifties as well as a critically praised Off-Broadway composer.
Brandon recently released his first full-length solo album Then and Now. It is an album that celebrates both the popular British singer of the fifties as well as the still vibrant Johnny Brandon of today. The album does so by featuring both re-mastered classic and current Brandon songs recorded on the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival to the United States.
Now and Then came to be when Brandon was approached with the idea of making a retrospective of his early music career by Sepia Records, a British label. Brandon, however, wanted to show that he is still active today and developed the idea of recording the new tracks for the album. As Brandon himself said, Once a performer, always a performer.
From a very young age Brandon was determined to get into showbiz. He started as a tap dancer doing corny little dance routines. Brandon moved into more advanced dancing under the guidance of his mentor Buddy Bradley. With Bradleys help and advice he was soon starring in many British theater productions. On the opening night of Strike a New Note Brandon received his military calling up papers.
After his tour of duty, which included partaking in the invasion of Normandy, Brandon was transferred to the entertainment division leading to a position as a DJ for the British Forces Network. Upon his return to England, Brandon used his bit of fame from the BFN and his new military contacts and friends to lead to roles in shows and various positions as a writer. In no time Brandon was a full-fledged songwriter. By chance he was urged to record a demo for one of the songs he wrote and soon he was getting notability and radio play as a performer. His songs were unique and marketable not only for the lyrics but for his blues and jazz influenced voice and delivery as well.
Still a young man, Brandon became a hit, especially amongst teenage girls. After a show one night, one of his young fans said Johnny, you dont sing - you zing, and so his nickname The King of Zing was born.
By the mid-1950s Brandon was wildly successful in Britain, but he possessed a strong desire to move to the United States. He was strongly influenced by American music and American culture. Brandon and his life-long partner Robert Richardson packed up and moved to the United States risking the fame he had worked so hard to earn in England.
Brandon soon realized that his fame did not easily transfer across the Atlantic. He was often mis-billed in the U.S. as The Elvis of the UK, a title that he found not only incorrect, but also cringe-inducing. With performing being difficult, Brandon turned his attention back to song writing and production.
Much in the same way Brandon seemed to stumble into performing by suggestion, he soon found himself writing musical lyrics and scores. He was pitched the idea of making an updated musical version of Cinderella. This idea at first seemed odd, but in no time Brandon found himself inspired and so his first musical, Cindy, was created. Cindy is a fun, lighthearted take on the classic Cinderella story which opened at the Gate Theater (starring Thelma Oliver and Sylvia Mann) and proved very successful running Off-Broadway for two years. There is currently discussion of staging a new production of Cindy, featuring a few newly penned Brandon songs, in the future.
Brandon continued to write musicals and in 1970 wrote the musical of which he is most proud, Billy Noname. It is the story of a successful black man who was born of a street rape and looks back at his life and the influence of the black empowerment movements on his life. The musical opened at the Truck and Warehouse Theater (starring Donny Burks and Alan Weeks) and proved to be ahead of its time. Brandon would love to see a revival or a movie made of Billy Noname, as he believes todays audience would better appreciate its themes and messages.
Consistent through all of Brandons work is his underlying message of equality and love. Openly gay, Brandon is strongly dedicated to encouraging openness about and acceptance of all people regardless of religion, race, sex and sexual orientation.
Brandon has remained active in showbiz over the years through continued song and musical writing, producing and occasionally performing. He also volunteers at the Dewitt Rehabilitation and Nursing Center on the Upper East Side hosting sing-a-longs and other activities. Brandon publishes a semi-annual magazine called the Dewitt Bugle, which covers events at and of interest to Dewitt residents.
To Brandon, New York City, and Greenwich Village in particular, has been a life-long passion. Brandon has spent his entire fifty-plus years in the U.S in the Village area. As Brandon states in his newly recorded song Funky People, Diversity is the name of the game so be true to yourself
in New York you can be yourself
and New York is where Im gonna stay.