Johnny Powers liked to say, “They called me a Northern Yankee with a Southern heart.”
Powers, the singer and guitarist who emerged in the mid-1950s as one of the early pioneers of rock and roll in Detroit, died Monday at his home in northern Michigan after a series of health problems. He was 84 years old.
Best known for his work with such iconic labels as Detroit’s Fortune Records and Memphis’ Sun Records, Powers retained a passionate international cult following his later years. Best known for songs like “Long Blond Hair” and “Honey Let’s Go (To a Rock and Roll Show)”, he continued to espouse a style and sound that harken back to the Metro Detroit era of sailing, recording hops and driving. hamburger joints.
Powers went on to work for Motown Records in the 1960s before starting his own business with a pair of Detroit studio and song publishing interests.
Along with his Detroit peers like Jack Scott and Don Rader, Powers was among the group of musicians who made the transition from country music to rock and roll in the 1950s, helping pave the way for the rise of Southeast Michigan as a rock center.
Born in 1938 on Detroit’s East Side, John Pavlik grew up in a family of Polish ancestry in Utica and bought his first guitar for $2.50 when he was fifteen. Jimmy Williams and the Country Local Drifters band in Macomb County locations such as Bell’s Barn and Colonial Hall.
Powers was still in his teens when he became infatuated with Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and Honey Don’t, catching the rock and roll bug.
“It was fresh. It just felt good,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2003. “I was in a band playing these country songs, and they square dance. And all of a sudden, this is rock and roll—whoa! The level of energy it gives you, the adrenaline.” It was unbelievable.”
In 1957, Jack Scott’s first national release, “Baby, She’s Gone,” showed Powers the way the wind was blowing in Detroit and beyond.
“I loved that record,” Powers said. “I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to make me a record.'” “”
Still carrying the Pavlik surname at the time, he went to Detroit Fortune Records and paid for a recording session. There, he said, studio operator Devorah Brown gave him the name “Johnny Powers” after spotting him munching on a PowerHouse candy bar.
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“People say, ‘Johnny, you look so much like Elvis, such impersonators. But I’m not. “I hate to hear that,” Powers said. “I just had that kind of voice. And that probably got me with Sun Records.”
Powers’ brief stint with the Sun in 1959 produced hit singles such as “With Your Love, With a Kiss”.
“The most exciting thing was being there for the birth of rock and roll — experiencing the crowds, the bouncers stopping people, taking your clothes off,” he told the Free Press.
Powers is often categorized as a rockabilly artist, but he falls short of the label.
“They call it now,” he said, “but it was rock and roll.” “The term ‘rockabilly’ today is when country music finally gave in and artists started bouncing their music a little more. But our music used to be called rock and roll.”
At Motown, Powers rubbed shoulders with the company’s roster of young talent and said he drove Stevie Wonder home from the studio as the Detroit riots of 1967 broke out.
Powers said he has always been proud of his connection to Detroit’s rich musical heritage, claiming it to be a lifelong badge of honor.
“We had the best creativity here for one big reason: the people who immigrated here,” he said in 2003. “We had the best jazz musicians, the best R&B musicians, some of the best country musicians. With that mix, you can’t get that anywhere.” In America or the World. He had an R&B touch. That feeling of a musician and his instrument, you just can’t put it down on paper.”
As the decades went by, Powers continued to record while performing regularly in Michigan and abroad. He was hoping to hold a European gig this spring, but his last performance turned out to be a concert in Las Vegas in 2018.
Powers is survived by his daughter, Yvonne Peltier. Three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A private funeral will be held on Sunday in Utica.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.