“Mr. Versatility” Gilbert Johnson
By Ed Arguellas
Santa Paula News
Published: September 20, 2013
This is the first in a series of articles that will feature stories of random Santa Paula musicians to be showcased in a California Oil Museum Exhibit opening in mid-April 2014. “Melody Hall: A Tribute to the Musicians of Santa Paula” is dedicated to the scores of talented artists that were raised or currently reside in the Santa Paula community. A collaborative project between Santa Paula High School’s Agricultural Science and Human Services academies, the Santa Paula Historical Society and the California Oil Museum the exhibition will construct personal histories of gifted performers who have left their mark on the memories of Ventura County residents.
By Ed Arguellas
When asked to describe the impact music has played in his life Gilbert Johnson gave the question serious contemplation. After a long pause, he remarked, “Music is very jealous. Left unattended or alone for too long, it is very difficult to get back!” Prophetic words from a man whose musical career has taken him across the United States spanning seven decades, and who has mastered the ability to skillfully play more than ten musical instruments.
As an inquisitive neighbor to the only Santa Paula Puerto Rican family in the early 1950s, young Gilbert was pulled into a family gathering by Pedro Mendez whose musical family was known for their three-day parties. “The Mendez family always had celebrations with live music, so one day they put maracas in my hand and from that day forward I was hooked!” “Miguel, Serafin and Pedro Mendez were the first great singers that taught me to appreciate first -second -third part harmony.”
It didn’t take long for teenager Gilbert Johnson’s raw talent to be discovered by local keyboardist Jesse Nava who needed a bass guitarist to fill in with his band. “I really owe it to Jesse for pushing me to learn it.” Johnson said, “Electric bass in 1957 was a new thing, but they were too expensive for a poor Santa Paula boy like me, so after years of using someone else’s, I borrowed some money, drove down to Hollywood and bought me one.” Learning to play by ear, Gilbert Johnson’s single greatest goal in life was to one day be good enough to play side by side with his boyhood idol and fellow Santa Paula saxophonist Danny Flores who had risen to national fame for writing and performing his 1958 Grammy Award-winning hit song, “Tequila.”
In the 1950s, music in America was quickly transforming into something new. Influenced by Big Band Swing and Latin Jazz, mixed together with the influences of Doo-Wop and Country Western, the birth of Rock and Roll changed the direction of Gilbert Johnson’s musical career. Following a short stint with “The Squires,” an even bigger Jesse Nava Band, Gilbert Johnson, who describes himself as “a pure Latino,” decided it was time to go out on his own.
By 1961, Gilbert’s ever-increasing musical curiosity had moved him to switch from electric bass to guitar resulting in the creation of a new band “The Hi-Tones.” The band regularly featured six, seven and sometimes eight local musicians and became so popular throughout Ventura County that they found themselves invited in 1962 to perform “on one of the Los Angeles Mexican television stations” that Santa Paulans still recall watching on their black-and-white TV’s. “I really have to thank David Marquez, our drummer, and his father, Mateo, for not only getting us that gig, but they also kept me employed in their family’s bakery business during the day while I worked the local clubs in and around Santa Paula at night.
In 1967, Gilbert’s newest band, “The Turban’s”, had become the hit parade of Ventura County’s very active dance scene and entered the famed “Battle of the Bands” held inside Fillmore’s Memorial Building. “There were so many great bands in those days and all of them practiced hard to capture that competition, but because we played a wide variety of danceable music, including rock, country, boleros, and jazz, we were able to win over the crowd and pulled off the trophy!”
By the late 1960s and early 70s Gilbert’s reputation as a great rhythmic guitar and bass man was such that he was able to play regular stints with multiple bands at a moment’s notice, the most notable of these were the “Buddy Gibson Band” and “The Latin Affair” both out of Oxnard. But, in the years to come, his relentless pursuit to learn more pushed him into instruments beyond his beloved electric bass and guitar. Soon, tenor sax was added to his collection and from that came an understanding of baritone sax and flute. This would be followed by yet another bass clef instrument, the trombone, becoming his most physical challenged. His love of country western music pushed him into learning the steel guitar, an instrument that he says, “almost makes me want to cry every time I hear it!”
Living now in Albuquerque, New Mexico, surrounded by the sounds of “Tex-Mex” and “Norteño” music, Gilbert Johnson keeps busy these days writing and recording his own music that brings him joy. “Every instrument has its challenges, both mental and physical, but all one needs is practice and commitment. I learned from talented musicians of Santa Paula like the Mendez Family, Jesse and Henry Nava, Simon Hernandez, David Marquez, and Bobby Castaneda from El Rio that if you truly want to be a musician one needs to be disciplined. Before you consider a career in music, you got to find out if you are disciplined enough to continue to improve, but remember, never be flat, try to be sharp, and always be natural.”