DarielB – Flying Under the Radar

Hey Johnny, Wanna Sit In?

Posted in Music Stories by darielb on March 26, 2009
Flash, Michael James, Griff, Michael Stallings and Johnny at Papa's Restaurant, The Breakers, Myrtle Beach.(Photo by Babs Ludwick)

Flash, Michael James, Griff, Michael Stallings and Johnny at Papa's Restaurant, The Breakers, Myrtle Beach.(Photo by Babs Ludwick)

Music lovers throughout the Carolinas are reeling from the loss of saxophone player Johnny Cox, who died in Charleston, S.C. last Saturday afternoon, March 20, 2009. Musically and personally Johnny threw a bright light from the upstate of South Carolina to the Grand Strand. Well-known for his time with the Swingin’ Medallions, he’s also played with the Out of Towners, Greg Moseley & the Carolina Players, Griff and just about every band that passes through. It was a year ago this week that I sat down with Johnny and blues guitarist Michael Stallings, at Deckerz Saloon in North Myrtle Beach.

What struck me then … and what I remember now … is his smiling face as he spoke about his career and his early days in music. “My daddy really kept me in line,” Johnny said. “At 13 I was wanting to teach these other guys how to play their instruments. Imagine, I was trying to tell the guitar player how to play ‘Rebel Rouser!’

“I learned some respect with the Swingin’ Medallions, too. One of the best lessons we ever learned, in fact . . . We were playing Augusta, Ga. with Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces. I must have been 22 or 23. This old station wagon with an old U-Haul trailer pulls up and this bunch of ‘old 60-ish guys’ get out and introduced themselves. It was Bobby Moore and his group. “We took one look at them and said to each other, ‘We’re going to smoke ’em.’
“Well, we didn’t smoke ’em. (One guy was playin’ a Birdland guitar.) They smoked us! We learned respect.”
The more I talk to people about Johnny, the more I realize that these early lessons stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Saxophone player and vocalist Tony Kennedy, formerly with the Rickey Godfrey Band and now playing with the Out of Towners and  Freshwater – knew Johnny through his family. “Johnny  was my wife’s second cousin.. He was just a great human being.  It’s a sad note to see him go.”

Susan and Donny Trexler have also been close friends, “It’s hard to accept that we won’t see Johnny come in the door of the club where we’re playing and start unpacking his sax.  What a joy when he joined us to blow that horn! We will both miss his smiling face and sweet sax.” says Susan, and Donny adds, “We’ve known Johnny since he was with the Medallions and he’s always been such a true, honest, and great friend.  Never pretentious, just down home good people.”
Singer songwriter Calabash Flash echoed that, “Johnny was such a humble guy. Babs and I met him ten or 12 years ago, and he never even mentioned that he had been in the Swingin’ Medallions. He was just a regular guy … never bragging… just happy to play.”

At The Pad in NMB, for Johnny's 60th (courtesy Randy Humble)

At The Pad in NMB, for Johnny's 60th (courtesy Randy Humble)

I’ve been talking and reminiscing with a lot of folks about Johnny, and every last one of them talks about Johnny’s positive attitude.
Rickey Godfrey was in his teens when he first met Johnny. “I remember Johnny Cox as always having a positive attitude, and a compulsive love for the music. Years ago, Johnny used to play with  Alan Pearson, a great drummer, who was later in my band, Garfeel Ruff, during the 1970s. Wherever Johnny went he always carried his saxophone with him, he loved sitting in and jamming with everybody. It was always a great time.”

Guitarist Randy Humble goes way back with Johnny. In fact, he and Johnny were both members of the Rhythm Brothers AND Griff’s Clyde Miller Blues Band (named for Griff’s two black labs, Clyde and Miller). “I love Johnny,” says Randy. “He’s down to earth, a good person and a super friend, a super person.”

Singer Pam Russell from Shaggie Maggie adds to the accolades, “The thing about Johnny is, he was always out there in the scene, lovin’ life, playin’ music. The first time I met him, we were playing in some little spot in High Point. Johnny showed up with his sax, ‘Hey, can I sit in?’ That was Johnny.”

Griff,  Pam  & Johnny at Bar Fly's (now Deckerz) in NMB.

Griff, Pam & Johnny at Bar Fly's (now Deckerz) in NMB.

When I talked to Michael Stallings he reminded me of the stories he and Johnny first told me at Deckerz. “I still remember the exact first night I met Johnny,” he said. “I was playing at the Bushes in Greensboro, maybe ‘92 or ‘93,  and of course Johnny wanted to sit in. Well I heard him play and didn’t want him to leave!  In fact I invited him to join up with us that same night. Eventually, we started working together some.” Next he told me a story about a three-day marathon recording session in Griff’s “little deathtrap  studio” that had me laughing out loud.
Hack Bartley has known Johnny Cox since the late 60s. “We joined the Medallions at almost the same time,” he says, “In fact, it’s just 42 years ago to the week that we met, I think. Johnny was a great musician, a great friend and a great team player. From the beginning, he was my musical mentor. I took all my sax playing cues from Johnny. I mean, I was 13 when I got my first horn. When Johnny was 13, he was already touring.

“Another thing about Johnny,” Hack continued, “is that he always made sure everyone got their turn in the spotlight. He’d step in to play, but he always knew when to step back, too. Very generous. If you ask me to say something about Johnny Cox, it’s that he was always positive … it was always, ‘let’s get out on stage and have some fun!’” Hack laughed at this point in the conversation, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “This is a sad time,” he commented, “It’s a sad time for music lovers.”

Founder of the Medallions John McElrath feels much the same. “Johnny was one of my favorite people in the whole world, and as a musician, he was a perfectionist … always practicing … always playing.”
Johnny Cox affected everyone he met. From Internet deejay Bill Swanke, better known as Willie C, comes, “Johnnie was a friend to all, and everyone loved him.He loved the music and loved playing his sax with anyone and everyone for the love and fun of playing the music. He will be truly missed by all. The great band in Heaven now has another player.”
Sea-Cruz keyboard player Dino Fair added, “Beach music has lost one of its true icons. Not only was he a great musician, he was a good friend and one of the last good guys.” Fellow saxophonist Butch Barnes calls him “one of the most giving musicians in the business.”

Gotta love the dogs! (courtesy Randy Humble)

Gotta love the dogs! (courtesy Randy Humble)

Two of his best buddies are blues musician Griff and 94.9 The Surf deejay Billy Smith. Both wanted to talk about him, but clearly were having a tough time. “Johnny and I could sort of read each other’s mind,” Griff said. “You know, he could improvise as well as anyone I’ve ever known. He was a great musician and a great friend. … We were just on the same page.”

“I just loved to be around him,” Billy Smith told me, “And I can’t believe I’m not going to see him again.  Johnny I would get together for a cocktail (we called it a cup of coffee) and sit and reminisce every day. We’d talk about movies, about music, about everything… He was so talented … so good … God bless him, at the Christmas Eve show, right around the time he was diagnosed [with cancer] and I pushed him to play ‘Silent Night’ and it was hard for him. That was a sad moment, sad for me to remember.” He adds, simply, “I loved him.”

It might be Susan Trexler, who summed up Johnny Cox the best. “He was happy. Johnny was a happy guy who lived every day as if it were his last.”

I hadn’t intended to call Linda Cox, Johnny’s wife of 15 years. I didn’t want to intrude, but when she heard I was writing this piece, she wanted to say a few words.“Please thank people for me … for all their worrying. Everyone misses Johnny, I know.

“It’s hard, but I’ll be all right. I’ve got my little business to run and I’ve got lots of friends to help take care of me.
Linda went on to tell me, “I met Johnny 20 years ago at Big E’s in High Point. We’ve been there for each other… supporting each other. He was my best friend … and the love of my life. I know how sad everyone is.”

Johnny collecting dollars for Camp Kemo. (Photo by Babs Ludwick)

Johnny collecting dollars for Camp Kemo. (Photo by Babs Ludwick)

A  memorial service is tentatively set for11:30 a.m. on April 5 at the Pavilion in North Myrtle Beach with Rev. Beaver. A celebration of Johnny’s life will follow immediately next door at the O.D. Beach Club located inside the O.D. Resort. Sure hope they’ll be jammin’, ’cause I know Johnny will show up to sit in.

If you have  a Johnny Cox story you’d like to add, feel free to leave a comment. If it’s too long for a comment, email it to darielb1@gmail.com and I’ll either add it to this or another post. Thanks for stoppin’ by!


(courtesy Randy Humble)


5 Responses

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  1. Lee Wise said, on March 27, 2009 at 3:02 am

    What a great article and what great friends my daddy has. My daddy was a wonderful, good, down to earth person and a very, very loving father. Daddy was that bright spot in my life that I always knew was out there, soewhere, playing his music, loving his sax!..but loving his friends and family as well. Music was his life, but friends and family meant everything to him. As my Granny, Daddy’s mother, says, “He didn’t choose music. Music chose him.” I love him dearly and almost cannot bear how much I miss him. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute.

  2. Jill Cox Parris said, on March 27, 2009 at 4:19 am

    What a wonderful article written in the true spirit of love. It reveals a genuine appreciation for Johnny and his many gifts shared with those in the world around him! As Johnny’s baby sister, I’ve ALWAYS known he was special. But, it touches my heart to see that so many others loved and appreciated him, too! He was truly a gifted musician…. a “real player,” whose lifelong passion was music. But he was also a warm, caring, and protective big brother to my sister and me, as well as a loving and compassionate son to his parents. I love him dearly, and miss him more and more with each passing day. I’m finding comfort in knowing that he’s reunited with our Daddy, and is making sweet music in Heaven’s angel band. I can see him now… jammin’ with Ray Charles and other musical greats who inspired him to start playing music in the first place when he was just a young boy!

  3. Debbie Cox Sloan said, on March 27, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you so much for this beautiful article showcasing Johnny’s talent and the love he had surrounding him and the respect he had as a musician and person. I have such fond memories of him being in his room, with the door closed, jamming with songs on his record player. Songs by James Brown, Ray Charles, and especially King Curtis, never sounded as good to me without my big brother playing along! As talented as he was as a musician, the most special things to me about him were not his musical talent, but were his grin, his sweet heart, and all my childhood memories with my big brother. His passing has left an ache in my heart but I know he is “talking baseball” now with my Daddy.

  4. darielb said, on March 27, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I received this on my personal email and thought I would add it here:


    DR. DC

  5. darielb said, on March 30, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    The family has asked that
    memorial contributions in
    memory of Johnny Cox be made to:

    American Cancer Society
    154 Milestone Way
    Greenville, S.C. 29615

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