Johnny Lee Middleton interview
September 24, 1997
by Steph Perry
Johnny Lee Middleton of Savatage took a break from his busy schedule to chat with Rock Notes. Johnny has been the bass player for Savatage since 1985 and the band’s fourth album, Fight For The Rock. He’s getting ready for an upcoming European tour while handling the band’s business affairs and fan club.
Johnny had just heard that the newest Savatage release, The Wake Of Magellan, was #11 in its debut week on the charts in Germany. He explained that the US release has been postponed until after the holidays, to the chagrin of US fans, because they won’t be able to tour the US until March or April of 1998. Some US fans have already picked up an import version of The Wake because they can’t wait for the CD to come out in 1998. In the meantime, Savatage is playing three warm-up shows in the Northeast and then heading straight for Europe. They’ll spend six weeks there playing in ten different countries and then back to America for the holidays.
Johnny is pretty pumped about the upcoming warm-up gigs and mentioned in particular how much he enjoys playing at Tuxedo Junction in Danbury. The show is October 16 with Soundscape opening. The other two shows take place in New Jersey and Virginia. He’s happy to report that fans are flying in from as far away as California to see Savatage before they go overseas.
He enjoys playing to audiences in Europe and doesn’t mind that they have to go so far away to get their job done, “It’s a business. If you have to fly eight hours to make a living that’s what you do.” He’s hopeful that their huge following in Europe will get them to the next level here in the states.
The new CD is more guitar-oriented and in your face than the last few albums, according to Johnny. He said that the theme calls for it. The Wake Of Magellan is a mixture of fact and fiction and is the brainchild of Paul O’Neill, Savatage’s long time producer. Johnny said that the band had enough material written and recorded for like 40-50 songs and when Paul came up with the concept they fit the existing songs around it. Although the album is concept in nature the songs still stand alone as rockers. “It’s like having the book and seeing the movie,” explained Johnny.
He spoke fondly of Paul O’Neill, “Paul came along and saved us. After Fight For The Rock (1986) we had the shittiest management and production that you could ever have and we were all young and dumb. Paul saw this thing in us that no one had ever seen. He basically came in and took us under his wing. He’s kind of molded us and been like our dad in a lot of senses. He’s always had this belief in the band…he’s been the major inspiration and is very much a member of the band.”
He mentioned that the band’s alter ego, Trans Siberian Orchestra, is working on a new release. You may remember the tune Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) that was all over the airwaves last holiday season. This is really a Savatage song that was on the highly acclaimed Dead Winter Dead CD (released in 1995). The first TSO album, Christmas Eve And Other Stories, will be re-issued this holiday season and Johnny says its about to hit gold on the US charts.
Johnny grew up in Florida and saw his first rock concert at age 14. It was Blue Oyster Cult and Be Bop Deluxe. He said the bass player from Be Bop Deluxe was so cool that that was when he knew he had to play bass. Johnny played trumpet in the band in elementary and middle school and learned the bass by playing REO Speedwagon and Black Sabbath. He made a living playing bass in a band after high school and turned down Savatage when he was first asked to join. He said they approached him before their first album, Sirens, which was released in 1984. He said no because he couldn’t afford to give up his paying gig. A few years later he agreed to join and has been with the band for eight of its 11 studio albums.
Johnny still listens to old rock and roll like UFO, Queen, and The Beatles and lives in Tampa with his wife and cats. We’re looking forward to catching the show in Danbury and hope to see you there. Be sure to visit the official Savatage.com web-page for band bios, album discography, and lots of fan input.