Rockin’ with the oldies

Lee Bickford, back left, Steve Johnson, Barry Duncan, Terry Cooper, front left, and Rick Church are the Rusty Rockers.

“Many people in today’s world yearn for simpler times,” claims Steve Johnson, lead singer for the Rusty Rockers, a band scheduled to play at concerts in Angels Camp, Tuolumne, Mokelumne Hill and Plymouth this summer. “Music from the past tends to remind them of those simpler times.”

The Rusty Rockers’ repertoire, consisting of oldies but goodies and classic country, gibes with his contention.

In 2011, Johnson met Terry Cooper, the Rockers’ lead guitarist, and they realized they had similar ambitions about creating a band that produced wholesome, family-friendly music. The two enlisted other musicians – Lee Bickford, Rich Church and Barry Duncan – and the Rusty Rockers were born.

According to Johnson, the name for the band popped up during a brainstorming session and seemed apropos. The guys range in ages from 60 to 72, “but none of us can actually remember,” he wisecracked. “By the way, we always carry a can of WD-40 with us, just in case.”

The affable Johnson is actually a relative newcomer to the music scene. He didn’t play a note until after he retired from the Stockton Police Department and moved to the foothills.

“I didn’t discover my inner voice until just a few years ago,” he said. “At the encouragement of my wife, Cathy, and my music teacher, Ted Marr, I transitioned from early piano to vocalist. My journey took me to a recording studio, where I was mentored and sent to a private vocalist.” These days Johnson puts the band and his business, Singing Steve Johnson, at the center of his life.

“Be careful what you ask for,” he admits. “Our weekends are no longer ours, but we love it.”

Each of the guys has a clear appreciation for music, though their trajectories differ from Johnson’s. Lead guitarist Cooper, for instance, has been involved with music since he was child. He writes in his bio on the band’s website, therustyrockers.com: “I started playing trumpet at 8 years old, eventually advancing to the high school band. At that time, my dad had a country Western band and needed a bass player, so I learned to play the bass fiddle (while standing on a wash tub at local dance halls). I had a real love for music, so my dad taught me a few chords on the guitar. I am basically self-taught. I always just figured out how to play.”

Bickford, the bass player, started piano lessons at 8 and played trumpet in his elementary school band. He took guitar lessons when he was 14, and then switched to bass guitar. From there, his instrumental stockpile grew as he picked up baritone, string bass, valve trombone, drums and even the sousaphone. He had his own rock and roll band at age 15, the Renditions, of Morro Bay, and continued to play with various groups over the years.

“Then I sold my equipment and took a 20-year hiatus,” Bickford declared, “until I came across Steve and Terry, who wanted to play my kind of music. And here I am.”

Stung by the music bug early on, Church, the Rockers’ drummer, admits, “I was singing Elvis and playing my air guitar from age 3. In my teen years, I was involved with multiple garage bands, eventually landing independent gigs with a variety of artists, including Stockton Country great, Melvin Hickey. Later, I became involved with Christian bands including Cornerstone, Men of Praise and Divine Call.”

Church is delighted to have landed with a group of musicians who share his passion for great country favorites and pop classics.

Johnson calls Duncan a “sax player extraordinaire.” Duncan has entertained audiences for 40 years. He started piano lessons at 10, and was playing sax by 12. After learning to read music, he began to compose it, too. He has performed in backup bands for American jazz singer Joe Williams and saxophonist Tom Scott. Duncan loves to improvise and currently has his own 10-piece, horn-driven dance band called Blow Daddy (which also appears in summertime shows).

“We love outdoor performances because we can really cut loose,” Johnson exclaimed.

The Rusty Rockers usually open with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which is, no doubt, doubly enjoyable outdoors in the heat of the summer. The group’s oldies repertoire and signature dress of suits and ties delivers a crisp, clear statement about the wholesomeness of the group.

“What you see is what you get,” Johnson said.

And since the Rusty Rockers are booked across three counties for months in advance, what they deliver is what folks want.

Ever the card, Johnson concluded our interview with: “One of my favorite sayings in law enforcement was, ‘Book ’em.’Now it’s ‘Book me!’”

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