When Johnny Reed was too young to get into nightclubs, he used to sit outside of Theo's Taverna and play harmonica along with the rollicking blues tunes that poured through the windows.
One night local blues ace Art Griswold heard the kid playing and, out of curiosity, wandered outside of the now-shuttered downtown club and, without missing a note on guitar, handed Reed a microphone.
“I just started playing along with him,” Reed recalled.
Welcome to the Toledo blues scene, kid.
“From there, I used to go to all of Art and Roman [Griswold]'s shows and play along when I had the chance. One time Art asked me, `You want to play a gig with us?'”
It was like tossing a rope to a drowning man. Reed latched onto the opportunity and within weeks was invited to become a member of the renowned Griswolds' band.
Today, a dozen years later, Reed is 32 and has earned a prominent spot in the local blues community.
His band, Johnny Reed and the Houserockers, just won the Black Swamp Blues Society's talent contest for the second straight year and will be traveling to Memphis in January to represent Toledo in the national competition.
A native of Toledo and a graduate of Whitmer High School, Reed said he grew up in a musical household.
“My mom was a huge Motown and R&B fan and my dad played organ in a church in Norwalk,” he said in a recent interview. “My dad's knowledge of music is extraordinary. He is so versatile - he can play anything from Beethoven to Cat Stevens. That's one thing I always admired about him and still carry on to this day - his respect for all music.”
Like a lot of American youths, Reed was introduced to traditional American blues indirectly, through the amped-up sounds of such British rockers as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“They redid so many old blues songs,” he recalled.
Reed didn't even start playing harmonica until he was 19 years old, working as a housekeeper at St. Vincent Hospital on Cherry Street.
“A buddy of mine used to play harmonica while we were cleaning the stairwells,” he said. “We were always competitive about everything, so I started playing harp too.”
Reed, who looks a bit like actor Sean Penn with his square jaw and sleepy eyes, said his musical influences include Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, and Paul Butterfield.
He flourished with the Griswolds, with whom he played for more than two years. It was like going to the world's best blues university.
Reed learned all about the music, and also took notes on how to present himself onstage and how to entertain an audience.
“Without Art, I would be nothing,” Reed said. “He's sort of my musical father. In my eyes, he's the best there is. He taught me the way to dress, the way to smile, the way to work a crowd. I learned a lot of stuff.”
“He's a great musician,” Griswold said in response. “Oh yeah, I remember when he couldn't get inside Theo's. So I went outside and got him going. I knew he had great potential. I'm proud of him.”
Griswold said he had to give Reed a little nudge to get him to start singing.
“I said, `You can sing!' He said he just wanted to blow. But he's a real good singer.”
In 1993, when the Griswolds began making some personnel changes, Reed felt the urge to move on.
“I was like the bird that needed to fly off,” he said. “That was sort of the understanding between Art and me.”
He soon joined the Toledo Rhythm Project at the invitation of its founder, Tom Turner, but eventually decided to start his own blues group.
The Houserockers, who have been together about seven years, have played blues festivals throughout the Midwest and have shared the stage with such famous blues acts as James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin.
Today's lineup consists of accomplished musicians who are all standout soloists in their own right - guitarist Jeff Williams, saxophonist Harry Drew, drummer Rolly Rayman, and bassist Bill Cherry.
“One of the hardest things in music is keeping a band together,” Reed said. “I'm so fortunate with the Houserockers. I pretty much owe most of my credit to this band and the chemistry we have together. The way we work off each other, the energy we have, it's just great.”
Reed also credits his wife, Rita, a concert pianist, for supporting his musical career. The couple have an 8-month-old son, Jackson.
In 1999, Johnny Reed and the Houserockers released their first CD, “That's the Blues,” and the band is putting the finishing touches on its second disc, which Reed hopes will be ready for release early next year.
Most of the songs the band has recorded are originals, with a few classic covers thrown in, such as Van Morrison's “Street Theory.”
Reed is always putting his song ideas down on tape and tinkering with his lyrics.
“I have a mini-studio in my basement. I play a little keyboards myself,” he said. “I'll write melodies and chords and store them. I have so many melodies and songs written, but the lyrics don't always fit. Sometimes I'll pull out my lyrics and try to fit them with the songs, changing the tempo or the arrangement.”
The Houserockers will be more mentally prepared for the national blues competition in Memphis this time because of the experience they gained in last year's event, where they lost in the semifinals.
“It was a wonderful experience and we're fortunate to be going there again, knowing what we know. We learned a lot,” Reed said.
In the meantime, the five-man band has a full schedule in the Toledo area, including an appearance at 7 tonight at the Hard Hat Cafe on North Detroit Avenue; Sodbuster Bar & Grill in Sylvania on Friday, and Trotter's Tavern on Heatherdowns Boulevard on Saturday.