When Johnny Paris passed away last week at the age of 65, Toledo lost its first rock star.
Born Johnny Pocisk, the saxophone player was leader of Johnny and the Hurricanes, an instrumental group that specialized in turning hoary old standards into hard rocking workouts in the late 1950s.
"Red River Valley" was transformed into "Red River Rock." Their song "Beatnik Fly" was a variation on "De Blue-Tail Fly" (also known as "Jimmy Crack Corn"). And "Reveille Rock" reworked "Reveille."
Pocisk was about 30 years ahead of his time, pioneering the use of the Hammond organ along with driving sax and guitar lines, according to Todd Mesek, senior director of marketing and communications at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
"You could say that he was in the spirit of what people like Moby are doing today: bringing different sounds and different traditions together," Mesek said. "Johnny and the Hurricanes mixed rock and roll with traditional melodies and that was unique."
"Red River Rock" sold more than a million copies and reached No. 5 on U.S. charts and No. 3 in Great Britain. The song "Crossfire" reached No. 23 on the U.S. charts.
Peter Cavanaugh, a former disc jockey who from 1983 to 1997 was in Toledo at WIOT-FM and as a consultant, remembers spinning Johnny and the Hurricane records when he was a young DJ in Syracuse, N.Y. He compared the band to Duane Eddy, the Ventures, and the Safaris.
"Of all those groups, Johnny and the Hurricanes was the band all of the young rock and roll bands in Syracuse wanted to copy," he said. "It was very basic. One of the things about his formula for success, if I might use that phrase, is he took old standards and jived them up.
"They were just very contagious. They were easy to learn how to play and you could dance to it."
The group also had a run at aclub in Hamburg, Germany, headlining a show in 1962 that also featured a then-unknown English band called The Beatles.
Johnny' son Jeff Pocisk said his father had a pretty simple explanation for why his band was able to pioneer use of the swirling Hammond organ sound - played by Paul Tesluk - in rock and roll.
"He said that he and the other musicians were the only ones who would lug a big organ around to a concert," he said, laughing.
Heavy touring and personnel changes caused the Hurricanes to break up in 1965 and Pocisk ran his own record label for awhile out of Toledo. Versions of the band regrouped over the years, playing shows all over the world and especially in Europe where it remained popular.
Even though his father took other jobs over the years and lived awhile in Germany, Jeff Pocisk said he never strayed too far from his love of music. He remembers the band rehearsing in the basement or the garage, always trying to hone their sound.
"It was always music, whether he was listening to records or the licks and the chord patterns and trying to duplicate that song," he said.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org