On May 14, 1976, Bay Area blues group the Elvin Bishop Band, with 25-year-old Johnny Vernazza on guitar, recorded their concert at downtown’s Civic Theatre. Two tracks recorded at the show were included on the 1977 album Raisin’ Hell: Live: the #3 hit of 1976 “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and Bishop staple “Struttin’ My Stuff.” Vernazza played on the original studio versions of both songs.
Thirty-three years later, the same date will find Vernazza recording in San Diego again. Now a Carlsbad resident, he will be wrapping production on his second solo album, tentatively titled Jungle Out There, at Studio West in Rancho Bernardo.
Though now touring the U.S. with his own group, Johnny V, Vernazza has always preferred the role of sideman. It wasn’t until he relocated to the San Diego area in 2001 that he put together a group and began to promote himself as a solo artist.
While today he tours sporadically, at his ’70s-era peak, Vernazza played 290 dates a year while appearing on music television shows of the day. He can be seen in sideman mode in recent DVD reissues of NBC’s Midnight Special, where he performed a record ten times with the Elvin Bishop Band. As can be seen in the reissues, he was also once pressed into service on air by Van Morrison, who arrived for a taping without a band. In his down time these days, Vernazza can be found playing sideman to local blues cat Len Rainey.
Though he had played San Diego several times with Bishop and as a bandmate of harmonica player Norton Buffalo, it wasn’t music that caused Vernazza to uproot. “The Bay Area was getting too crowded,” he said. “I was born and raised there, but it was getting to be a nightmare to get around. My wife and I came down here for a vacation and thought, this is a lot nicer than it is up north.”
He earned a gold record (500,000 sold) for his signature guitar part on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and the song can be heard in numerous movies (Boogie Nights, Big Daddy) and TV shows (Entourage, Brotherhood), but it’s the tune’s noncommercial uses that make Vernazza happiest. “It’s strange where that song pops up,” he laughed. “You run into people who got married to the song. I’ve heard Muzak versions in elevators and the real thing while grocery shopping. I love those surreal moments.”