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Johnny Be Good

From frontman to caveman, Johnny Rabb just keeps on a-rockin’

Written by Kirsten Ferguson • Photographed by Martin Benjamin

Local rockabilly singer Johnny Rabb has more identities than most Capital Region music fans may know. As a member of the Neanderthals, he dons a furry leopard-skin tunic and bashes out primitive caveman-bop for appreciative audiences in Europe. In his frat-rock band Johnny & the Panty Raiders, Rabb teams up with local father-and-son rockabilly guitarists John and Graham Tichy to record foot-stomping, garage-rock campus songs from the early ’60s. And during visits to Nashville, Rabb hooks up with guitarist Eddie Angel and drummer Jimmy Lester (of the Mexican-mask-wearing, surf-twang instrumentalists Los Straitjackets) to play in the Jaguars.

But here in the Capital Region, Johnny Rabb is probably best known for his long-standing roots-rock group the Jailhouse Rockers. Rabb has shaken, rattled and rolled with the band since the mid-’80s, playing everywhere from local dives and college gigs to rock & roll weddings and summer socialite parties in Saratoga Springs. A native of Waterford, Rabb formed the Rockers back in 1985 with then-local boy Eddie Angel (who now resides in Nashville). Rabb had lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s before moving back to this area in the early ’80s to form the Rockin’ Dakotas, a band he describes as “wild but short-lived.” Around the time the Jailhouse Rockers came together, Rabb released his first solo single, the self-penned “Live It Up/Love It Up,” on the Blotto record label.

“What Eddie and I started doing [in the Jailhouse Rockers] was rockabilly—it was Elvis, it was Jerry Lee,” Rabb recalls before a recent Jailhouse Rockers gig at Artie’s Lansingburgh Station. “It was American roots-rock music from the ’50s. We were in high school in the ’60s. I was never in a band that did [Jethro] Tull or disco. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he laughs.

The recent show at Artie’s found Rabb and his fellow Jailhouse Rockers (guitarist John Tichy, drummer Mitchell Throop, bassist Steven Clyde and guest guitarist David Malachowski) still wailing it up to a heady mix of old-school rockabilly, country and R&B. These days, their set encompasses songs that Rabb has written over the years (“Something Goin’ On,” “RUBZ”) as well as classic covers and the occasional tune by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen (John Tichy’s former band).

Though the Jailhouse Rockers still have their share of die-hard fans, Rabb freely admits that they have a lower profile now than they did in the past. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Rockers were one of the best known local bands and played some of the area’s biggest gigs: radio-station-sponsored shows, block parties, opening slots for Bo Diddley and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Larkfest (“all the ‘fests,’ ” Rabb says). Well-known musicians like Terry Adams of NRBQ sat in on occasion.

“For 12 years we got all the attention,” Rabb acknowledges. “As time goes on, music changes. Every year something else is new. We had a really good run. But we’re one of the underground types of bands now. It just kinda turned around [for the Jailhouse Rockers] at the time the Neanderthals came up. It was a natural progression.”

Though Capital Region music fans may associate Rabb solely with the Jailhouse Rockers, he’s best known in the United States and abroad for his caveman-stomp outfit the Neanderthals. The garage band (featuring Rabb on vocals, Eddie Angel on guitar, Todd Williams on bass, Neil Harpole on drums and Jeff Knutson on guitar) recently released their third album, Shutdown 2002 B.C., a collection of hot-rod tunes on Spinout (a label run by Angel and his wife Melanie). In addition to touring Europe, the Neanderthals have played some far-ranging gigs here in the States—from a go-go beach party at Club Shelter in New York City to the underground children’s television show Ghoul a Go-Go. And they’ve done so while clad in little other than black Converse hightops and their furry prehistoric getups (“These theater people in London made them for us,” Rabb says).

Many of Rabb’s musical projects take him out of the area these days, but he has no plans to move away from the Capital Region. “I would never give up my home base,” he says. “But I do travel as much as possible. It’s always good to get out of Dodge.” Much of that travel keeps him in touch with Angel, whom he’s known and worked with for decades. “Eddie and I have always kept this relationship together and created other projects off it,” Rabb says.

When I mention that an unattributed quote on the Internet praised Rabb’s up-swept pompadour for being the “best hair” in rockabilly, he laughs. “I attribute whatever success I have to the people I’ve played with over the years,” he says. “And to the hair.”

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