Johnny Mayer, Blues Musician

Howie Epstein, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan
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Hard Times

By Johnny Mayer

I was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1953 at a time when it wasn't easy to be a Jew in America. As a kid, I remember signs that said "No Jews Allowed" at some resorts and restaurants outside the city. Every weekend, we used to visit my grandparents in Burlington, Wisconsin. They lived in a rural area of farms and factories and the Ku Klux Klan, an anti black and anti Jewish group. Driving home, I saw burned crosses on the hillsides a few times.

People did not speak openly about the Holocaust my parents had a few friends that were survivors. I saw the blue identity numbers tattooed on their arms and heard the word Nazi but didn't ask questions and it wasn't discussed much in Hebrew School were I learned Hebrew actually, I didn't learn Hebrew since almost everyday the teacher sent me to the Principal's office for goofing off in class.

We lived in a mixed white neighborhood of Gentiles and Jews. Black people lived mostly in their own neighborhoods closer to downtown Milwaukee. When we drove through their neighborhoods, it was like a taking a trip abroad the houses were run down, many of the children were dressed in poor clothes although it looked to me that they were having fun how could that be? The only black person I knew was a man that worked for the Temple and sometimes at our house. He had beautiful handwriting and wrote the invitations for my Bar Mitzvah.

I began to play guitar in 1961 when I was 8 years old. My teacher, Larry Reuter, was an excellent musician. By the time the Beatles came along, I could play pretty good... it's like I had an "ear" for music, but at least I had the hands. I remember sitting for hours trying to learn to play the chords and solo for the song "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones. I performed at concerts of Lo Duca Brothers' Music School on my red guitar. They put my picture in the catalogue of EKO guitars they imported from Italy.

My best friend, Chris, was an artist and musician from a Greek family. He could just pick up the guitar and play almost any song by ear... I played almost everything by notes and was jealous of how easy he could learn new songs. Chris also drew cool pictures of Hercules and other Greek heroes. I used to take his pictures from school, write my name on them and bring them home.

Another friend of mine, Howie, played bass and sang. He would come and rehearse with Chris and I in the back room my mother said Howie would be a star someday. We played our first gig at the "Black Steer" owned by Chris's dad in 7th grade. I was the shy one in the band, quiet, wiling to compromise. Chris, the artist, was kind of like me. Howie just didn't give a damn!

At age twelve, I won a guitar contest playing "Carina", a rhumba, in a red and black Flamenco dancer outfit that my mother sewed for the event. She also played songs like "Beautiful Dreamer" on the pump organ. My father, may he rest in peace, drove me to my guitar lessons and bought me a ton of guitars and amps.

In 1971, I was in Israel on a work-study program when I heard that Chris died in police custody of a drug overdose. He was arrested by the Milwaukee Police and ingested the drugs sitting in the patrol car. He was seventeen years old.

Howie grew and performed with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on bass and vocals for twenty years. Howie died of a heroin overdose at 46.

Tom Petty wrote in Rolling Stone... "It's like a tree by your house that you love and see that it's dying no matter how hard you try to save it. And one day you look outside and it's not there anymore."

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