Gary E. Myers
Born John Sudetta in Warren, Ohio on May 15, 1946, Johnny Fortune was introduced to the guitar at the age of twelve. As a youngster he won amateur talent contests and appeared at the state fair in Columbus. The family moved to California while John was still in school and he spent a couple of years in Hollywood before returning to Ohio. After playing in Michigan and Ohio he returned to southern California, realizing the musical pastures were greener there. He landed some studio work, which he said included a Sam Cooke session.
In 1963 Fortune went into an El Monte studio owned by Bobby Summers, brother-in-law of guitarist Les Paul. Jim O’Keefe, son of actor Dennis O’Keefe, played sax and, amazingly, Fortune’s 10-year old brother played drums. John Fisher produced and Fortune overdubbed the bass line on “Soul Surfer”. Fisher, who reportedly later worked for Atlantic and other major labels, also promoted the record. “Soul Surfer” was the intended B-side but it proved to be Fortune’s biggest success. He claimed that it was number one in Bakersfield for sixteen weeks. The Lively Ones covered the song on their “Surf City” LP (Del Fi 1237).
The regional success of the record brought work up and down the California coast. Fortune said that his surf-style arrangement of the standard “Siboney” reached the top five on KFWB in Los Angeles, and that “Dragster” and “Sunset” from his original LP, were later used in movies.
The guitarist wrote most of the songs he recorded, and after the instrumental success, his later records were mostly vocals. He explained that “I Wanna Make It With You” (not the 1970 Bread hit) had been completed as an instrumental track by a studio orchestra that included Glen Campbell on guitar. A high voice was needed for the vocal, and he recorded it and wrote the flip side. The record was released as by the Sweet Souls.
Singer Al Wilson had played drums in one of Fortune’s bands and, in later years, Fortune toured with Terry Stafford and was on shows with Willie Nelson and Barbara Fairchild. Because Santo & Johnny of “Sleepwalk” fame no longer toured together, Fortune was the “Johnny” for the Santo & Johnny appearance at a KRTH Legends of Rock and Roll show in the late 80’s at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater.
At the time of our 1979 interview he and his family had been living about forty miles east of Los Angeles in Ontario, California for about 15 years, For eight of those years, he taught at a music store while continuing to perform regularly in clubs, playing everything from country-western to disco. His brother played drums with him and he still got requests for “Soul Surfer”.
Originally published in Record Exchanger #31, 1981.
© 1979 & 2011 by Gary E. Myers/MusicGem, PO Box 4777, Downey,