A Fanatic Reminisces:

W.T. "Dub" Johnson
Bass Player for Neal Ford & The Fanatics

I had just turned 16 when my parents moved from Galveston to Houston in the summer of 1964. That fall I attended Spring Branch High School for my sophomore year. I was not making many friends there, but one of the first guys I met was a blond headed boy named Mike Knust (hope I spelled that correctly). He said he played guitar and I said I did too and that we should start a group. Shortly after that, I met Neal at the Sears at Memorial City. (There was no Memorial City then, that would come later.) 

Neal was putting together a group and wanted to know if I was interested. Mike and I had made no plans, so I told Neal "Yes". (Mike later became a member of The Fever Tree.) Our first rehearsal was at Dennis Senter's house in Spring Branch on Cedarbrook just off Westview. Attendees were: John Cravey, Jon Pereles, some unknown guy on bass, Neal, Dennis, and myself. I was playing rhythm guitar then. I don't remember what songs we played that night, but we knew that something special was starting. The next rehearsal Johnny Stringfellow was there on lead guitar. After another rehearsal or two, the unknown bass player was not there and Neal said he was looking for another bass player. 

I told Neal I could play bass, but he wanted to keep me on guitar. I really wanted to play bass for the group and I kept pestering Neal until he gave in. So we made a trip downtown to H & H Music and I bought a used bass guitar. I was ecstatic! At the beginning we played all cover songs. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Little Richard,  but one of my favorites to this day is "Ooh Pooh Pah Doo".


Sooo, what did a typical set list look like? I don't know, because we never had one! Neal would tell us what the opening song would be and sometimes what the next song was, but for the rest of the show he would call the songs off the top of his head. He liked to do this so he could tailor the set on audience reaction, how well we were sounding, etc. We seldom knew what was coming next, but I think we pulled it off very well. We adjusted to it and just had so much fun performing.

Some of the songs we learned and performed in our early days include: Johnny B. Good, Try Me, Papas Got a Brand New Bag, Twist and Shout, What'd I Say, Sweet Little 16, Long Tall Texan, Memphis Tennessee,  Blueberry Hill, Time is on My Side, Ooh Poo Pah Doo, Charlie Brown, Searchin, to mention a few. These were all songs that most of us knew and Neal knew the lyrics. The idea was to get a quick repertoire of songs ready for performances. Neal did all the singing and was the front man of the group with Jon, String, and me doing backup singing.


After rehearsal one afternoon at the Teen Scene, we were sitting around the stage area talking; Neal, String, Dennis, Jon, John, John’s girlfriend Janie Henske (now DeGuerin), Neal’s girlfriend, and me. We knew it was going to be “Neal Ford and something”. We were going through a lot of silly names such as Neal Ford and the Studs…. or Pumpkins… or Penguins, etc. We thought of “Turtles” briefly but decided we didn’t like that and it was a good thing because a group named “The Turtles” had some big national hit songs. I don’t remember who thought of “Fanatics”, maybe Jon, but I’m not sure. The important thing was we all liked it and we became “Neal Ford & The Fanatics". For me, having a group name was a big step. We now had an identity and were now ready make it known.


We rehearsed for several weeks at Dennis' house before our first gig, and I have no recollection of where or what it was. There is an old show business adage that when you're starting out, you don't turn down any work. And we didn't! I remember playing for a private teen party at a house in Memorial, a fraternity party, Saturday morning performances at a movie theater in Spring Branch, a talent show at Spring Woods High School, and the Carousel Skating Rink. We even had our own teen club for a short while called The Teen Scene on Long Point at the $1.19 Steak House. I remember that it got raided by the police one night but can't remember why. During the first several months we were not making much money for our efforts, so Dennis Senter (keyboard) got discouraged and quit. That caused two problems for us. We needed to find a new keyboard player and place to rehearse.  We started rehearsing at my house, and Neal found Steve Ames to play keyboard. Steve would be with us for a long while. Shortly after Steve joined, Neal was activated for six months by the Navy Reserves. It was a rough time for us.


Neal was in the Navy Reserves, and was activated for about six months at the beginning of 1965. The timing of this could not have been worse for us. Our first record, “I Will Not Be Lonely”, was released and we had several bookings scheduled and no Neal Ford. Jon did the lead vocals with String and me doing backup. Jon did a great job but it was hard times for us. “Garner State Park” by B.J. Thomas was a hit record at the time and KNUZ radio was putting on a Rock Show at Garner State Park for July 4, 1965. We were invited to be a part of it. Without Neal’s leadership we did not know we had to find out all the details and requirements of the trip. Radio station KNUZ chartered a bus for the performers. We left Houston that morning and thought we would do the show, get back on the bus and come back that night. Being young and so naive, we didn’t realize we were spending the night there until we arrived. The show was good, the crowd liked us and B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs were great. Over all though, for us, this was the worst gig we would ever do.

Neal was released from the Navy at the end of July, 1965. The group almost broke up while Neal was gone, but when he got back we quickly got back on track. Rehearsals were going well and bookings were coming in. It was a happy and exciting time.

1/24/66: W.T. Johnson hit by a train?

Yes, its true!  It happened at the railroad track by the intersection of Hillcroft and Westpark in the early evening. It was dark and I was traveling south on Hillcroft. I had a green light going through the intersection but there were NO train warning lights nor any drop down traffic barricades.  That area was not very developed at that time and there were a lot of open fields. When I was crossing Westpark, I noticed the lights in the distance to my left were disappearing as if something was blocking them from my view. I was within about 15 to 20 feet of the track when I saw the train crossing the northbound side of Hillcroft. I knew instantly it would hit me, so I floored the gas pedal in hopes of beating it across. I didn't! It hit right behind the left rear door and sent the car spinning down the road. I don't know how many times the car spun around, but when it stopped it was facing back towards the train tracks.  I had two girls with me at the time and they had no idea of what had just happened. The wouldn't believe me until they realized a train was stopped on the track.

The car was totaled,  but we were OK and walked away from it. What a night!

(To be continued...)

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