Gary James' Interview With
Johnny Thunder

He was the lead singer of The Drifters before striking out on his own. He toured with Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Jerry Butler and Bobby Womack. His song "Loop De Loop" became a Top Ten hit in 1963.

By now you just have to know we're talking about none other than Mr. Johnny Thunder.

Q - Johnny, what is J.T. Productions? Was that set up primarily to handle your business ventures.

A - Exactly. J.T. is from Johnny Thunder.

Q - So, you don't back or manage anybody else?

A - No. You know, my wife and I used to book other acts to make ends meet, fifteen or twenty years ago, but it got to be such a pain in the butt. I said 'I just need to get busy.' So, I got busy and booked me. (laughs)

Q - And you are busy!

A - I am extremely busy.

Q - So, you're the booking agent, the manager and the publicist all in one?

A - I'm all of that stuff.

Q - You're saving a lot of money.

A - You don't have to make as much money when you don't have to take twenty percent for somebody else.

Q - I see you perform on quite a few cruises of late. They've been pretty good for you and to you, haven't they?

A - Excellent. I've been doing cruise business for the last seven years. I was with a company called Norwegian Cruise Lines for about six years and just a little over two years ago, I came over to this company for a very good reason; I think they're a step up first of all. Not that I had anything against Norwegian. They were great to me. They took care of my family. I made six figures with them for almost seven years. So they took care of me very well. But I came over to this company and they've been even better to me...with a raise!

Q - So, you never get sick of the cruises, do you?

A - (laughs) Do you ask me if I get sick of living? What's to get sick of? You know, you're on vacation every day. I work two days a week.

Q - And those are seven day cruises?

A - Seven days. The ones I'm on now are three and four day, but I still only work two days a week! When you're on three day cruises, the passengers are there for three days. So, I only work one day while they're there. When we come back to Cape Canaveral, I come home for the day and go back that night, get on the ship and go out with the four day passengers. I'll do a show for them. If I had to or wanted to, I could actually leave after my gig was over and fly back home, but it makes no sense.

Q - Do you have your own band you take on these cruise line gigs?

A - There's another blessing. I don't have to carry anything but my music. I've got $30,000 plus worth of music. I bring my music. I choose the show I want to do, lay my music down, rehearse for an hour before the show and do it. We play with a nine piece band.

Q - Who provides that?

A - Royal Caribbean, the cruise line. They provide everything. They provide me with my suite that I live in. They provide my food. They provide my transportation to and from the job. They buy everything but my music and my clothes.

Q - How long of a show do you perform?

A - It depends on the ship and what the cruise director wants. The average show that I do is anywhere from forty to sixty minutes.

Q - Do you have an opening act?

A - No, normally not. In some cases, they might have acts who bump into each other because this company has over six hundred entertainers. So, once in a while, there will be a comedian or a juggler or someone who has to his other night. In other words, he's got two nights or three nights or whatever his particular contract calls for and if that comes on a night when they haven't used him, and he's getting off the ship the next day, they might put him on. Say for instance I'm doing a closing show which would be the show before the passengers get off the next day. If I'm doing one of 'em, and I don't do many of 'em, once in a while I'll do a closing show. Now, they might have someone left over who has not performed yet and if they do, they'll have 'em come up for twenty minutes before I come on. But, it's just a great gig.

Q - I would imagine that on some of those gigs, you would perform on a Saturday night, wouldn't you?

A - Oh, sometimes, yeah.

Q - So, when you sing that line "Here we go Loop de Loop, all on a Saturday night", the place goes crazy.

A - Oh, yeah. But, regardless of what night it is, it plays on the words that way and I hadn't really thought about it because every night is Saturday night when I do my shows. I do of course, "Loop de Loop" and I spent a little time with The Drifters, so I do a couple of Drifters numbers. The main focus of my show, the biggest part of my show is The Tops and The Temps. I do an audience participation thing with the Temptations...The Four Tops. It's a competition against each other. And it works so great. Sometimes I'll have two hundred people on the stage. Half of 'em are The Temps, half of 'em are The Tops. They just love it.

Q - How did you get into showbiz? Did you start out as a kid?

A - Sure did. Not as a kid, but as a young person. And my friends put me up to it. Even to this day, I don't consider myself a singer. I mean, I can sing. My Mother was a singer. I sang in the church choir when was a kid. I even got a scholarship to Florida A&M University as a singer, as a tenor. So, as singers go, I guess I am a singer. I'm a musician who sings, although I don't play anything when I sing. But, I played music when I was in high school and college. My friends and I would hang out on the street corners at night and sing. (laughs)

Q - You were the lead singer for The Drifters for three years?

A - Yeah. The group started in '58. Of course, they went through a few changes. When I got into the group, I came to replace Ben E. King. So, I travelled all around with Ben. He took me all around with him for, oh, about two months. I was just tickled pink. It was just a wonderful thing to do. When Ben left, I was gonna go right into the group and take over as the lead singer. I was downtown one day with Teddy Vann and The Bobbettes and The Shirelles and people like that, at a recording session. While we were waiting on Tender Joe Richardson, who used to be The Shirelles guitar player, we put this thing down called "Loop de Loop". We just sort of wrote it on the spot. I was sitting in the booth on the drums. Teddy was sort of feeding the words to me and we put it down and we said 'this is pretty good'. We were all laughing about it. It came about because someone said 'why don't we do one of those things like Zippity Do Dah'. Someone said 'that's already been done'. So we came up with "Loop de Loop". Teddy and I just sort of wrote it on the spot.

Q - Who wrote the melody?

A - Well, it's an old standard. But Teddy is the one who put that together. He was the producer and arranger.

Q - What does "Loop de Loop" mean?

A - It's a children's game. They've got a few Loop de Loop roller coasters that do the complete loop. Some of 'em have two loops. Going back all the way to the early sixties when I came on the scene, I just missed...and you're gonna like this, The Loop de Loop Hula Hoop. A company was going to pay us $50,000 to do it. My manager thought, since I had the number four record at the time in the world, that I should be getting double that and more money and more money. I wound up getting nothing. (laughs)

Q - Now I see why you don't have a manager.

A - Yes. You got it. I could tell you stories you'd never believe about that particular manager.

Q - May I ask what his name was?

A - Phil Kahl. He was over at Roulette Records... he and his brother Joe Kolsky. Then they formed Diamond Records. Then we recruited a young country singer named Ronnie Dove. I was the big star over there when Ronnie came. (laughs) It was funny. Ronnie and I are best friends now. We've been friends for all those years.

Q - Did you travel all over the world with The Drifters?

A - Oh sure.

Q - Who did you share the bill with?

A - In '61, we did the Sam Cooke Tour. But at that time, I was Johnny Thunder of "Loop de Loop". It had just come out. It was the tour of '62. We had 61 one-nighters. I was with The Drifters, but I performed as Johnny Thunder.

Q - Well, besides Sam Cooke, I know you also performed with Jackie Wilson. But who else?

A - Dionne Warwick. You know, Dionne and I were very, very, very, very close. (laughs) Because we were on the Sam Cooke Tour.

Q - What was it like to tour with Sam Cooke? What kind of guy was he?

A - Well, let me preface by saying Sam was my best friend. I met Sam in '58. He was with The Soul Stirrers. We became very, very, very close. Sam at the time wouldn't even consider going on tour unless I was on it with him. Matter of fact, I've cancelled in the early beginning for me to go on tour with Sam. We were so close that he'd call me from California or wherever he was and say "Where are you this week?" I'd say "New York." "Well meet me in Chicago." He was that kind of a guy. Sam would say "whatever you're making, I'm gonna pay you double." (laughs) He was misunderstood by some people. He always walked around with his small jigger of Beefeater gin, but he'd never drink a drop. Everybody thought that he was high all the time. Sam was just high on life.

Q - So why then did he carry it around all the time?

A - Everybody likes to have a little something that they're famous for or known for among his friends and 'in' people.

Q - What happened when "Loop de Loop" became a hit? Did you work more? Did you have to turn gigs down?

A - All of the above. I was not working as an entertainer when this happened. I was an out of work entertainer. I was a waiter and loving it. I was making lots of money. I was working with the people and it was just a wonderful thing for me.

Q - Where were you working as this waiter?

A - It was at a little place called The Tradewinds Cafe in Leesburg. It was a cafeteria. We would pull 2,700 people at meal time through the line. That's an expression for feeding 2,700 people. We had twenty-seven waiters. They were very busy. As a waiter back then, I was making $1,400 - $1,500 a week.

Q - No wonder you liked it so much.

A - I loved it. I didn't want to do it at first, but all my friends talked me into it. I thought it was beneath me to wait on people. Once I started it, I loved the people and the money just came in. I wasn't going in to make the money. I went from the number twenty-seven waiter to the number two waiter in one year.

Q - Were you a singing waiter?

A - No. (laughs) I was a B.S. waiter. I had the gift of gab. But, the thing is, I never acted like a waiter. I never stood around and talked tip-talk when I gave them a service. If I served people and they seemed to be fairly happy, I left them and went on to serve other people. If I saw someone I waited on looking about the room, I knew they probably weren't looking at the scenery, they wanted something. So, I would check and see what they needed. This paid off for me. It paid off for me big time.

Q - How long did you work as a waiter?

A - Two years.

Q - How far up the charts did "Loop de Loop" go?

A - It went to number one in some circles. I think it went anywhere between four and one, depending on which magazine you read. I think on Billboard it went number two or three and Cashbox, it went number four.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* "Loop de Loop" rose to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January, 1963 and #9 on the Cashbox Best Sellers chart in February,1963.
It was Johnny Thunder's only solo chart entry.