Thursday, 15 October 2015

Kenny Johnson country singer & BBC Radio Merseyside presenter dies aged 75

Updated (18 Oct 2015) Tribute interviews + expanded history

Kenny Johnson (b. 11 December 1939 – died 13 October 2015)

Former BBC Radio Merseyside presenter and country singer Kenny Johnson has died in Spain aged 75, on Tuesday night Oct 13, 2015. This apparently was at the end of a country music week that the group West Virginia put on.
Country music star was 'loved all over Merseyside'

Sad news circulated on the British Country Music grapevine regarding the passing of Kenny Johnson.
He was a veteran country broadcaster, 50 year bandleader and two times BCMA Hall of fame member.
Kenny Johnson (BBC Photo)

He started in the Liverpool club and pub circuit as a rock 'n' roll band before forming the internationally renowned Hillsiders with five other members. The band played the famous Wembley Festivals backing visiting American stars and in their own right. They landed regular spots on 1970s television and they played in America performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville when it was still the Grand Ole Opry (1967).
He left the the Hillies in 1975 to form his own band Kenny Johnson and the Northwind (one of the UK¹s premier bands ) and continued to perform into the 1990's as a duo and solo artist.

His knowledge of Country music also got him the Country slot “Sounds Country” on BBC Radio Merseyside which broadcasts weekly. He had been with the BBC for 39 years. It’s believed to be the longest running country music  
Programme in the UK!
At the Country Western Clubs there was no need to introduce the BBC Radio Merseyside "Red Rose" Country presenter. He gave a good mixture of old and new tracks and confidently gave the dancers guidance on the appropriate dance to fit the songs. His Scouse humour and cheerful manner was always welcome.

Country Is Good for the Soul
In this archived spotlight weekend interview with CEO and CMA International Broadcaster award recepient Allan Watkiss, Kenny spoke about the 60s, touring under the RCA label umbrella backing the US country stars, presenting the Sounds Country show, being an "country legend" and his outside interests.
Listen here:

Kenny Johnson was a promising soccer player with the Liverpool school boys, but found that music took over and started in the music business as a semi-pro, playing Skiffle, Country and Rock 'n' Roll.
1958 saw Kenny Johnson forming Sonny Web and the Country Two, which then became the Country Four and then Sony Web and the Cascades in 1961 (a name he has used until this date for his Rock 'n' Roll shows), with Joe Butler on bass and Frank Wan on lead guitarist.
Sonny Webb & the Cascades

The band’s origins go back to 1959 when Kenny Johnson (b. 11 December 1939, Liverpool, England; lead vocals/guitar) formed the Country Three.
Johnson, was joined by Joe Butler (b. 12 January 1939, Liverpool, England, d. May 2007; guitar), who changed the group to Sonny Webb And The Country Four, taking his stage name from the American country stars Sonny James and Webb Pierce

In 1961, following an argument, Johnson regrouped as Sonny Webb And The Cascades.
Joe Butler played bass and they were joined by lead guitarist Frank Wan, who had been with Clinton Ford, and Brian ‘Noddy’ Redman, of the Fourmost and Kingsize Taylor And The Dominoes.
Playing the beat venues frequented by Merseybeat groups, they brought their tough environment to country music and so pioneered country rock before the Byrds.
Their publicity proclaimed, ‘For that country flavour and the best in pops’, and their repertoire can be gauged from recordings at the Rialto Ballroom in Liverpool for Oriole’s This Is Merseybeat albums. The songs included George Jones’ ‘Who Shot Sam?’, Bob Luman’s ‘You’ve Got Everything, Hank Locklin’s ‘Border Of The Blues’ and Buck Owens’ ‘Excuse Me’.
Listen to Sonny Webb & the Cascades (The Hillsiders) UK Single "You've Got Everything / Border Of The Blues" (Oriole 45-CB 1873)

Although not a soft and gentle country band, they brought the natural environment of Liverpool to Nashville music, it must have worked as they had a big following from both beat music and country music fans.

The Hillsiders played country when country was not cool in England - as the UK’s leading country band, they helped introduce 1000’s people to the music.
Kenny Johnson was also one of the first members & lead singer of The Hillsiders.
Kenny Johnson with The Hillsiders (1971)

The Hillsiders were formed on May 5th, 1964 at Ozzie Wade’s country music club in Liverpool in May 1964, Sonny Webb And The Cascades became The Hillsiders. Brian Hilton from Group One joined as lead guitarist when Frank Wan switched to steel.
They started playing the type of music they liked, contemporary country and western and became the top country band in the UK, winning polls and awards all over Europe.
Their first gig was at Walton Lane Social Club, Liverpool. The Hillsiders career ran until 1999.
The original members were Kenny Johnson, (lead singer and rhythm guitar), Joe Butler, (b. 12 January 1939, Liverpool, England, d. May 2007; bass guitar and vocals), Brian Hilton, (lead guitar and vocals), Brian (Noddy) Redman, (drums), and Frankie Wan (steel guitar).
In Dec 1964 discussing their own position in the field, the Hillsiders said, "Our disc has been released in the States and we believe there is great interest over there regarding it - because people have never heard of a Liverpool C&W group before. We even received a phone call from Minnesota and fan letters from the States. One review in the American press said that we were the first British group to feature a pedal steel guitar."

I Wonder If I Care As Much ‎(7") (Written-By – D. Everly*, P. Everly*) | Decca F.12026 | 1964
Please Be My Love ‎(7") (Sauceman, Fields) | Decca F 12161 | 1965 Image          
Almost Persuaded ‎(7", Single) (writers: Sherrill, Sutton) |  JH 322 |1966                
Sunday Mornin Comin Down ‎(7", Single, Promo, writer Kris Kristofferson) | RCA Victor RCA 2038| 1970

The Hillsiders were recognised as one of Britain's top Country bands for over 3 decades, playing major venues and touring the GI bases both at home and in Germany. They opened for many of Country Music's major artistes such as Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Watson and Glen Campbell.
The Bobby Bare tour was brilliant for them. Bobby liked the harmonies that the Hillsiders had (who had a #1 hit record at the same time). At the end of the tour they brought him back to do a show at The Grafton in Liverpool. And then after a party at my house, Bare said - "When I get back to the states, I'm gonna see Chet Atkins, and we're going to do an album together".  The man was true to his word, he went back to Nashville, saw Chet Atkins, got The Hillsiders a deal with RCA, and they flew out and recorded the album, and it was said it got to #17 (?) in the Billboard Hot 100 Album charts. 

Bare and The Hillsiders recorded an album "The English Countryside" (LP, Mono | RCA Victor LPM 3896 (M); LSP 3896) in 1967 with him on the RCA Nashville label, produced by the renowned Chet Atkins. "The English Countryside" made a debut at No.44 (chart dated Dec 23, 1967), then climbed to #31 and peaked at #29 (chart dated Jan 13, 1968) for 3 weeks on the US Billboard Hot Country Album Charts and received a silver disk for sales. The novel combination of one of America's top country singers and a Liverpool quintet made for fine versions of songs such as Tom T. Hall's "I Wash My Face in the Morning Dew." The 8 cuts that featured Bare with the Hillsiders were the best numbers. Other gems included "Six Days on the Road,", “You all Come" and "Sweet Dreams".
The English Country Side (RCA Victor RD7918) stood for many years as a well-crafted example of Liverpool-recorded country music. George Hamilton IV and The Hillsiders became firm friends and performed together on Hamilton's BBC TV Series and recorded an album together in 1971 HERITAGE (RCA Victor | LDP4609). 
In 1971 The Hillsiders signed a two album deal with Polydor and albums “By Request” (1972; Amazon UK | Image) and 12 track Vinyl “Our Country” (1973; Image) surfaced.

Due to their great popularity the Hillsiders were invited on to the Grand Ole Opry in 1967, when it was held at the famous Ryman Auditorium and Kenny held onto the program that includes the bands name.
Guitarist Joe Butler shared "Yes! we were invited to appear on The Grand Ol' Opry. Now this is something that Kenny and I when we first started, we used to dream about, but never believed would ever happen".
Johnson was proud to say that the Hillsiders are probably the only British band to be invited to play on the hallowed stage of the Ryman, where such great names has Hank Williams has stood before.
The Hillsiders: LP Cover Play Their Country Hits (1965)

Both Kenny Johnson and the Hillsiders had written and recorded a large number of songs and have won numerous country awards and became well known through the radio programmes “Country Meets Folk and Up Country”. The packaging for 1972’s By Request featured genuine requests and included the band’s most popular stage numbers - ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Crying In The Rain’ and ‘Me And Bobby McGee’.
However, they were also writing more and more of their own material, leading to 1973’s self-penned “Our Country”, which included the excellent ‘Across The Mountain’ and ‘Blue Kentucky Morning’, a song the band had written for Patsy Powell.

The promising Butler-Johnson partnership ceased when Johnson left the Hillsiders in January 1975 to be replaced by Kevin McGarry from another Liverpool band, the Westerners....  Butler then went on to play in a well-established part-time band, Hartford West.
In a Liverpool interview in 1994 Joe Butler said "Well, when Kenny was due to leave the band, we were all very saddened by it as we didn't really want him to leave, and I don't think Kenny really wanted to leave to be honest, but we had some problems with our management at the time that had put a wedge between us, which was wrong. Kenny and I are still great mates to this day, and he still considers himself to be a part of the Hillsider family, as I do still, you know".

Another major Country artist that The Hillsiders recorded with was George Hamilton IV. Hillsiders ("The finest band in the land") with George Hamilton IV (* Kevin McGarry by that time had replaced Kenny) >> YouTube
The Hillsiders were notable for being the first UK band to pick up on the potential of the Mavericks; says McGarry, ‘We were performing their songs long before anyone had heard of them and then they got known through CMT. People have said to us “That American act is doing your songs”.’ In 1997, the Hillsiders received the Ambassador Award at the British Country Music Awards.
The Original Line Up From 1964-1975:
This is The Hillsiders reunion for their 32 years in Showbusiness, in 1996:

Kenny left The Hillsiders band in 1974-75, forming his band Northwind, which has had several changes in the line-up over the years  and continued to perform into the 1990’s.
For many years they were regarded as one of the best bands on Merseyside. Johnson’s passionate vocals were enhanced by Bobby Arnold’s driving electric guitar.
Northwind played contemporary country music, often written by Johnson, but occasionally performed oldies gigs as Sonny Webb And The Cascades.

Mr. Johnson signed a singles deal with EMI International and one single to emerge in 1977 was titled "City Lights" (INT545; Amazon UK | Image), a minor hit and the nearest that a Liverpool country act came to a genuine hit single. It eventually sold 1000s of copies but not enough in one chart week to break into the national charts.

Johnson re-released the song for OBM Records in 1980. One of Liverpool's finest country bands of the mid-late 70s were West Virginia. They formed in 1976 and by 1978 the band appeared at the Wembley Country Music Festival, toured with Marty Robbin, and guested with Don Everly on BBC TV. They won top band award in the Great Britain Country Music Awards broadcast on BBC Radio 2 they also appeared on television in Pebble Mill and on Scottish television. In the early 90s they went to Nashville to record the album " BLUE RENDEZVOUS " which soon became album of the year. The title cut “Blue Rendezvous” was written for the band by Kenny Johnson and won Song of the Year

Even with Johnson writing good original country songs it was feared that the country music conformist would simply not purchase an album of material that he/ she didn't know. By comparison artists on the 60s raided Nashville songwriters for material. Ken Dodd's "Happiness", "Still" and "Eight By Ten" were all Bill Anderson songs. Jazzsinger Cleo Laine scored a hit single with country song "You'll Answer To Me", Tom Jones recorded the Porter Wagoner and Bobby Bare hit "The Gren, Green Grass of Home".
Pye Records released The Hillsiders "Children's Song" and "Please Be My Love" on a short-lived subsidiary Lucky Records. That project did not continue beyond 1972 with the inescapable problem of Brit country fans not willing to purchase recorded British country music in sufficient quantities. Country music was a "minority" music and British country fans were'nt buying many British records.

Johnson’s song ‘Today’ was a favourite on request shows and at Merseyside weddings.
Kenny Johnson and Northwind perform "Today":

Johnson took his time over his recordings but the set SUMMER NIGHTS featured 16 of his own compositions with no fillers. John Fogerty and John Anderson influences are apparent on the album, but there was also much of Johnson’s own originality including a touching song about growing up on Merseyside titled “Old Hutte Lane”. Johnson wrote for West Virginia and he produced Julie Finney’s Something Called Love.
At the end of 2002 Kenny Johnson and Northwind decided to disband, but up to that date they were one of the top outfits on the British Country scene.
Photo: Entertaining at the C&W night, The Kenny Johnson Duo, 
Kenny on the left and Ronnie Westhead in July 2004
Courtesy (BBC Radio Merseyside)

29 Oct 2007 Kenny Johnson - The Best Of (White Cloud Music)
14 Tracks/ Time: 42:48 Genres: Country/ Pop Amazon UK | UK iTunes  | Spotify

News of Kenny's death prompts fresh UK iTunes sales

He has released many albums and CDs, his biggest hit is his song, “City Lights” - Amazon UK

Kenny Johnson was a double winner of Cross Country Magazine British Country Music Hall Of Fame.
A 2007 Inductee inductee No 5: View Certificate
However well done "Webby" Johnson for being another record breaker – (Brian Ahern; UK Country Journalist)

At the Southern Country UK Country Radio Awards held on Feb 4, 2007 Mr, Kenny Johnson was presented with The Services Award, for presenters who work hard to promote the British product as well as the International.
At that time Mr.Johnson had been presenting country music for over 30 years and very well known as an excellent singer/songwriter (Kenny Johnson and Northwind) 

Kenny Johnson’s weekly programme on BBC Radio Merseyside had the highest listening figures for any regional country show. He took over the show named “Sounds Country” 3 to 4 years after its birth.

His programme, Sounds Country, was a huge hit among country music fans, featuring tracks from the latest albums and older classics.

Over the years, Kenny interviewed Dr Hook, Billy Jo Spears, Steve Earle, Geo Hamilton IV, Bobby Bare, Albert Lee, and the late Tommy Collins, to name a few.

Back in 2010 Kenny stated that his show was the longest running in the UK with an incredbile 34 years !
As a listener what I liked was that it was refreshing to hear a UK DJ actually state his honest opinions about the new releases being sent from America. No DJ can please all of the people all of the time but he mixed things up with new music, specials, Local Hero spots, Bluegrass spots (he admired the amazing musicianship of the “Bluegrass Cats”) and a listener “Recall Spot” (offering loyal listeners to pick out their favourites) and helped to promote local country events & shows with a gig guide.

Kenny escaped the BBC cuts: Back in 2012 the BBC Trust were making decisions about scrapping the specialized music shows including the country music shows. Country Routes Blog campaigned online to try and save them and Kenny encouraged his listeners to help by making their feelings known to the BBC.
Although other country programmes on BBC Radio Sheffield, BBC Radio Cambridge, BBC Suffolk, BBC Kent and BBC Cornwall disappeared “Sounds Country” continued on!
Sounds Country, broadcast every Sunday evening (6-8pm) it then moved to afternoons (1400 - 1600) on BBC Radio Merseyside. It gave BBC Merseyside listeners and beyond on the internet comprehensive coverage on what country music is all about with a local gig guide, interviews and great music.
Kenny seemed to not always present the show in later years. Spencer Leigh sat in and the BBC Radio Merseyside website shows that Kenny last presented the programme on June 28, 2015.
Mr. Johnson signed off on air saying:

I’ve had 39 years of playing the music I love and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s been absolutely tremendous and I thank you for that

Billy Butler on his Tuesday afternoon show (14 Oct, 2015; BBC Page) paid tribute to former BBC Radio Merseyside presenter and friend Kenny Johnson in this recorded interview. This special 'Career in 5 minutes' was dedicated to all the great bands he was in. Replayed is the interview with Billy from June 2015 when Kenny retired from Sounds Country. Kenny spoke fondly on touring with the late George Hamilton IV. 
Listen here:

Mike Shepherd took over the show from 5 July 2015 (see BBC Homepage) sharing his knowledge and musical influences from George Jones, Conway Twitty and Hank Marvin to Luke Bryan, Eric Church and everything in between.

Listen to Kenny Johnson presenting "Sounds Country" on BBC Radio Merseyside first broadcast on Sunday March 25, 2012 as he paid tribute to the late British country artist John McCane (Southern Country UK Country Radio Award Song of the year 2007 winner). Listen to the Audio tribute


Published on Oct 14, 2015
This video tribute, requested by the family, is a thank you to “Webby” from everyone.
This is the original Kenny Johnson and Northwind band, the track is called " I've Never Loved Anyone More" and the original members were Kenny Johnson (Lead Vocals & Rythm Guitars), John Hodgson (Lead Guitars and Vocals), Bobby Peters (Drums), John "Fez" Ferrington (Bass and Vocals) and Kenny Berry (Keyboards).
It this was recorded in 1976 and is from the Album "Lakeside Highway".

Radio Merseyside paid tribute to their former presenter, described by friends as a “lovely bloke” and an “iconic local voice”.
North West Tonight @BBCNWT tweeted Sad News. Former @bbcmerseyside country music presenter, Kenny Johnson has died.

BBC Radio Merseyside Editor Sue Owen said: “Kenny was a first-class broadcaster and a wonderful musician who was loved all over Merseyside. “We have had many warm tributes from listeners and fans of his band who want to express their sadness, and remember how their lives were touched by him. “We send his family and friends our deepest condolences.”
One listener, Ross, said: “Kenny WAS country music and Merseyside was lucky to have him”.
Another, Stevie, said: “My love of Country Music goes right back to the ‘60s thanks to Kenny and his Band The Hillsiders.
“When he became a presenter at Radio Merseyside the promotion of local Country Music was phenomenal.

Radio Tributes
BIG Respect: BBC Radio 2's "Country King" Bob Harris OBE took time out to pay tribute to Kenny Johnson on Thursday's Bob Harris Country on Oct 15, 2015 (BBC Page)

Remembering Kenny Johnson: BBC Radio Norfolk's Keith Greentree on paid tribute on his Saturday morning show Rodeo Norfolk (Oct 17, 2015 BBC Page) to the British country singer and shared his memories of The Hillsiders:

Mr. Lee Williams President of the British Country Music Awards (BCMAwards) and CEO of CMR Nashville "Europe's #1 Country Music Radio Station" spoke of his meetings with Kenny and the legacy he left behind. First broadcast on Friday Oct 16, 2015.

Presenter and musician Steve Cherelle on his Big Country show (Sunday Oct 18, 2015 | BBC Page) on BBC Radio Essex and Marie Crichton on her Country show on BBC Radio Shropshire (Sat Oct 17, 2015 | BBC Page) paid tribute to Kenny and played his popular hit "City Lights":

Mike Shepherd on BBC Radio Merseyside the new presenter of "Sounds Country" paid tribute to Kenny Johnston on his show Sunday Oct 18, 2015 (BBC Page) . 
Mike Shepherd

Mike selected music from Northwind and Johnson's solo music also reading out tributes from listeners and played recorded highlights from the very last show Kenny presented on June 28, 2015.

This included a medley of spins from Kenny’s favourite artists Hank Williams, Clay Walker, Mike Reid, The Dixie Chicks and going out with Poco's "Rose of Cimarron". Over the 39 years Kenny probably played approaching 45,000 - 50,000 songs on Sounds Country. 

On Facebook Mike shared: "In Just 8 years of broadcasting, today's 'Sounds Country' was the most emotional and most difficult programme I have ever done... R.I.P Kenny Johnson x"

BBC Merseyside Facebook Tributes are numerous:
Example: RIP kenny you will be sadly missed,loved your great voice,and times we seen you with the HILLSIDERS,my daughter was married in CYPRUS walking to take her vows to your record TODAY, wonderful memories thanks kenny
British Country Music has lost an Icon. RIP Kenny.”

Memories of Kenny Johnson:
Facebook Fan Page

Photo (Left) 
A lovely fan photo taken with
Northwind's Kenny Johnson in the 80s

Adios Amigo
R.I.P Kenny Johnson

The Hillsiders Blog | BCM Hall of Fame | Liverpool Echo


  1. We have lost a truly great entertainer and personality. One of the finest country singers ever to be in England. RIP Kenny - we had some great times in the past!

    1. Thank you Stan for stopping by and the comment. Your website is an invaluble source of knowledge for historical Brit Country references.To make this tribute as complete as possible we used one of your archived photos and out of courtesy credited and linked to your website. Thank you

  2. Gave me a lot of good memories of my youth,time and circumstances were the hurdle to being up there with the stars RIP

  3. need to get your facts on The Cascades Right....
    Sonny Webb and the Cascades
    started out as merseybeat band but drifted back into what they liked best, Country and Western.
    The Country Three (Four) Sonny Webb and the ( Brian Newman)
    Kenny (sonny) Johnson rhythm guitar/vocals
    Joe Butler lead guitar
    Brian Evans rhythm guitar or Brian Mellena

    Kenny (sonny) Johnson rhythm guitar/vocals
    Joe Butler lead guitar
    Dave Stephens bass guitar
    Freddie Caine drums

    Tony Evans banjo
    Brian Newman vocals
    Joe Butler lead guitar
    Dave Stephens bass guitar
    Freddie Caine drums
    Tony Evans banjo

    Dean Devlin and the Dynamites (Mike Savage & Wildcats
    Mike (Savage)McGrellis vocals
    John State lead guitar
    Billy Duncan bass guitar
    Roger Wilcox drums
    Gerry Gilbertson rhythm guitar

    Sonny Webb and the Cascades
    Sonny Webb (Kenny Johnson) vocals / guitar
    John State lead guitar
    Billy Duncan bass guitar
    Roger Wilcox drums
    Gerry Gilbertson rhythm guitar

    Sonny Webb (Kenny Johnson) vocals / guitar
    John State lead guitar
    Joe Butler bass guitar
    Roger Wilcox drums
    Gerry Gilbertson rhythm guitar

    Sonny Webb (Kenny Johnson) vocals / guitar
    Roy(Jay)Wood lead guitar Johnny Templer and the Hi Cats (for 2 weeks then he committed suicide
    Joe Butler bass guitar
    Roger Wilcox drums
    Gerry Gilbertson rhythm guitar

    Sonny Webb (Kenny Johnson) vocals / guitar
    Frank Wan lead guitar
    Joe Butler bass guitar
    Brian(Noddy)Redman drums
    Gerry Gilbertson rhythm guitar