Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Johnny Rey is the Twin Cities’ latest musical ‘old dog’ to try new tricks

Sunday’s appearance will be the first time the guitarist leads a band since Ronald Reagan was president.

Johnny Rey will quietly take to the stage Sunday night in St. Paul for the first time in almost 30 years.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

The Suburbs are back. The Replacements are back. The old dogs of the Minneapolis music scene are hoisting their collective middle fingers to middle age yet again, none with less fanfare than Johnny Rey, who will quietly take to the stage Sunday night in St. Paul for the first time in almost 30 years.

Article continues after advertisement

Johnny Rey? Until now, the singer/guitarist’s biggest claim to musical fame over the last two decades has been as father to Paper Tiger of Doomtree.

But in the late ’70s as the Longhorn Bar scene fomented in downtown Minneapolis, Rey was the bad-ass Springsteen-esque guitar foil to Robert Wilkinson in the always under-appreciated Flamingo, which laced Rolling Stones swagger with the amphetamine-fueled punk and power-pop of the day.

Flamingo was a ferocious and influential live band, with Wilkinson and Rey trading guitar fury on such pogo-worthy classics as “I’m the Gun,” “Smart Girl,” “Looking for a Kiss” and “I Remember Romance,” and, in so doing, cementing their status as one of rock’s great lost live bands.

Courtesy of Johnny Rey
Johnny Rey, right, playing with Flamingo at the Longhorn Bar, circa 1979

“We made one four-song EP,” said Rey earlier this week, sitting in the kitchen of the townhouse he shares with his wife, Sharon. “But that’s it. There’s no other real recordings or [documentation]. You had to be there. Luckily, we were there.”

At Wilkinson’s encouragement, Rey started writing material for Flamingo, which ultimately morphed into The Flamin’ Ohs. When he discovered he had a knack for songwriting, Rey lit out on his own, formed Johnny Rey & the Reaction, made a record and broke up the band. That was 1985.

“Johnny Rey & the Reaction had reached a plateau,” he said. “Same bars, nobody coming, we couldn’t get any farther. We were just rehashing. So one day we had a band meeting and I said, ‘Let’s stop playing. I’ll start recording some stuff,’ which I did. We were going to stop for a minute, and of course, it was forever. We just never played again.”

In fact, Rey played once more during what he calls “my lost years,” opening for fellow power poppers Swing Set in 1989, but Sunday’s appearance at a retirement party/benefit for two Aveda Institute graduates at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall is the first time he’ll lead a band – anchored by guitarists Terry Isachsen and Wayne Hasti and drummer Kirk Hall – since Ronald Reagan was president.

“I got laid off from my job [as a shipper and exporter] of 15 years last November, and I had all this time on my hands,” he said. “I’ve always thought that songwriting is the basis to everything, and I’ve been going through archives and all these old tapes. I’ve been writing, I’ve got all these songs, I’ve been playing my guitar and singing every day.”

He’s also been recording, and his just-finished self-produced and self–played CD (with cover art by Paper Tiger) will see the light of day in October, along with more live dates. Not for nothing does Rey say he feels like Rip Van Winkle these days.

“I’ve really been pushing to get this CD done, because you’ve got to leave something behind,” said Rey, whose father was a jazz percussionist in Minneapolis in the ’40s, and whose younger brother Tommy plays drums with The Mighty Mofos.

“My son’s going to be 33 in October, and he’s going to have a kid some day, and I want him to be able to go, ‘Here’s Grandpa’s music.’ I have my grandpa’s music. Everybody on my mom’s side – we’re Mexicans – they all play. I have this old crappy tape of my grandpa playing all these Mexican songs, and I want to leave my music behind. That’s very important to me.”

It all restarts Sunday at the Amsterdam, where Rey and band hit the stage at 7:30.

“The cool thing is that at midnight, I’ll be turning 60,” he said. “This is like my birthday present. This whole time I’ve been saying, ‘You guys, we have to play before I’m 60,’ and now… Isn’t that something? It’s like it was meant to be.”