Classical 91.5

Bus driving guitarist looks back on career with many turns

Apr 30, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 10:26 am

Guitarist Lawrence Johnson recorded the complete works of early-nineteenth century composer Fernando Sor – using equipment that the guitarist got in a trade for a Volkswagen.  He recalls, "I found out this guy and this girl, they were married – and he decided he didn’t like her anymore and he left her and took her car. But he was also a recording nut, and so he had this Revox 77.  So I said: I got a car if you want it, but I need that Revox 77. So, I got it." 

That Volkswagen – tape-deck trade isn’t the unusual aspect of Johnson's music career. He made his living in Rochester for years as the driver of a city bus, while still maintaining a serious commitment to playing and recording music. "I’d usually do night runs, because I could carry a guitar with me, and they had long layovers, and I could practice on the bus.  I figured out when I could get the most practice in. Carried a junky guitar on the bus, worked out all my fingerings, went home and practiced on the good guitar, and then went out and recorded it." 

He made his recordings late at night at Roberts Wesleyan College – where he taught for a while – he also taught guitar as Nazareth college for a time, and before that, he played taught classical guitar around the East Village in New York City.

While classical guitar has been his passion and life’s work, Lawrence Johnson started out trying to avoid classical music. 

"I was playing rock music, and getting in all kinds of trouble in school – typical teenage rebellion kind of thing, you know. I had an old beat up guitar, they call a stella guitar – which was the cheapest one you could get. I put some pickups on it – I got some cheap pick ups. And I tried to play rock guitar. I played a few Elvis songs, and things like that, you know. And my parents were kinda horrified, because my father played in the philharmonic for a while – played viola, incidentally." 

But he heard a recording by legendary Catalan classical guitarist Andres Segovia, and it changed his life. Johnson says, "Segovia inspired me. And I just couldn’t believe it - because back then, there was nobody but Segovia. He was the mentor for everybody who got into classical guitar. And he was wonderful. He played so expressively. Still his recordings are top notch. He still inspires me. But the recording, I heard it, and I said – that can’t be done. You can’t do all those voices and things.  I didn’t care that much for the classical music he was playing at my first, because I’d heard it all my life, and you know,  I was still in a sort of rebellion stage. I just wanted to learn to play that kind of guitar, so I could play rock better."

"Once I got it into, I got a little book – I went down to the old Lovetts music store – I don’t know if you heard of that. It was a big music store, right across from Eastman on Main Street. I found a book – learning the classical guitar. It had tablature, and it had tablature and the music with it. I started to play a few pieces from that book. Got a little idea of the technique – and I just went from there." 

Lawrence Johnson went on to study with one of Segovia’s students, and then took classes with the legend himself.  He followed the life of an itinerant guitar student, soloist, and teacher for a while – but ended up coming home to Rochester. "I mean, you know, I was born average, not..." he says as he laughs, and goes on: "...but most of the people who made it back then really had a lot of money behind them, and didn’t have other responsibilities either. I got married in 1977, and started having a family, and actually had step-children at the time, and had to support a family, which is how I ended up working at the bus company, amongst other jobs." 

Now 75, Johnson is retired from the driving the bus, and although focal dystonia has slowed him down some, he still plays.

You can find an extended interview with Lawrence Johnson, and a link to his recordings and musical essays on WXXI Classical 91.5's Musicians of Rochester.