His family is part of East Texas history, and his music reflects the rich roux of the region. From the roots of rock 'n' roll to blue-eyed soul to folk to swing to several decades of the Austin sound, Johnny Edson has been there and back again. Along the way, he's been an ad man, a candlemaker, a real estate agent, Ronald McDonald's escort and writer-producer of an award-winning film documentary. 'Edson is cool, he's hip, he knows what 'Diddie wah diddie' means,' says an Austin reviewer, singing praises of Edson's 'witty, inventive, literate and idiosyncratic approach to swing.' Edson's three albums - 'Johnny Edson' (1994), 'Hob Nobbin' with the Hoi Polloi' (1997) and 'A Spread Misere' (2001) - have earned rave reviews. They treat an avid following of music-lovers to such regionally inspired refrains as 'Mrs. Belmont (of Beaumont),' 'Port Arthur,' 'The Gator' and 'Boppin' at the Big Oaks,' as well as one-of-a-kind ditties like 'Last Tango in Pago Pago,' 'The Cows and I,' 'Jive at Five,' Kiss Me You Fool,' 'Love Song to a Train' and 'Dad Gum Thing,' as well as ballads like 'Two Happy Dreamers.' Names of groups he has led since the mid-1970s are enough to put the colorful tunesmith on the musical map: Uncle Uh Uh and the Uh Uhs, Dad Gum Swing and The Rio Snappers. He got into music as a student in Junior High School. 'My friends and I bought ukuleles, and we all played them - mostly Hawaiian tunes. The school was a hotbed of musical talent. Folk music hadn't hit big, but was about to. Rock 'n' roll was starting to get big.' Those were heady times for music in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. 'It was blue-eyed soul we were really digging at that time. We'd go to Louisiana and the Big Oaks - the roadhouse with all the big bands like the Boogie Kings. The place was also famous for fights in the parking lot.' Professionally, the next two decades took Edson on a roller-coaster ride. He put his musical career on hold to enroll in the University of Texas, but dropped out and got a job in the mail room at a major advertising agency whose accounts included Coca-Cola and Humble Oil. 'That was a stroke of luck,' he says. 'I worked my way up to traffic and production.' He went back to school at the University of Houston and became a sales representative for a photographic company. Then he started his own candle company. 'I was a hippie candle-maker from '72 to '74,' he recalls. It was going well, but I walked around smelling like all the fragrances I put in candles. I also had long hair, so I really turned heads. I sold the candle company to another dreamer.' At another advertising agency, where he worked both the creative side and as an account executive, his big account was McDonald's, then in business at just a few locations. A big part of his job was to squire the trademark clown, Ronald McDonald, to schools, nursing homes and store openings. 'We'd do our thing all day long,' he recalls. When the agency lost the account, Edson decided to try a career in music. He moved to Austin, where the music scene was red hot and clubs like the Armadillo World Headquarters were in their heyday. 'It was 1974, the year of Watergate. I'd just been fired, so I sat around watching the Watergate hearings. I decided to start writing music and see if I could make something of it.' In the company of two fellow musicians, he started Uncle Uh Uh and the Uh Uhs, whose main claim to fame is having performed on opening night of the original Waterloo Ice House. He was one of the classic nightspot's original owners. It was his first professional gig. Nostalgic for the Louisiana roadhouse of his youth, he wrote 'Boppin' at the Big Oaks,' probably his best-known composition and a popular part of concert repertoire for such top names as Marcia Ball. 'It was my first song and maybe the best one I wrote,' Edson said. After heading the group Dad Gum Swing for five years and releasing a cassette recording of that name, Edson decided it was time for a bigger adventure. 'There was so much good talent around Austin, and I wanted to hear what they could do with my songs in a professional studio and with state-of-the-art equipment,' he said. The result was the 1994 CD 'Johnny Edson,' recorded at Ray Benson's Asleep at the Wheel studio and featuring cover photos by Keith Carter. The CD 'marshals a Who's Who of Austin musicians in support of his vocals and guitar,' according to Music City Texas Record Reviews, and 'establishes his master of the (swing) genre, both as singer and songwriter.' 'The tunes turned out pretty well and inspired me to write new stuff,' Edson said. His second album was 'Hob Nobbin' With the Hoi Polloi,' again featuring a stellar roster of musicians. 'Spread Misere,' is Edson's most personal collection, it's title meaning a game in which all the cards are played face up. 'There are lots of personal songs, some autobiographical,' Edson said. The CD opens with a rockabilly version of 'Prologue to Canterbury Tales' and ends with 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew' - both of which Edson says he loved and memorized in junior high. Categorizing Edson's music is hard, even by his own admission. 'I guess swing is the closest you can get,' he says. 'Rhythm and jive in a swing groove.' His idol is Freddie Green of the old Count Basie Orchestra, and he loves the old music, especially the love songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern. 'I like to write something that's romantic,' says Edson, who married for the first time at 55. His wife, Mary Ann, was an acquaintance during school days in Beaumont. 'He has a quirky, tongue-in-cheek style that we find appealing,' Byron Balentine of KVLU said. 'And a lot of his songs have connections to this area, which makes them interesting to play.' A fourth Edson CD is on the horizon for 2004 release.
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