By Kathleen Wagnild
For the Journal
If you grew up in Fergus Falls, chances are you have heard one of Steve Johnson’s bands play. Johnson had his hands — literally, he’s a drummer — in six local bands from 1966 through 1989.
If you don’t remember his bands, you have certainly been in contact with his work at Lake Region Healthcare, where he oversaw materials management for 35 years.
As sixth grade ended, in 1966, Johnson resolved to join the seventh grade band. He took drumming lessons that summer. It was his first introduction to music. He practiced hard, and when school started, he made the band. He also found a jamming partner, a guitarist. Together, they decided to start a band.
Maybe you remember the talented boy band called The Rubber Band (1966-1971)? They played such varied venues as a convocation and the seventh grade talent show. Johnson actually missed that gig. He had the mumps. He said, with some regret in his voice, that’s “the only gig I’ve missed out of 3,000 lifetime events.”
As Johnson and the boys from The Rubber Band got older, they changed their style to include harder rock. They also changed their name to Pressure. In 1968, Balmoral Pavilion called Johnson’s parents. It seems Tommy James and the Shondells (“Hanky Panky,” “Crimson and Clover”) couldn’t make their gig. Pressure was tapped to fill in. Johnson was 15 years old.
From that time on, Johnson performed. Pressure played at dances at Fergus Falls High School, at bars around the area and at pavilion dances.
He and the boys he played with until 1977 enjoyed jam sessions.
“We could just jam. We knew each other so well, we could jam on a song for 20 to 30 minutes,” said Johnson.
While Johnson was traveling with the band, he was also going to school at the Fergus Falls Community College and working a full-time job. He worked at H&L OK Hardware. The L of H&L, Don Luhman, noticed how tired Johnson was after gig nights.
He suggested to Johnson that he choose between the band and the job. Johnson chose the band. They went full-time together for 10 months in 1976.
But the hardware store yielded an important piece of Johnson’s life: his wife, Karin. She walked in one day and caught Johnson’s eye. He resolved to meet her; she already knew who he was. It seems that one day in high school, Johnson stopped on his way out of the band room to help a fellow drummer adjust her strap. Karin remembered his kindness. They were married in 1977.
By that time, Pressure had broken up, but Johnson didn’t stop playing and performing. He joined the Dave Schaffer Band in 1977. They played at places like the Elks Clubs and the Eagles Clubs around the area. In 1982, some guys from the Dave Schaffer Band formed a new band called E.Z. Duzit and in 1983, Head Over Heels began to play together. Johnson’s last band, Heads Up, formed in 1986 and played together until 1989.
In 1990, Johnson and disc jockey Jon Johnson started a DJ business. From 1996 to 2010, Johnson ran Johnson’s Audio Plus on his own. In 2010, Johnson figured he was ready to be done with music.
The dates and names roll off Johnson’s tongue with ease. He is a man with a great mind for detail. Perhaps that is what made him so good at his job. In 1980, Karin encouraged her husband to apply for a job at the hospital. There was a position open for a purchasing agent. Johnson had no idea what that was. He figured he was unqualified for the job.
Turns out it was a perfect fit!
Johnson worked for Lake Region Healthcare for 35 years, ending his career as the director of materials management. He was responsible for “buying everything other than pharmaceuticals and food,” he said.
For a period, Johnson was even in charge of the telephone system at the hospital. He was behind the acquisition of 736-8000, a number every Fergus Falls resident knows. Signage at the hospital also came under Johnson’s responsibilities. His imprint is all over the campus.
But Johnson’s proudest moment on the job came in 2014. The Thursday before Labor Day weekend that year, there was a public ceremony marking the groundbreaking for the new clinic. Johnson was asked to provide sound for the outdoor ceremony.
He drew on his many years of experience with his bands, and his wealth of equipment, to provide sound so perfect “you could hear S’s and T’s for three blocks. You could hear every word they said. It was exciting to be a part of that for Fergus Falls. I take pride in that,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s wife passed away in 2008. He keeps himself occupied with their two daughters and his grandchildren (two so far, and a third on the way) and his music.
Johnson retired in 2015. He is now collecting the equipment he needs to record his own music. He started playing the guitar and has some music just about ready to record.
In the meantime, Johnson goes to venues around the area and up in Fargo to hear bands play. Occasionally, he sits in and plays with a band. He’s not going to get the band back together, he says, but he is going to dabble a bit.
If you’re lucky, you may get to hear echoes of The Rubber Band in Fergus again.