Biography of Johnny D Fox

Johnny D Fox

The Beginning

Johnny was born John Stephen Conlan to Michael Gerard Conlan (Gerry) and Anna Marie Traynor (Marie) on 7th April 1970 in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.  How Gerry and Marie met deserves to be told, so please bear with me.  The beginning of this bio is going to read like a Jane Austin romance novel. 

Gerry and Marie’s romance.

Marie was born in 1937 in Roskeagh, Kilcurry, Co.Louth and as a 15 year old, she was taken by horse and cart to Dundalk by her father.  Then she took the train to Cobh to catch the boat to America.  He wasn’t getting rid of her and she wasn’t running away.  It was just the tradition within her family that they had a culture of emigration and she had relatives in New York.  As Johnny says “she was in the company of strangers” on the journey.  It must have been tough, as a 15 year old, being on a boat to New York on your own for a week.  Marie spent the next 12 years studying and working in New York.  She was working in the Time and Life building.  After five years she came home for a holiday.  During the holiday, she went to a dance and met Gerry.  It was love at first sight for both of them.  They maintained a two year long distance relationship and in 1959 Gerry went to America.

Prior to this meeting Gerry was working in EJ Connelly’s shoe shop in Dundalk.  He gave up his job when he followed Marie back to NY where he got a job in another shoe shop.  They got married in 1961 in NY. 

In 1964 they left NY and went to London, where Johnny’s sister, Jane, was born in 1966.  In 1967, they came back to Dundalk to raise their family, Gerry got his old job back in EJ Connelly’s and they bought their house in 1970, just when the troubles in Northern Ireland were starting.

Johnny’s music roots

When his parents came back from NY, they brought back a lot of records.  Johnny was quick to tell me that they were 33⅓ rpm LPs.  For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, an LP is a Long Playing vinyl record that is 10 or 12 inch diameter.  It was also called an album that contained 10+ songs on them.  The LPs included Bagatelle, Paddy Reilly, Jim McCann, Wolfe Tones, Laurence Welk TV Show, Irish Rovers, Frank Sinatra , The Lennon Sisters, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, to mention but a few.

Johnny practically wore out the records playing them and longed to be a pop star some day.  There is a similarity to Neil Sedaka here in so far as Johnny scratched out some of the names on the LPs and put on his own instead, just to see what it looked like.

Johnny’s mum could sing effortlessly and his dad less often, but they didn’t sing on stage, just at home and at parties.  There was always a piano in the house and his father could pick a song out with his right hand.

When Johnny was in school, he joined the De La Salle piano accordion band.  His teacher recognised that he had talent and recommended that he go to Rory Kennedy, who was a well-known traditional player all over Ireland.  Johnny went to Rory and learnt trad music.

At ten years of age, he was sent to piano lessons.  A few years later, he stopped those lessons because it wasn’t ‘cool’ in front of his friends.  When coming home from school and lessons, he used to hide the piano books under his jumper.  However, the love of piano called him back fairly quickly and he continued his classical training.  He passed eight grades.  As Johnny says

you won’t make money from playing classical piano, but you do learn discipline, scales, technique, posture, music composition and theory.  Music theory teaches you rhythm, melodies and form which can help you hear and create music in a way you have never done before”

While Johnny can read music, he doesn’t have a need for it these days because he learns by ear.  Johnny said that being classically trained teaches you the rules, so now he knows how to break them properly.  He explained to me that if he wasn’t classically trained he would lack the foundation that comes with that training.  Not being classically trained tends to lead to variances and improvising; classical training, on the other hand, offers you consistency.  Johnny teaches his own children through classical training also.

Johnny explained that learning by ear means that you have more fun, you ‘feel’ the music and you don’t forget it.  He also learnt the piano accordion, bass and acoustic guitar by ear.

Thin Lizzy

When Johnny was 15, he heard Thin Lizzy.  It was like an explosion of music in his head and Phil Lynott became his role model.  He wanted to be Phil Lynott.  Therefore he decided to learn the bass guitar.  He didn’t have a bass guitar, but he did have an old acoustic guitar and he learned from the top four strings ignoring the high B and E strings.  Then on 4th January 1986, Phil died at 36 years of age.  Johnny was devastated as he was just getting in to him.  He bought all the Thin Lizzy records and taught himself the words and bass guitar by ear to every song within one year.  He used to sing the songs everywhere he went - in the garden, on the streets, his bedroom.  His neighbours and friends told him that he couldn’t sing.  They said that he could play the piano and write songs, as a sympathy comment to not being able to sing.  Johnny ignored them all.  His motto “Believe in yourself, listen to nobody negative”.  Johnny was in the company of some very famous singers here because Elvis was also told my both his teacher and the Grand Ole Opry that he couldn’t sing either and Neil Sedaka was told by his record company to concentrate on writing because his voice wasn’t good enough.

Johnny practiced every afternoon and evening when he came home from school and every Saturday and Sunday too.  He was obsessed with music - both piano and bass as well as singing.  He played the bass guitar with Thin Lizzy records, threw shapes, looked in the mirror and took photos.  On the piano he was practicing for his grades as well as picking new styles from his parents’ records as well as the radio.

He was learning techniques and genres that included trad Irish (through Rory Kennedy), as well as folk, blues, pop, country, jazz, reggae, rock and roll, hip hop and latin.  His influences stretched from Irish music through British, American, Cuban, to mention a few.  His brain was a melting pot of ideas and it was soaking in everything around him.  Music was turning into his life.  He felt alive through music and couldn’t wait for every day to begin.

Johnny made it his business to meet people who could help him with his music.  This included his teachers and other musicians.  He hung around with kids his own age who were musicians also. 

Was it karma or fate? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t happen today

One day, when Johnny was in his early teens, he was home sick from school.  His mother saw that he wasn’t really that sick, so she sent him to the shops.  On his way there, he was stopped by a guy with grey curly hair who called him over.  He took something out his bag and gave it to Johnny saying that he will have a lot of use for it.  Johnny told him that he didn’t want it, but he insisted saying that ‘good speaks through it’ and he put it in his pocket.  When he got home he told his mother and they looked at what he gave him.  It was a guitar tuner.  To this day, Johnny has no idea who that man was or why he gave it to him as opposed to other people on the street.  He only knows that it was appropriate to him and has perhaps brought him some form of good luck in his musical life.  Maybe it was karma or fate!

The start of his Musical career

When Johnny was 16, he started writing songs – words and music.  As he says

“Once you get bitten by the bug, there is nothing like it.  The day that you record yourself, you walk out of the room a different person”

He still has all the original recordings that he taped on four and eight track from over 30 years ago. 

“I intend to go back to them someday because some of them are better than I thought”

When he was 16, he started his first band – Storm.  He also called it An Racán.  The band members were Anthony Lennon on drums, Tony Markey on guitar, Roddy McCollum on guitar and Johnny on piano accordion, bass, keyboards and vocals.  He managed to get a few gigs in local pubs.  It was a learning curve and the band only lasted a year or so.  At the same time, he was looking at other musical projects.  One of his friends said that he could play drums, but he didn’t have any.  Johnny’s dad knew a guy who sold music instruments, so he bought a set of drums for him.  It turns out that he didn’t know how to play drums at all.  He wanted to play them.  So Johnny asked his dad could he have the shed in the back garden for practice.  His dad agreed.  (His dad must have been a saint).  They setup the drums, the bass, piano accordion, acoustic guitar and piano in the shed.  His friend self-taught himself drums while Johnny played the bass, accordion, acoustic guitar and piano.  Johnny admitted that his friend turned out to be a decent drummer.  They also got a few gigs.  £15 a night wasn’t too bad, I suppose, for a few youngsters 30 years ago who were starting off.  These two bands lasted about two years.

Bernie LoughranAt 18, Johnny was asked to join a wedding band as a stand in for one gig.  That one gig lasted over a year and he saved enough money to buy himself a car.  He was getting £40 per wedding.  At the same time, he was still writing and recording in his bedroom.

In the meantime, his dad left EJ Connelly and started his own business opening a shoe shop in Dundalk.  He asked Johnny to work for him, which he did while he was still gigging at night.

Johnny was getting around the music circuit and was getting himself known.  He met Brendan O’Hare and Bernie Loughran and was asked to join their band – Fred’s Flying Circus.  FFC was a Power House three piece which played in McConvilles every Thursday night in Dundalk.  Johnny was playing his Fender Precision Bass together with the talent of Brendan O’Hare on Drums and Bernie Loughran on guitar.  Johnny says that Bernie is one of the better guitarists in the country.  This band was a force to be reckoned with.  Unfortunately, Brendan passed away a few years ago.  Johnny’s thoughts of Brendan are his wit and humour as well as his skill playing the drums.

At the same time, he was asked to join another wedding band – Gerry and the Summersets.  He was juggling a few bands all at the same time.  In addition, he was doing some of his own gigs on piano playing Irish music, trad and folk with the McCollum brothers. 

As a result, he was asked to join another folk band called – Off the Track.

This all kept going until Johnny was 22 or 23 when he was asked to join a country rock band called The Long Riders doing music like The Eagles, Garth Brooks and so on.

He also joined another wedding band.  He is now working seven nights a week as well as working in his father’s shop during the day time.  Every spare minute he got, he was still writing and recording.

Thin Az Lizzy

Thin Az Lizzy in 1995.  This was the beginning.

At 25, he met Paul Owens from Clare.  Paul and Johnny starting writing songs together. He was still inspired by Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy.  Remember, from earlier in his life, he wanted to be Phil Lynott.  Johnny felt the time was right for him to start his own band.  Thin Az Lizzy was born.  This was the time before tribute bands had taken off.

In May 1995, he invited Philomena Lynott and Smiley Bolger to a Thin Az Lizzy gig.  They were so impressed that Philomena said that Johnny’s voice and bass guitar were as close to Phil’s you can get.  He was chuffed.  That gave him the motivation to develop the band.  He met Jake Walshe who became the manager of the band. It was decided to run it like a business.  Jake took care of business, the lads took care of the music.

In 1995, Thin Az Lizzy only did four gigs.  In 1996, they did 30.  1997 was a 100, then from 1998 for the next six years or so, they did 150 per year.  They were touring all around Ireland, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.  They bought their own van, all their own equipment like sound, lights and so on.  They also had their own sound and lighting engineers.

Early in the life of Thin Az Lizzy, Johnny joined another band called Elmer Fud, while he was trying to get TAL on the scene.  Elmer Fudd was made up of Johnny, Bobby Robertson on guitar and Gene Beril on drums

Johnny, Willy , the Lizzy Boys (Japan) with John Irish, Earle. The year is 1991Now, I have to ask you to please forgive my next comparison.  Some years ago, I wrote a four piece article on The Beatles.  You can get it here.  In 1957, they started life as The Quarrymen and through a whole series of changes became The Beatles that we know today.  It’s a fascinating read and is full of their videos too.  But, back to my point, The Beatles developed a strong work ethic during their time in Germany and their long hours.  Thin Az Lizzy also developed a strong work ethic doing over 150 gigs per annum.  Let’s talk work ethic with Elvis too.  Over his 24 year career, on a per annum basis he did 1.4 films + 2.04 albums + 0.66 TV specials + 74 US concerts.  In his final seven years, he did an average of 140 US concerts pa, nearly three per week.

Thin Az Lizzy 2016.  Johnny, Flash, Willy and EamonAround 2004, Johnny wanted a change of music, so he slowed the band down.  He took a break from it, went back to it, took another break.  That final break continued until late in 2016, when he decided to re-form the band. 

During the busy TAL period Johnny did sucessful Monday nights in Newry's Q Club with Bernie Loughran, his brother Davy on guitar and Joe Balance on drums.  They were legendary gigs.

He has surrounded himself with new management, a new marketing and internet team, almost the same band members who have proven themselves over the years, a new business approach that is adapted to suit the changing markets, new backroom staff members to suit new technologies, choreographers and stage/show professionals. 

Thin Az Lizzy are recognised as being the best Thin Lizzy tribute act in Ireland.  There is no doubt to that.  His next goal is it bring Thin Az Lizzy to the point of being the Best Thin Lizzy Band in the world.  This will be achieved though the new team that he has amassed.  Whatever has to happen to achieve that goal will happen.  Johnny has a renewed sense of motivation and focus.  Watch this space.  While we are not going to tell you the financial objectives, we are going to tell you that within 2 years, it is planned to be doing 150+ shows per annum all around Europe.  Then it is planned to bring it further afield.

Johnny admits that the better the audience is the better we are on stage”.  So part of their job onstage is to create good audience participation.  TAL are bringing their own flavour to songs and at the same time holding on to what makes the songs great and what the audience loves. 

For example, I was videoing a gig in Sligo.  The venue was packed to the rafters.  The promoters didn’t expect half of that crowd because it was November, pouring with rain and freezing cold.  I spoke to a few people there who told me they were there purely to see TAL.  Within one minute of starting the show, the hall was packed (they came from everywhere in the pub) and people were singing to every song.  During their version of Whiskey in the Jar, Johnny got as far as the first four words of the song and stopped singing.  The band kept playing and the audience took over for the next two minutes.

Johnny in his recording studioRecording Studio

As mentioned before, Johnny was always recording himself.  It all started on a four-track recorder in his bedroom.  That extended to an eight track.  Big deal, I hear you say.  Over the next 20 years, Johnny built his own recording studio.  It has three sound proofed rooms including a huge mixing desk, drums and all the relevant equipment.  He reckons he has spent way over €150k on it over the years.  Johnny says

“This is a project.  It is permanently developing and growing.  I am always buying new gear.”

Recordings

Over the years, Johnny recorded both himself and bands he was in.  He produced a few CDs commercially. 

Moving forward, it is planned to produce Thin Az Lizzy CDs, DVDs and merchandising.  They will try to capture the explosive excitement the band produce on stage and the infectious participation from the audience.

Collaborations

Over the past years, Johnny has played with people like Henry McCullough of Wings, Midge Ure, Brian Robertson, John ‘Irish Earl’,  Eric Bell, Jackie McAuley (from Van Morrisson's Them), Grainne Duffy (wrote and recorded Shanco album), Walter McConville (Bagatelle - North East Rock), Speedo Wilson from Belfast's Sweet Savage .  He played support for Status Quo and played at the Vibe for Philo for over ten years.

It is planned in the future to play on stage with other music professionals and entertainers.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that it will ensure the same ‘staleness’ does not set in as happened around 2004.  It will also fuel ongoing creativity, give an insight as to how others operate, create a larger fan base for Thin Az Lizzy and create further opportunities.

Room Service

Room Service is a band that Johnny presently owns and runs.  He plays piano, accordion and bass, as well being the main singer.  You can see more of Room Service here.  In short, the band started in 2011 with Phillip Edgar from Belfast as a two piece.  Then Eamon Ferris from Belfast joined.  Phillip moved to Norway to develop his musical career.  The band was then joined by Bobby Robertson on guitar.  In the latter half of 2016, Phillip returned from Norway and re-joined the band.

Over the past few years, Room Service operated as a solo act from Johnny, also a two, three and four piece band.  The band plays a mix of modern and past pop songs, as well as classics from Jackson Brown, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd as well as folk, blues, pop, country, jazz, reggae, rock and roll, hip hop and latin. 

Arsonist Birds

Johnny started the Arsonist Birds in mid 2016 as an experiment.  He called it a ‘Monday night’ band because he got a residency in Toals Bar in Dundalk every Monday from 9.30 to 11.30.  It is a four piece band and plays similar Music to Room Service, but with a different twist.  When the band started in Toals on Monday nights, there were only about a half a dozen people there.  Now, (Nov 2016) it is packed by about 10 o’clock.  A month ago, I went up there and took videos of the full gig.  Today, Johnny told me that I may have problems moving around now.

Discography

Albums

  • THIN AZ LIZZY
  • THE HARBOUR BAND “CRUISIN”
  • SHANCO
  • NORTH EAST ROCK
  • THE REGULAR GAS BAND
  •  

Songs