The song is still a radio favorite, turning up in commercials and movies such as the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film, but it’s just a small part of long, storied career that has seen him play guitar with everyone from Van Morrison to Jerry Garcia.
Appearing at Winston’s in a special early show on Oct. 8, Vernazza has played intimate clubs and stadiums, but cites his TV appearances as the most fun live work he’s done. “I’ve played lots of shows in my 50-some years at this and tons of them were favorites, but I must say though that doing TV was the best,” he said.
Vernazza was a mainstay of such 1970s era programs as “In Concert,” “Rock Concert,” “American Band Stand,” “The Sonny and Cher Show” and the “Midnight Special,” the latter of which he appeared on 14 times. “You not only are playing to a live audience, but when it’s aired, more people see you than any one concert ever. They were a kick to film too, what a great experience and memory,” he recalled.
According to Vernazza, he didn’t choose the guitar as his instrument of choice. “It chose me,” he said. “When I was 10, I started playing accordion. My dad and uncle played that instrument very well and were well-known around San Francisco as the Vernazza twins,” he recalled. “My teacher was John Pezola and he was the brother of my dad and my uncle’s teacher.
“Well, I would take my sheet music home and my dad and I would play. My ear was so good I just listened to my dad and faked my reading. This went on for about six months or so, until Mr. Pezola found I was giving the wrong value to my quarter notes. I was busted. He hit me on the back of the head.”
Dad was called in and the young Johnny Vernazza was sent out of the room. “I could hear him yelling at dad in Italian, which was pretty funny. But, there was a guitar hanging on the music studio wall with some other instruments. When my dad came out I said ‘can I play guitar instead?’ Mr. Vernazza bought his son the guitar then and there. “That was the beginning of hitting strings instead of pushing and pulling bellows,” he said.
Long-time fans will note that Vernazza has been playing the same two guitars for decades. “I’ve been with ‘Old Red,’ my Tele for 20 years now,” he said. “It was built by a friend of mine and has a Strat neck and Humbuckers. I love the way it plays and sounds.” Meanwhile, a friend built Vernazza a double cutaway Tele Thinline. “I use ‘The Dragon’ for all my G-tuning stuff. It’s the fact that both guitars are handmade instead of store bought gives them some mojo that I love. They have a very special vibe, especially ‘Old Red.’”
For his part, Vernazza is happy with his five decades plus of playing music. Future plans include a pair of books on his career, titled, “Why I Play.”
“The artistic side of creating and playing music is my favorite thing, as well as all I know how to do and all I desire to do,” he remarked. “It’s a blessing and a curse that you learn to live with. You have to take the good with the bad and never give up. I think everyone has a different reason for being a musician, but for me it’s all about the art, my art. I have no urge to sound like anyone else and will take my lumps because I won’t,” Vernazza said.