BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – In the mid-1960s, while Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were getting all of the national attention, a quirky genius by the name of Gary Paxton was making rock ‘n’ roll records out of a converted Bank of America branch in Oildale. 

Paxton – he’s the guy who gave us classics like Alley Oop and Monster Mash – relied on one songwriter in particular to produce his rock, doo-wop and surf music – Bakersfield’s Kenny Johnson.

Producer and music journalist Alec Palao said Johnson stood out among the large collection of local rock ‘n rollers trying to emulate Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

“What set Kenny Johnson apart from those guys is that he was a writer,” Palau said. “He was a very creative person right from the start. He would pick up the guitar and start writing his own songs. … When the British Invasion came along that really stoked him and he became incredibly proficient and prolific.”

But Johnson wasn’t just a songwriter. Johnson led several local bands beginning in the late 1950s – The Rockets, The Ho Daddies, The Trippers, and The Fourth Dimension – which opened at Bakersfield’s Albert S. Goode Auditorium for the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Chubby Checker. He was a versatile musician, too, memorably stepping in to play drums for pre-fame Sonny and Cher, whose drummer didn’t show up.

After the British Invasion of 1965 changed rock ‘n roll forever, Johnson adapted his songwriting to suit the new sound, and he recorded dozens of records for Paxton’s several record labels under names like The Bakersfield Poppy Pickers and The Chocolate Tunnel. And, yes, he made some country records too, including a compilation called Bakersfield Rebels.

Later, when Paxton closed shop and moved to Nashville, Johnson followed and spent several years there working as a studio musician, songwriter, and club musician. He played for Gary Lewis and Playboys, R&B great Thelma Houston, and country star Vern Gosdin.

Johnson eventually returned to Bakersfield, where he struggled with alcoholism. He was a fixture at AA meetings, mostly at the Bakersfield Alano Club, where he participated in the club band.

He is survived by his daughter Kyndra, his granddaughter Darryn, his brother Don and Don’s large family. No services are planned.