By Jim Newell
Review Staff Writer
For both Jerry Zubal and Johnny Heaton, the evolution to becoming professional musicians began when they were young – forming bands as school kids, playing with friends at sock hops and dances, feeling that sense of excitement when they played their first ‘real’ paying gig.
The Oakland County natives played in the Pontiac and Detroit music scenes in the 70s and 80s, stretched their talents across musical genres over their careers, and both had signed with record labels during stints in California.
So for a couple of 70s hard rock and blues musicians who have seemingly played everywhere, it’s only natural that Heaton’s and Zubal’s should evolve from their roots into a new phase of musical maturation.
Now they’re focusing on developing their blues-rock acoustic music with some “energy behind it,” forming the duo, The JJ’s.
“We don’t just sit back like Peter, Paul and Mary, we put some meat into it,” Heaton said.
Zubal, who lives in Orion Township, and Heaton, a Waterford resident, played at the Wildwood Music Festival in August – their first public performance together – to an enthusiastic audience, covering such tunes as the rock classic, The Letter by The Box Tops, and Joe Bonamassa’s blues rock ballad Different Shades of Blue.
They are currently developing a catalog of covers and writing their own original music, and are looking to take their sound to local venues this fall.
Zubal – The Early Years
Like many musicians, both Zubal and Heaton were bitten by the music bug as pre-teens and began cultivating their own sound.
“I started taking guitar lessons just prior to turning eight years old and I was real excited about it because my grandfather played guitar and mandolin and I always looked forward to hearing him play,” Zubal said. “He was an early, early influence.”
Zubal put a band together around 11 or 12 years of age, and began practicing and playing with friends as a teen at clubs and schools.
He also began doing what he is still doing today, instructing other aspiring musicians: “I started teaching guitar when I was 13 or so, at my parents, Saturday mornings.”
Eventually he got into bands and played all the clubs in Detroit, “all the hideouts that you read about,” he said.
Zubal and his band signed with Punch Andrews, Bob Seger’s manager, and recorded one album.
“We had a whole second album of music together but he didn’t like the music. It was a little different than the first album. We were progressing as a band,” Zubal said.
He went to California in mid-70s and joined a band originally called Rocket, until they signed with the label RSO, Robert Stigwood Organisation, and the label changed the name.
“The politics involved with signing with a label, you learn all that,” he said. “We played the Roxy, the Starwood, the Trubador.”
Zubal played 70s hard rock in California on the same label as Eric Clapton. “But it was the 70s and disco got big and when it came to renew the contracts I’m sure the label looked at its books and said ‘Where are we making the most money? They were making the money on disco, they had the Bee Gees on the same label, and they released us, which hurt. I mean all your life you want a major record label, you get and then it’s gone.”
“So I came back to Michigan then – I probably should have stayed out there, but I had a young family then. Both of my kids were born in California.”
Zubal returned to Michigan and continued to play with different bands and teach guitar.
“Most of the bands I’ve had stayed together a long time, a few years,” Zubal said.
“In band time that’s a long time,” Heaton said. “Five years, maybe, it’s like a major milestone.”
Heaton – The Early Years
“I was the only boy in an all-girl family,” Heaton said. “My mom was a single mom, and I never knew my dad. He disappeared when I was born. But my mom said he used to play guitar.”
“When I was 12 or so I wanted a guitar, so she got me a Roy Rogers guitar,” Heaton said, he and Jerry laughing about the recollection. “It was actually cardboard and it had a little windup thing, you’d turn it and it would play Happy Trails.”
After the glue on the cardboard guitar melted and the guitar fell apart, Heaton got his first “real” guitar, a J45 Gibson, as a teen. “For a first guitar it was a nice guitar.”
Heaton’s mom took him to group guitar lessons and “they wanted us to play Red River Valley for our first song.”
“I didn’t want to play Red River Valley, so I said, Mom, I’m just going to get this chord book and teach myself. So every day after school I was in my room, learning how to play chords.”
Heaton and a friend then put together an acoustic band – three acoustic guitars and a bass – between junior high and high school (1968-69) playing only original music.
“We got a gig opening up for a band at Elizabeth Lake Estates and these guys came in and said, ‘Oh, a folk act,’” Heaton said. “Then the band members in The T heard our four-part harmony and said ‘You guys sounded really good.’
Zubal was in that band and that was the first time they met, one of many encounters over the years before the two would start working together.
As a teen, Heaton’s sister’s boyfriend asked him to play in a cover band at the Firebird lounge in Pontiac for a year, six nights a week, five 45-minute sets a night. “That’s how I really learned to play a guitar,” he said.
Heaton played in a couple of bands before joining the band Tantrum around 1974. He got a Fender bass guitar and started playing bass, which he still plays today. Tantrum played some shows, opened up for Spirit and Bog Seger and English blues rock band Ten Years After, Heaton said.
They were close to getting a record deal when “some unsavory stuff was found out about how management was getting extra pay,” so he and the drummer left Tantrum around 1978 and the band broke up.
Heaton then joined the band Foxfire for 3-4 years, playing top 40 music.
“That was the best money I ever made, but I just go so tired of playing Billy Jean and Beat It (by Michael Jackson). I sort of did some soul searching and said, you know what I’ve got to go back to school, I can’t do it here, and I moved out to California.”
Heaton went to school and played bass with Jeff Gold and the Travelers while in California. “They never made it big.”
Then after 10 years in California he moved back to Michigan.
Back in Michigan
A month after being back he bumped into Zubal at Canterbury Village. Jerry was already in a band, so Johnny started playing coffee houses and other venues with another friend and writing his own music.
Heaton bumped into Jerry again about 3-4 years ago and the two got together and recorded 8 electric songs, but they had already done that over their careers and wanted to explore different interests.
“Both of us said ‘You know what, we really love acoustic stuff, let’s try to put an acoustic duo together. And over the last couple of months we’ve been working on some songs,” Heaton said.
They played an acoustic set at a friend’s daughter’s wedding, performing Train’s Marry Me at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, as well as “whatever we wanted” before the dinner, Zubal said.
At the wedding someone came up to them and asked them to play some Bob Dylan tunes: Jerry said “sure” and Johnny said “What?” So they pulled up the lyrics for Knocking on Heaven’s Door on Heaton’s phone and winged it.
“It’s not that I don’t like Dylan, we’re just really not a folk duo. So here we are playing acoustic again and we’ve both written songs. And we want to get at that eventually, but right now we want to get a night’s worth of cover songs so we can get out and start playing,” Heaton said.
“My goal is to really get that stuff down and then start putting an original set together, to have something that’s really us,” Heaton said.
“The cover songs are other people’s songs, but we’re trying to more or less make them our own,” Zubal said.
“We’re more like a progressive acoustic duo,” Heaton said.
Both sing and said they’re working on harmonizing more instead of just one of them taking the lead. Zubal plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, a little bass, mandolin. Heaton is an accomplished finger-style player and plays bass and banjo.
“We’ve both pretty much been doing this all our lives. It’s always been more than a hobby,” Zubal said. “We want to have fun doing it. We’re trying to develop a sound while rehearsing.”
“You’re going to want to listen to the lyrics, especially when we play our original stuff because we do have something to say…you have a feeling or some information you want to bring out and share. It’s an exposing thing, you let people into your life a little bit.”