Johnny Holm: The Human Jukebox (2024)

The wait to get in is at least an hour on this Saturday night.

"I'd expect this in Atlanta or Chicago," grumbles a twenty-something dude standing in line. Or maybe in downtown Minneapolis at the trendy Envy or Aqua. But, come on, this is Apple Valley. Twin Cities suburbia.

Bogart's, a nightclub in a bowling-alley complex, is jammed with more than 500 party people. And another 40 want in to see the band that rules the suburban circuit.

Midway through its first set, the Johnny Holm Band travels from "Life in a Northern Town" to the one-two punch of "Billie Jean" and "Stayin' Alive," and the dance floor is jumping as if disco never died.

A crinkly-faced leprechaun in a baseball cap leads this jubilant celebration. Johnny Holm, 59, is the human jukebox. For four decades, he has been packing Upper Midwest bars, ballrooms and bowling alleys, churning out songs that everyone knows from the radio. His may be the only band in Minnesota that goes from a Garth Brooks country classic to a Naughty by Nature hip-hop party anthem. He does all genres, all eras, all hits.

"I like lots of different music. I'm real ADD, so my brain can't figure out where it's going," said Holm, who lives -- where else? -- in suburban Chaska. "What I'm about is engaging an audience and involving myself with them and them with me."

Holm's name isn't painted on the walls of fame at First Avenue, blurbed in City Pages or hyped on the Current (89.3 FM). He doesn't care about being hip. He sells three hours of music-fueled fun to far-flung places in the five-state area. His itinerary includes the World's Largest Office Party in La Crosse, Wis., the prom in Northfield and Steamboat Days in Winona, Minn., as well as countless county fairs and college gigs.

Marcia Krupa of Elk River will routinely travel up to 40 miles to see Holm, which she does about 10 times a year. She and her pals always arrive before showtime so they can stand right in front of the stage for the entire night.

"He's very entertaining and a lot of fun," said Krupa, 37, who got hooked on Holm in the early 1990s as a St. Cloud State student. "I love the way he interacts with the audience. He gets the audience involved. They sing a wide variety of music -- from rock to pop to Neil Diamond."

Yep, Johnny Holm's money songs are "Sweet Caroline," "Piano Man" and just about anything by AC/DC.

He even wins over first-timers. "They sure sound good," said Bryan Carlson, 27, of Blaine, at his baptismal Holm encounter at POVs in Andover in March. "They sing Zac Brown; that's my favorite album right now. They're hot tonight. They make your heart pound."

The ever-smiling Holm works the crowd at POVs. After opening with "Six Days on the Road," he serenades "Happy Birthday" to a woman in the crowd. Three songs later, he stops a young waitress selling shots and buys two of them for a couple near the stage. Before you know it, Holm is standing on a chair in the crowd, conducting a demographic survey: "How many of you are under 25? Between 25 and 40? Between 40 and 60?" After each question, about one-third of the bargoers respond.

• • •

It's billed as the Johnny Holm Band -- formerly the Johnny Holm Traveling Fun Show -- but the main man sings maybe only 25 percent of the songs each night. His spotlight-stealing youngest daughter, Jordan, 19, offers her fair share, as do high-voiced guitarist Shaun Mitzel and versatile bassist John Scalia, a transplant from Louisiana who handles everything from country to rap to reggae. Holm's key talent is reading a crowd.

"I'm the quarterback," said the deep-voiced facilitator of fun, who sings most of the country and rock golden oldies. "As I started hiring different talents, I started realizing that I'm kind of a rock 'n' roll Lawrence Welk."

Working without a set list, he calls audibles depending on what he thinks will keep the dance floor hopping. During the last verse of a song, he'll turn to longtime drummer Scott Pearson with a suggestion for the next tune and the ensuing segue will be seamless.

Holm has developed a knack for reading faces, especially people who want to come onstage and sing with the band. At Bogart's, he welcomed a man in a football jersey he'd never met for the Commodores' "Brick House," and the scat-singing dude was better than any paid performer onstage that night. However, a woman under the influence who claimed to be a former nightclub singer should have been gonged for her version of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

"I'll take the hit for that," Holm admitted later and then changed his mind. "No, it was fine. In this band, if that made her night, that means a lot."

• • •

This year, Holm is celebrating his 40th year of getting paid to play music. Other Upper Midwest bands such as the bluesy Lamont Cranston and country stalwart Sherwin Linton have been around as long, but neither plays in the variety of settings and to the volume of people that Holm does.

To commemorate the Big 4-0, he is rounding up some of his band members from over the years to record in Nashville. His former bassist Jack Sundrud, who plays with the long-lived country-pop band Poco, will produce, starting with a session in two weeks. Holm wants to make a double album -- one disc of originals written by the various musicians and one of covers.

How many band members has Holm gone through over the years?

"At one time, it was 65, but that's misleading because I had so many who were with me for so long," he said. "I had one guy stay with me for 28 years. I got a couple 23, a 14, a 16."

He has made five albums, but he quit recording in the 1980s. "Maybe a man's got to know his limitations," he explained. His most successful LP -- they were all vinyl -- was "Lightnin' Bar Blues," the title tune of which became a regional favorite.

On the cover of that mid-1970s album, he looked like a young, energetic Elton John. He still has the same gigantic smile and sparkly eyes, though they're framed by crow's feet. Holm is unquestionably spirited in concert, but he doesn't jump around as much as he used to. He had his right hip replaced in January, a followup to a similar surgery in 2007.

Growing up in Brainerd, Holm got his first guitar in eighth grade and learned how to play the Beatles' "Thank You Girl." While studying special education at Moorhead State, he started as a solo act at the Rolling Keg. Three years later, he put together his first band. In 1980, he moved from Fargo to the Twin Cities because he landed a gig at Valleyfair amusem*nt park, which lasted until 1995.

Holm and his wife, Pam, and their five daughters settled in Chaska. Pam, whom he met when he performed at a special-ed teachers' convention, teaches deaf children. Married for 26 years, the couple have three grandkids, with another on the way.

• • •

Kevin McLean has a proposal for Holm: He wants to sing with the band and then propose to his girlfriend from the stage. He pulls out an engagement ring in POVs' furnace room that doubles as the band's dressing room.

"She has no idea," says McLean, a former POVs manager who, on this soon-to-be-special night, has an entourage of 40 with him, including his intended's parents.

"Is she going to say 'Yes'?" Holm asks. "I've had a couple of times where people get mad and say 'No.' "

Of course. McLean's main concern is that the band doesn't know any Dave Matthews songs, which is what McLean wants to sing. But they settle on Incubus' "Drive," as McLean looks up the lyrics on Jordan Holm's cell phone.

"Is this your first marriage?" Holm inquires.

"Yes," McLean says. "Will you play at our wedding?"

"We'll play at your wedding," Holm continues without even discussing a price. "Just don't do it in the summer."

• • •

Because some of the musicians have children, rehearsals for the Johnny Holm Band are restricted to pre-gig sound checks on the road. With recommendations from his daughter, the bandleader tries to add songs; among the recent new titles are Lady GaGa's "Just Dance" and the Taylor Swift treatment of Def Leppard's "Photograph," both showcases for Jordan Holm.

She is working on her own CD of original material with producer Darren Rust of the Blenders. Her dad knows that she'll leave his band someday soon.

As for his own future, Holm has no thoughts of retiring. He has bills to pay and commitments to fulfill.

"We're booking 2010, 2011," he said. "I may end up playing in nursing homes [someday], just playing the Byrds and Harry Chapin and all the stuff I grew up on."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

Johnny Holm: The Human Jukebox (2024)


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