RIP Johnny Knight

Mar 7, 2024

It is with great sadness that I announce another friend has passed away (the last few months have been ROUGH—can somebody make it stop?). The great John Mangiagli, aka “Johnny Knight,” died yesterday, and I sure am sad to report the news.

Who was Johnny Knight, you might ask? Well, he was THE coolest 1950s rock ’n’ roll guy I ever met. Let me tell you a bit about his story.

Many of us in the rockabilly scene learned the name Johnny Knight when several reissue (bootleg) compilation albums featured his rare and hard-to-find 1950s single “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar.” Was there a wilder, more out-of-control 45 rpm record released in the 1950s? From the opening salvo, the record blasts off with a machine-gun snare drum into one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. When Johnny comes in singing, the song takes off like an out-of-control freight train. “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” is two minutes and eight seconds of the intense frantic insanity that the original first wave of rock ’n’ rollers often promised but rarely delivered. Johnny Knight’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” delivered, like a punch in the face. It’s a fantastic record. The payoff line in the song was so great, I still marvel at it today: “THAT ROCK ’N’ ROLL GUITAR IS REALLY MOVIN’ ME!”

For years, that was it: Johnny Knight was a disembodied voice on vinyl. “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” was something that existed but wasn’t really tangible or physical. I must have played the record 10,000 times, but knew nothing of the man himself. Nor did any of the festival promoters or hardcore record collectors that I knew.

Then nine years ago, out of the blue, I got a message from my friend Rene Cervantes, who played in a local LA band called The Sidewynders. He asked, “Do you know this guy Johnny Knight who did that song ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar’? We’re friends with his son and he’s coming down to the LA Farmers Market to play with us tonight!” I was dumbfounded, as if somebody told me that Abraham Lincoln was waiting for me down at the Starbucks to sell me something on Craigslist. I got my act together and drove down to the Farmers Market. THIS I had to see!

The LA Farmers Market is an open-air marketplace with tons of vendors, restaurants, and a stage for live music. As you might imagine, every facet of humanity can be seen walking around. Hipsters, rockers, tourists, swing dancers, regular working stiffs, homeless people, entertainment industry weasels, you name it, they can be found wandering the interior of this popular destination.

As I walked in that night, I saw a tall older gentleman standing close to the stage. He was long and lean and wore a tailored shirt and slacks that fit him impeccably. He wore dress shoes that were shined to an impossible level of sheen. He had a jet-black pompadour, greased back and styled like Elvis Presley in his heyday, and a thin black mustache. Not a hair was out of place. He wore rings on his fingers and a gold necklace. He was in his late seventies, but he carried himself like a young man. He had greasy hair, but he wasn’t a “greaser”—the sort of character I would associate with being a mechanic. Johnny was greased back like some kind of Errol Flynn–type movie star from the golden era. He radiated cool. There was no doubt this guy was a freaking star, even if nobody there at the Farmers Market knew who he was. He was the coolest-looking guy I had ever seen in person.

I walked up to him: “You must be Johnny Knight.”

“How’d you know?” he asked, apparently unaware that he emanated an Elvis level of star factor.

We struck up a conversation, and our friendship began right there. He couldn’t believe that any of these young kids knew who he was, or knew his recording of “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar.” He seemed quite pleased with this whole Farmers Market scenario. He got up and sang “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” with the Sidewynders and it was like something out of a movie—as soon as the opening snare drum and guitar lick began the song, he came alive, wiggling and bopping all over the stage while belting out the song with every ounce of energy he had to give. It sounded just like the record. It was magnificent. That night was the beginning of Johnny Knight’s “comeback.”

Turns out, the reason that “Johnny Knight” had been so hard to find all those years was because that wasn’t his real name. Born John Arthur Mangiagli on November 15, 1937, to an Italian family from the Bronx, John grew up listening to all the music he was surrounded by in New York—vocal groups singing doo-wop harmony, Italians playing music with their families, Black groups playing rhythm and blues, and boogie-woogie. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1952, when John was fifteen years old.

It couldn’t have been a better time to move for a music-obsessed teenage kid. Los Angeles was one of the great rock ’n’ roll breeding grounds, where Black groups played raucous R&B concerts to white kids and a huge underground scene was built on a radio empire populated by radio personalities like Hunter Hancock, Art Laboe, Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg, and many others. Teenage John Mangiagli wanted to be a rhythm and blues singer.

John won the Johnny Otis Talent Competition at Club Oasis in South Central Los Angeles in 1957 (and kept the trophy for the rest of his life). At the time, he was working as a dental assistant, but suddenly the dream of playing music for a living seemed within reach. He hustled his talent and ambitions around to all the small Los Angeles record labels, the first of many times to do so, finally landing a contract with the small Ebb Records subsidiary Morocco Records.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” backed with “Snake Shake” was released in 1958. When the record came out, John Mangiagli was christened Johnny Knight on the label, a name he got from an old girlfriend. Although the record would eventually go on to find cult status and be used in film soundtracks, at the time of its release, it went nowhere (Johnny was quoted as saying that it took off in New Orleans, but the label was so small they didn’t have the means to promote it).

What we learned after meeting Johnny for the first time is that his story didn’t begin and end with that classic and memorable “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar.” Turns out, he recorded under a bevy of different names throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was Johnny Donn on Crest Records’ “Smog” / “What Happened Last Night”; he was Johnny Marlo on Reel Records’ “Every Night” / “Everlasting Love” and “Two Ton Annie” / “Bacia Mi”; and Johnny Manjelli on Highland Records’ “Five Foot Two (Eyes of Blue)” / “What I Feel” and “I Ain’t Got” / “I Got It Made.” And perhaps wildest of all, we discovered that our new pal John Mangiagli was also a 1960s garage rock legend known as The Gamma Goochee Himself.

If you’re into wild 1960s garage and frat-rock records, you might be aware of a stomper released on 45 rpm in 1965: “The Gamma Goochee” / “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog.” This disc was released under the mysterious moniker The Gamma Goochee Himself, which, as it turns out, was our friend Johnny Knight, dressed up as a raving lunatic. “The Gamma Goochee” is one of those great, unexplainable records, like “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, designed to annoy the crap out of your parents with a wildly infectious riff, a pounding drum beat, a repetitive string of nonsense words, and not much else. But it’s a FANTASTIC slice of craziness.

The story behind the record could double the length of this already-long post; Johnny tells it in a few interviews. But the gist is that Johnny strolled into the office of Screen Gems Records and acted like a big shot, promoting himself and his new self-titled record, “The Gamma Goochee.” The snow job worked, the label put out the record, and it even became a regional hit in various places around the country. One of the truly weird parts of the story is the fact that Johnny came up with the name and spelling of “Goochee” with the two E’s at the end. Around the same time that he got signed to Screen Gems Records, the label was putting together a new “fake teenage group” designed around their own situation-comedy television show. Within a month or two of “The Gamma Goochee” being released, Screen Gems released the first record by their new group, with a name change from the original band moniker of The Monkeys to The Monkees, Johnny believes based on his spelling of “Goochee.” Johnny had a lot of great, wild stories like that one. “The Gamma Goochee” would eventually be covered by The Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” fame, and, oddly enough, years later the song was revived by Joe Walsh of the James Gang and The Eagles.

It was great to learn about Johnny’s career and all the various names he recorded under. These things were revelatory. The fact that he had been hiding in plain sight all these years blew our minds. By the time Johnny showed up at the LA Farmers Market to play with the Sidewynders, nearly every original 1950s rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll artist had been dragged out of retirement. Most had been featured at European rockabilly festivals dozens of times. Johnny had been lurking in our midst the whole time, completely unaware of his cult status.

The best thing about meeting Johnny, however, was meeting his family. We quickly learned he had a very close-knit Italian family, including his wife, Joanne, Joanne’s parents, Tony and Elda Santia, and their son Mark, as well as Diana and their grandchild, Frankie. We were invited to their house for a big Italian dinner one Sunday afternoon, and wow, they treated Sally and me like we were members of the family. It was like one big group hug, the whole afternoon. The food was amazing, and they were all so friendly and accepting. Then we had a big after-dinner jam session in the living room, and it was so great. Mark played piano, Joanne played her accordion, the grandparents sang, and I played guitar behind Johnny while he sang a variety of 1950s rhythm and blues classics. It didn’t matter if Johnny was in front of a large crowd or performing in front of his closest family members, he always sang every song like it was his last, pouring every ounce of heart and soul into his performance. I love his whole family; they’ve been so wonderful to me over the last nine years.

Encouraged by the LA Farmers Market appearance, Johnny started coming around to various events around Southern California, sitting in with my band and others, singing “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” and driving crowds wild. I started pitching him to festivals in the US and overseas, and I’m happy to say that we got Johnny booked at Viva Las Vegas, the Ponderosa Stomp Festival in New Orleans, the Rockabilly Rave in England, and the Rockin’ Race Jamboree in Spain. Each of these events seemed to please Johnny to no end. He got a kick out of the fact that he thought he had been forgotten for fifty-five years, only to find out that he was a genuine cult hero on the worldwide rockabilly scene.

One of my favorite memories of Johnny involved his obsession with looking sharp. On one of the visits to his house before going overseas to play the Rockabilly Rave in England, Johnny showed me his garage workshop, where he had been meticulously working on a pair of new “rock ’n’ roll shoes.” He had taken a pair of regular dress shoes, spray painted them gold, then glued on various jewels and decorative items, until they looked like something that Little Richard would wear if he were an Egyptian King outfitted by an Italian tailor. They were magnificent, and I just loved the fact that Johnny always wanted to look “rock ’n’ roll,” obsessing over things like making his own “rock ’n’ roll shoes.” The punch line is that when we played festival, Johnny hit the stage with such energy, he was stomping his feet and going absolutely mad, and I watched all the glued-on jewels and accoutrements flying off his shoes, like it was all part of the act. It was great.

Johnny had a particularly memorable show at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans back in 2017. The show was to take place in a big theater over two nights, and the first night went off without a hitch. Unfortunately, the second night got canceled over a hurricane warning that never actually materialized (it rained for about ten minutes). However, the city shut down all public events. The day was saved, however, as most of the acts booked for the second night of the Stomp decided to throw a show/party in a very small multipurpose room at the hotel. All day long, acts played to an appreciative audience, glad that the show was going on despite the theater being closed. Johnny performed his set to around 250 people in a room designed to hold about 80, and it was one of the sweatiest, craziest, most fun sets I have ever played. Besides doing his Johnny Knight songs, he switched into full Gamma Goochee costume (including his original Gamma Goochee vest and hat from the 1960s) and performed as The Gamma Goochee Himself to close out the set. It was one of the most mental rock ’n’ roll moments I have ever participated in.

One of the biggest regrets for myself and Johnny was that I couldn’t get him over to Italy to play. We got him booked on the 2010 Summer Jamboree Festival in Senigallia, Italy, but then COVID-19 hit and the event was postponed for a couple years. By the time it resumed, Johnny was experiencing a number of health problems and couldn’t travel.

We got together with him one last time at his house in 2022. Johnny had a pair of old Altec stereo speakers that he wanted to give me; they had been his prized possession back in the 1960s and 1970s, and he used them to blast rock ’n’ roll music really loud. I told him I wanted him to autograph the speakers, and he did. What a guy. He was experiencing a number of health problems at that time, but we still had the living room jam session, with Johnny belting out “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar” one more time, from his wheelchair.

Although we all knew it was coming, it was still a great shock to learn that our friend Johnny had passed. I will savor every moment I spent on stage with him. The guy was truly lightning in a bottle, when he hit the stage, it was pure electricity. He was just so…damn…happy…to…be…there. And we were so happy to have him.

If you’ve never heard his magnum opus, “Rock ’n’ Roll Guitar,” or if you’ve played it a million times, play it again tonight, won’t you? Play it really loud, in Johnny’s memory. He was the coolest guy ever. He will be greatly missed. Condolences go to his lovely wife, Joanne, his son, Mark, and the rest of the Mangiagli family. Johnny’s passing leaves us with a big hole in our hearts.

See the original Facebook post for more photos!