Dubbed the Rockabilly Rasputin because of his long beard, Johnny Legend is a self-described "full-time rock 'n' roll beast and part-time everything else." A wild and wooly stage performer, the singer-songwriter is probably best known for writing and producing wrestler Freddie Blassie's novelty hit "Pencil Neck Geek" and directing comedian Andy Kaufman's final film, My Breakfast with Blassie. He is an eclectic whose irreverent obsession with carnival culture schlock, exploitation films, and lo-fi rhythms has resulted in a recording career that manages to fly just under the radar of mass acceptance.
Initially a Country Fan
Long before he became known as Johnny Legend, young Martin Margulies was just another kid whose imagination was stimulated by the pop culture explosion of the 1950s and 1960s. He loved horror movies, wrestling, and the cross-pollination of rhythm and blues and country music that spilled across the local airwaves. "I grew up in San Fernando and I had no idea that I was in a hotbed of country music activity," he recalled. "It was all around me, but it took several years for it to sink in. This place was like a little Bakersfield. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, people like that lived out in the valley." Legend subsequently began quietly nurturing a love of old-time country music by practicing Hank Williams's songs in his bedroom and watching Ernest Tubb on TV. Explained Legend, "In the middle of the drug-induced Doors, Pink Floyd and that whole sitting-around-at-night-getting-stoned-and-listening-to-Fugs era, I would wait religiously each week for Ernest Tubb's syndicated TV show to come on."
As a teenager, Margulies found that his love of old-time country fit neatly in with the demands of early rock 'n' roll and folk-rock. Working the 1960s Sunset Strip scene, he and his folk-rock band the Seeds of Time went through several lineups and name changes before they became Light Myth. The group cut a version of "Across the Universe" that actually made it into stores ahead of the Beatles' own recording, but their version was not well-produced and never succeeded in the public arena.
During this time period Margulies began adopting his new Johnny Legend persona: "I prefer to tell people that I may have been named Martin Margulies at birth, but I've always been Johnny Legend!" Asked how his parents felt about their oldest son changing his name, the artist's sister Lynne Margulies observed, "My family was and is just as weird and eccentric as Johnny Legend. It just seemed par for the course. He was always the way he is."
Recorded for Rollin' Rock
In early 1970 Legend began playing 1950s rock 'n' roll songs with a band called Blue Midnight. His interest in the ongoing 1950s revival eventually led him to Ronny Weiser's Hollywood rock 'n' roll Fan Club, where they became fast friends, and Weiser subsequently formed Rollin' Rock Records. Legend briefly stayed at Weiser's house in Van Nuys with rockabilly cult hero Ray Campi and became an important part of the early development of Rollin' Rock Records. It was Legend who had the idea of starting an authentic sounding rockabilly group with Campi, Tony Conn, and Billy Zoom—later of the punk band X—to play behind the legendary rock 'n' roll pioneer Gene Vincent. Although the Black Leather Rebel died of a bleeding ulcer before they could back him, the idea lived on as the Rollin' Rock Rebels, the musical aggregation that played on most of the label's recordings.
Legend recorded prolifically for Weiser, displaying an imaginative production sense that blurred the lines between rockabilly, ironic schlock, and honest roots music. Like some of the original rockabilly artists, he covered up his vocal deficiencies through the judicious use of the slapback echo, which along with his speedy, hiccuping delivery, helped keep profanity hidden.
Most early Rollin' Rock recording sessions were no-frills affairs that found trash can lids being used for percussion, and utilized fidelity-killing sound-on-sound overdubs. Legend brought in Lewis Lymon of the 1950s doo-wop band the Teenagers to sing background, utilizing full drum kits, a pianist, and constantly changing sonic gears. Given ample instrumental support from Campi, Jimmie Lee Maslon, Poppa Jim Durbin, and Jerry Sikorski, Legend recorded dozens of energetic, amusing sides at Rollin' Rock. He veered wildly from the rockabilly parody of "Guess Who Ain't Getting Laid Tonight" and the improvised "Rockabilly Bughouse," to the ironic country schlock of "Stalin Kicked the Bucket" and "The South Is Gonna Rise Again," to a haunting rendition of Hank Williams's "Rambling Man."
Few of his songs received much attention in America, but in Finland, Legend's rocker "Soakin' the Bone" was a solid hit. One performance that exemplified the singer's Rollin' Rock approach was "Are You Hep to It." Written by friend and collaborator Pete Cicero, who also co-wrote "Pencil Neck Geek," the tune is at once a tribute and a sly nostalgia-tinged satire. "I spent an unbelievable amount of time trying to get that to a certain mode I wanted." recalled Legend. "I took Billy Zoom and I made him sit in a room and listen to the early [Bill] Haley, pre-'Rock Around the Clock' stuff for eight hours straight." Eventually the tune would find a small measure of fame in a trailer for Rhino Home Video's Teenage Theater B-movie compilation series.
As a solo recording artist, Legend did his best work at Rollin' Rock, yet even during this highly productive time the singer-songwriter felt the lure of the film world. He had already provided musical scores for a couple of soft-core porn films, and in 1977 he drafted Rollin' Rock cohorts Campi, Conn, Mac Curtis, and Alvis Wayne to flesh out a John Holmes porno flick. Re-titled Teenage Cruisers, it is often referred to as the first X-rated rockabilly movie, and it has remained on the adult film circuit. "I just made sure I kept my distance," said Ron Weiser. "It was a theatrical release, I went to see it with my grandfather, who didn't think too much of it either." By 1984 Rollin' Rock—never a terribly profitable endeavor—would fade from the scene. But by that time Legend had made his mark with another project.
Produced "Pencil Neck Geek"
Legend has claimed that "country music has influenced 50 to 75% of everything I've done." Proof? "One of the places you can find it is my crowning achievement, 'Pencil Neck Geek,'" Legend stated, "which was a pure country-spoken nightmare, with a few trappings of Sergio Leone tossed in there." Legend conceived the song exclusively for bleached blonde wrestling villain Freddie Blassie, a wrestling hero of his youth. Capitalizing on one of the grappler's favorite wild-eyed interview catchphrases, the record became a hilarious anthem of misplaced macho braggadocio.
Not possessing any musical talent, Blassie had difficulty pacing his western-themed narrative, which Legend had to learn a line at a time. The finished product, along with a cover of Elvis Presley's "U.S. Male" and two comedic wrestling rants, were released on Rhino, then primarily a small comedy label. Once Dr. Demento began playing "Pencil Neck Geek" on his wacky syndicated radio show, it became an underground novelty sensation. Although it certainly heightened his appeal, Blassie himself didn't think much of the song. "The only thing I ever got from 'Pencil Neck Geek' was a cheap little check," he stated in his 2003 autobiography. "I still haven't learned the words to it." (Blassie died in 2004.)
For the Record …
Born Martin Margulies on October 3, 1949, in San Fernando, CA; son of Dr. Bernard Margulies and Betty (a nurse); married Linda Lautrec; children: Danielle.
Rock 'n' roll and novelty singer, songwriter, producer, film director, actor, wrestler, and composer, 1966–; recorded with Light Myth for RCA, 1969; recorded for Rollin' Rock Records 1973–1981; co-wrote "Pencil Neck Geek" for wrestler Freddie Blassie, 1977; recorded for various labels including Rhino, Worry Bird, Hillsdale, Sympathy for the Records Industry, and Dionysus, 1985–2000; performed as wrestling manager, 1994–1997; directed and/or scored several independent film/video projects, 1971–99; created the Sleazemania and Teenage Theater video series for Rhino Home Video, 1984–1987; appeared on such television programs as The Jon Stewart Show and The Incredibly Strange Film Show, early 1990s; acted in commercials and several movies, including Bride of the Re-Animator, Children of the Corn 3, Man on the Moon, and 2001 Maniacs, 1990–2005.
Awards: Inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 1997.
Addresses: Record company—Dionysus, P.O. Box 1975, Burbank, CA 91507, website: http://www.dionysusrecords.com. Booking—Johnny Legend Worldwide Enterprises, 2999 Point East Drive, Aventura, FL 33160, phone: (323) 995-8743.
Blassie and Legend reunited in 1985 for a remake of Bo Diddley's 1959 hit "Say Man," called "Hey Fred." "That's me doing the other voice, the Jerome Green part," Legend told Original Cool. The wrestler added his patented put-downs and one-liners, and the vaudevillian production, along with old wrestling interviews and scripted bits, comprised the light-selling 1985 vinyl picture disc I Bite the Songs.
Legend and Blassie's most successful collaboration was the 1983 parody of My Dinner with Andre, called My Breakfast with Blassie, which featured sitcom starturned-wrestling-provocateur Andy Kaufman. At first Legend considered using Rollin' Rock pal Ray Campi as Blassie's foil, but despite the grainy production values, Kaufman and the wrestling icon proved an entertaining pair. There was even talk of further projects, but Kaufman died of lung cancer nearly a year later.
Film Archivist, Actor, and Wrestler
Legend's career has been filled with colorful sidelines. In 1985 he recorded as both himself and as Shell Shock Shannon, singing a parody of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," titled "Wrestlers Just Wanna Bust Heads," on Rhino's Wrestling Rocks album. He has shamelessly promoted professional wrestling matches and managed wrestlers on the West Coast. Through a glitch that could only occur in the heavily scripted world of sports entertainment, he became the A.I.W.A. Women's Wrestling champion.
A tireless trash-culture film archivist, he rediscovered and re-released dozens of obscure cartoons, exploitation films, and low-budget horror flicks through Rhino Home Video, which released his popular Sleazemania series—the Something Weird video company, and Shout! Factory. Further, he aided director Quentin Tarantino in reviving the atmospheric 1964 horror film Spider Baby.
As a character actor, Legend's bearded countenance can be seen in commercials, pop culture documentaries, and in such independent horror flicks as Bride Of The Re-animator, Children Of The Corn 3, Bug Buster, and the sequel to H. Gordon Lewis's 2000 Maniacs, titled 2001 Maniacs. Legend has also appeared as a bit player in such mainstream Hollywood movies as Rat Race and the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On the Moon. Despite this varied resume, it is Legend's work as a recording artist that has made the greatest impact, albeit in an irreverent, underground fashion.
Only rock 'n' roll could provide the proper creative avenue for Legend's performance zest and crazed public antics. Donning Freddie Blassie's re-tailored gold lamé ring jacket, he has assailed audiences with a combination of evangelistic intensity and shock value performance art. No stunt appears to be out of bounds, and no comedic role is too tasteless as long as Legend can keep his audience's attention.
In 1998 Legend released Bitchin', his first solo album since the Rollin' Rock days. Nowhere near as suggestive as the insert booklet's inside cover, which features Legend wrestling with topless women, the Dionysus release proved that Legend is a fine vocalist when he wants to be. Amid such horror movie odes as "Teenage Caveman" and the eccentric wrestler tribute "Santos Street" resides an authentic country crooner. His haunting renditions of Marty Robbins's "Man Walks Among Us" and Elvis Presley's "Flaming Star" showcase him at his atmospheric best.
As of 2006 Legend had signed a contract of coexistence with R&B/hip-hop singer John Legend—a.k.a. John Stephans—that allowed the latter to use his strikingly similar stage name. John Stephans's management paid $10,000 for use of the moniker. Meanwhile, the filmmaker and rockabilly Legend has reported that he will be preparing many of his film compilations for DVD while writing three separate autobiographies simultaneously. "Each one starts from my birth and goes to the present and I don't repeat one fact," he declared from his Florida headquarters. "I'm doing a music biography, a movie biography, and a wrestling biography."
Constantly in the middle of multiple projects, does Legend feel that he might have accomplished more had he just decided to settle on one facet of his talent? "Not really. The way I see my career is, if I had concentrated on one field, I probably would have totally screwed up. Things only make sense when I go in every direction at once."
(Various Artists) Rollin' the Rock, Vol.1, Rollin' Rock 1976.
(Various Artists) Rollin' the Rock, Vol. 2, Rollin' Rock, 1977.
Are You Hep To Me?, Honeymoon Bop, 1979.
(Original Soundtrack) Teenage Cruisers—The Cream of California Rockabilly, Rhino, 1980.
(Various Artists) Forever Gene Vincent, Rollin' Rock, 1980.
(As Johnny Legend & His Skullcaps) Rockabilly Rumble, Rollin' Rock, 1981.
(As Johnny Legend & His Skullcaps) Soakin' the Bone, Rollin' Rock, 1981.
(Freddie Blassie) I Bite the Songs, Rhino, 1985.
(Various Artists) Wrestling Rocks, Rhino, 1985.
Rockabilly Rumble, Rollin' Rock, 1994.
(Various Artists) Turning the World Blue: A Tribute to Gene Vincent, Skizmatic, 1996.
(Various Artists) Rollin' Rock Got the Sock, Vol. 1, Hightone, 1997.
(Johnny Legend & His Rockabilly Bastards) The Best of Johnny Legend, Volume None, Hightone, 1997.
(Various Artists) Rollin' Rock Got the Sock, Vol. 2, Hightone, 1998.
Bitchin', Dionysus, 1998.
(Various Artists) Big Monster Bash, Vol. 1, Mouthpiece, 1998.
(Various Artists) Stock Footage: Music From the Films of Roger Corman, Worry Bird, 1997.
(Various Artists) Original Soundtrack—If These Walls Could Talk 2, Jellybean, 2000.
Blassie, Freddie, with Keith Elliot Greenburg, Legends of Wrestling: "Classy" Freddie Blassie—Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks, Simon & Shuster, 2003.
Knopper, Steve, editor, MusicHound Swing: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.
Blue Suede News, Fall 2003.
Original Cool, July, September, and November 1999.
Roctober, Fall 1999.
"Johnny Legend," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 3, 2006).
"Johnny Legend," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (March 3, 2006).
"Johnny Legend," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com (March 8, 2006).
Additional information was obtained from interviews with Ron Weiser, Lynne Margulies and Johnny Legend, 1999, 2003, and 2006, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.
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