Cliff Johnson brought showmanship and a rich, clear voice to his lead role in several local pop bands from the 1970s to the present day.
Probably best known for his work with the band Off Broadway, which released the local and national hit, “Stay in Time,” in 1980, Johnson was also part of Pezband and several other local bands, and his work helped develop of the power-pop sound of the Midwest, as well as bands like Cheap Trick and Shoes.
“What I remember about him is he was just an incredibly quick, smart, funny guy. He was so quick and so funny and he was also an amazing singer,” said Michael Gorman, another member of Pezband and Off Broadway.” We all sang, and we were pretty good, but he could pick anything, anytime, anywhere and do it perfectly. He was just a riot to be around and just a really nice guy.
Johnson, 70, died of respiratory failure July 17 at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, his sister, Linda Geer, said. He had lived in the Concord Place assisted living facility since October and before that he had lived in Bensenville and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Born February 19, 1952, Johnson was the son of Luella Johnson and Clifford T. Johnson Sr., who was an announcer at WBBM-AM. Young Johnson grew up in Oak Park and was familiar with the spotlight from an early age. Her parents hosted “Listen to Cliff” – also known as “Breakfast with the Johnsons” – which was a reality television show that aired from her parents’ Victorian Oak Park home from 1947 to 1958. The program first aired on WBBM and later, beginning in September 1950, on WGN-AM.
Johnson graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he starred in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and also appeared the following year in the musical “The Boy Friend.”
Johnson’s ex-wife Patti attended the OPRF with her future husband and said she found it amusing that he performed in school musicals “because he didn’t like really most musicals, even though he liked ‘West Side Story’ and used the name ‘Riff’.’ He thought (most musicals) were cheesy.
Johnson also played in his own band, the Rising Sons, in high school.
“Honestly, I thought he would go to the theater, but singing on stage was his love,” his sister said. “He had a perfect voice and a perfect ear. It must have been the influence of some of the records he heard us play – Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly – that really influenced his love of power pop, and from there he went.
After high school, Johnson attended Southern Illinois University for a time, followed by a stint at Ohio University. After two years, he dropped out of college and returned to the Chicago area, where he joined friends who several months earlier had formed the band Pezband, initially playing covers of Yardbirds and Kinks songs.
“It was amazing. He was doing something different every night (on stage). It was like, I can’t believe this guy,” Gorman said. “We used to call him teasing ‘M . Microphone.'”
Mimi Betinis, who was also part of Pezband and later was on Off Broadway, called Johnson “the most talented person I’ve ever met.” That, and he had a real sense of humor.
“We could write stuff together, and it was like eating a piece of cake. We were great together,” Betinis said. launch into any field of entertainment – radio, stage, musicals and of course pop music. I think he could have done any of that stuff.
Johnson was part of Pezband until 1975, when he left to form a transition band, Thumbs, with future members Cheap Trick and Whitesnake. In 1977, he formed the power pop band Off Broadway with several friends, Johnson singing and playing guitar.
“When we started the band, we did it because we wanted to have good songs, play them and make records with a low profile,” Johnson told Lynn Van Matre of the Tribune in 1980. “We didn’t want to no big lights or big hair or glam boy stuff with girls trying to touch us One day when we started I was sitting with John Pazdan, the bassist, talking about the kind of band that we wanted. His girlfriend was there, and after listening to us for a while, she said, “You know, it seems like if you were actors, you’d rather work off Broadway than on Broadway. And I thought , ‘It’s cool, it works.’
In mid-1979, Atlantic Records outbid two other record labels to sign Off Broadway, and in early 1980 the band released their debut album, “On”, with the song “Stay in Time” becoming both local and national success.
Almost immediately the band went on tour and Off Broadway released a second album in 1980, “Quick Turns”. Off Broadway’s early successes included playing several of the first ChicagoFests at Navy Pier.
Unfortunately, said Patti Johnson, Off Broadway’s label didn’t promote the band as well as it could have done.
“They dropped the ball on Off Broadway,” Patti Johnson said of Atlantic Records. “They were touring with bands like (hard rock band) UFO – bands that were totally unrelated to pop. It was like, ‘Why are you doing this to them?’
In a 1998 Tribune interview, Johnson agreed.
“On our 1979 tour, everything we did was open to Southern metal and boogie bands whose fans hated us,” Johnson said. “Touring with the Pretenders or the Cars would have been more appropriate.”
Off Broadway was later dropped by its record label, and after the group disbanded in 1983, Johnson pursued a career in sales, Patti Johnson said. Various jobs included working in sales for Plunkett Furniture, working to register exhibitors at trade shows, working for Shaker Advertising in Oak Park selling classified ads and working for a fireplace company, Patti Johnson said.
“He was good at finding a job and he was a good salesperson,” she said. “I think being a salesman goes hand in hand with being a good showman.”
The music continued to beckon Johnson, however, and he was first in the short-lived supergroup USSA, with former Pezband bandmate Tommy Gauvenda. Then, in 1991, Johnson helped form the band Black and Blonde, with Betinis, Gorman and Rob Harding, all original members of Pezband and Off Broadway.
Black and Blonde began by performing a mix of Off Broadway tracks, Pezband medleys, and covers of Dusty Springfield and Beatles songs. Black and Blonde released an EP, “Just in Time”, in 1992, featuring a re-recording of “Stay in Time”, a live cover of a Pezband song, and four new Black and Blonde songs.
“We re-recorded ‘Stay in Time’ because people kept asking for it,” Johnson told the Tribune in 1992. “Unfortunately the album sold out after a quarter of a million copies were sold. So we took it upon ourselves to provide a timely and aggressive performance of ‘Stay in Time’ to act as a transition between our roots and Black and Blonde.”
In 1995, Black and Blonde was renamed Off Broadway.
“We have new material,” Johnson told the Tribune in 1995. “We don’t intend to rest on the laurels of Off Broadway and just be a reunion band.”
Off Broadway released another album, “Fallin’ In”, in 1997 and continued to play local shows. He then released his last album, “Live at Fitzgerald’s”, in 1998.
Off Broadway eventually broke up and Johnson joined a local band called The Raine in 2015, initially for one performance, then he joined the band on a more regular basis. Then the other original members of Johnson and Off Broadway reunited five or six years ago after a St. Charles-based promoter, Ron Onesti, encouraged the idea.
Johnson’s son, Cooper, recalls growing up with a father who “performed even when he wasn’t on stage.
“He brought a megaphone to my Little League games, woke me and my friends up with a drum solo when we were having sleepovers, and he did everything for Halloween, prosthetic gore and all,” said he declared.
Cooper Johnson called his father “fearless on stage”, noting that “the high-flying act that it is to be a leader was effortless for him”.
“He loved acting because that was when he could really be himself,” Cooper Johnson said. “He was totally in control and nothing else mattered but that moment there and there. I think that’s what the song ‘Stay in Time’ is about.
Besides his wife, son, and sister, Johnson is survived by two daughters, Haleigh Houlihan and Tess; two grandchildren; and three other sisters, Sandra Mueller; Pamela Cornell and Vicki Riordan.
A memorial ceremony is planned.
Bob Goldsborough is a freelance journalist.