The affable Johnny Ross takes pride in being called "old school" by the young Calumet Region talents he has mentored.
A Miller Beach resident for the last quarter century, Ross has enjoyed a storied life, thanks to a natural penchant for music that he discovered as a young man growing up in Richmond, Ind. He progressed from piano, to the violin, to drums, to guitar. And he's always sung.
Now in his mid-50s, when Ross reflects on his 40 years spent as a professional musician, a flood gate of memories opens. He's played, toured and/or recorded with a virtual Who's Who of the musical world -- criss-crossing the barriers of jazz, funk, R&B, country and rock n' roll along the way.
Recalling events that took him from the sleepy hamlet of Richmond, to the hustle and bustle of Chicago, to traveling the world -- Ross tells a wealth of fascinating road stories.
There's the one about ... cockroaches the size of his hand in the dressing room of the old Apollo Theatre; climbing into Screamin' Jay Hawkins' coffin backstage; talking soul icon James Brown out of his pants; talking guitar with a young Jimi Hendrix; how jazz trumpet great Miles Davis jumped on stage with him in Greenwich Village; and how Ross helped in renown jazz drummer Jack DeJenette's conversion from keyboards to the drums.
Ross laughs a lot while telling of his celebrated life as a road warrior and session musician, but he gets somber recalling how many of his musical brothers fell victim to substance abuse. "It's such a shame that drugs take so many great talents from us," he sighed.
Ross was a founding member of Baby Huey & The Babysitters, a rip-roaring R&B/Funk act that grew from a quartet to a full 10-piece ensemble during their decade together (1960-1970). Frontman/vocalist Baby Huey was a 300-plus-pound man dressed-up like the famous Baby Huey cartoon character, and Ross recalls his late friend as "a remarkable entertainer." Drugs took the singer's life and brought an end to the successful band.
Baby Huey & The Babysitters played all the big rooms. They played the famous Caesar's Palace in Vegas and at such noted venues as Whiskey-A-Go-Go , The Cheetah Club, Trudy Heller's Club, The Apollo Theatre, and the original Regal Theatre.
While playing the Whiskey, they were discovered by a member of the famous and remarkably wealthy Rothchild family of France.
"We were flown on Air France to Paris to play the birthday party, or as they call it over there, the 'coming out' party for the daughter of Baron Rothchild," recalled Ross. "We played in his summer palace in a big ballroom." That gig lead to a three-month stay in France, where they played the famous Cursomba Night Club and landed a gig at Olympia Hall (the French equivalent of our Carnegie Hall).
Today, Ross spends most of his time in his personal recording studio at his Ross Music Productions. There he creates music for commercials (Sears, Mattel Toys, etc.), scores television programs (mostly cable), and does music for action films produced by Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, another famous son of the Calumet Region.