The first song Johnny Lee Middleton learned to play with the middle-school orchestra was Carol of the Bells.
3 decades later, he’s still playing it. Twice a night. For 10,000 people at a time.
There’s been a long road in between.
Johnny Lee Middleton’s musical career began, not playing bass in a rock band, but as first-chair trumpet in the 6th grade orchestra. The first song he learned for the fall semester holiday concert: Carol of the Bells.
But Johnny Lee wasn’t long for playing classical instrumentals with the brass section. In 10th grade, Johnny Lee and his trumpet joined the high school jazz band. Almost immediately, he fell in love with “the way the bass moves the earth.” He promptly found himself a $35 bass at a garage sale and started practicing. At home, he discovered the Black Sabbath records favored by his sister’s boyfriend, slowed them down by leaning a chalkboard eraser against the edge of the turntable, and taught himself to play along.
Even so, Johnny Lee’s own musical path took a few twists and turns. After high school, he played with several local bands before joining Lefty, a popular cover band known as much for their glam image and stage show as their musical ability. Johnny Lee honed his musical chops and stage presence in packed bars and clubs across Florida and the South, decked out in eyeliner and sky-high bleached hair—a look he describes now as “We were like a Poison before Poison.”
In the fall of 1984, Tampa-based Savatage had a deal with Atlantic records, a new album in the works, and aspirations of making it big. What they did not have was a talented bass player. When they saw Johnny Lee onstage, they were hardly impressed with the Lefty image—but they knew they’d found the musician they needed. Johnny Lee, on the other hand, wasn’t quite prepared to leave his well-paying gig with Lefty for an ambitious but broke metal band. But by late 1985, he was ready for something more than Aqua Net and spandex. And when Savatage came calling for the second time—with another new album to record, and still without a bass player who could keep up with them—he took a leap of faith and joined them.
The first decade of Johnny Lee’s worldwide adventures with Savatage brought both triumph and tragedy. An early high point was 1987’s Hall of the Mountain King, on which Johnny Lee received a songwriting credit. The video saw heavy rotation on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, and the band toured the world with the likes of Ted Nugent, Dio, and Megadeth. The success continued with 1989’s Gutter Ballet and the subsequent tour, and in 1993, with the release of Edge of Thorns, Savatage seemed poised to finally break big. But tragedy struck in the early-morning hours of October 17, 1993. Criss Oliva, the guitar player at the heart of Savatage, and Johnny Lee’s best friend, was struck head-on by a drunk driver as he drove home with his wife from a concert. Criss was killed instantly.
Oliva’s death was very nearly the end of Savatage as well. But the surviving members knew they had another record or two in them, and they knew that Criss, wherever he was, would want them to make it. And in 1995—10 years after Johnny Lee joined Savatage—the band returned to the studio to record Dead Winter Dead. The penultimate track was an epic instrumental, a medley of the Christmas classics “Carol of the Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” featuring a string orchestra alongside the electric guitars.
In late 1995, “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24” was released as a single to hundreds of radio stations around the country—and was largely ignored. But a DJ in the band’s hometown of Tampa put it on the air. And the phone lines lit up. The song made it to New York City radio. And the phone lines lit up. “Sarajevo” was played in only a few markets that year—but in every market that heard it, record stores couldn’t keep Dead Winter Dead on the shelves.
Savatage producer Paul O’Neill knew he was on to something big. Johnny Lee and the other members of Savatage returned to the studio in the summer of 1996, this time with a full orchestra and a variety of singers. O’Neill wrote a Christmas story and intertwined it with well-known classical pieces and the Savatage brand of hard-hitting rock and roll. Trans-Siberian Orchestra was born.
When “Sarajevo” was re-released for the 1996 holiday season as the first single from Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, very few station managers had any idea that the same song had landed on their desks the year before. Even fewer knew that the new Trans-Siberian Orchestra was, in fact, essentially an extension of Savatage. “Sarajevo” hit the airwaves, and the phone lines lit up nationwide.
Since 1996, Johnny Lee has remained an integral part of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, playing on all 4 records—which, combined, have sold more than 4 million copies—and touring with the group since its inception. In 2007 alone, the two TSO touring companies played live for more than 1 million people across North America.
And over a decade after “Sarajevo” first exploded out of radios across the nation, most of TSO’s millions of fans still don’t know that Trans-Siberian Orchestra was born from an under-appreciated hard-rock band that is still beloved by loyal, long-term fans worldwide. A band still beloved by its members, too, including Johnny Lee, who still smiles when he sees Savatage T-shirts in the audience. And every night, the band plays “Sarajevo” twice—once for Savatage, perhaps, and once for TSO.
But Johnny Lee Middleton isn’t done yet.
In early 2008, after returning home from the 2007 TSO tour, and after nearly 30 years of playing bass on some of the biggest stages in the world, Johnny Lee quite literally woke up one morning and simply decided to try his hand at something new—songwriting. He pulled an old guitar out of the back of a closet, picked up a cheap digital recorder, and started to play. He never really expected anyone else would ever hear it. But what happened, he says, “was like opening up another side of my mind that I never knew existed.” Within weeks he “fell in love with the whole process and challenge of songwriting.” And Johnny Lee decided to share.
As the songs developed, Johnny Lee took the raw tracks to his longtime friend, singer John Haikara, who provided lyrics and vocals. Drummer Mike Dillon joined them in the studio to lay down the drums. The result is an eclectic blend of Johnny Lee’s 3 decades of immersion in music, hard-edged rock tinged with the occasional twist—a country twang here, a mandolin there.
But every song has one thing in common, a reminder of sorts, of the long road he has taken to get here: on each track, Johnny Lee plays a Charvel guitar that once belonged to Criss Oliva, the best friend he lost 15 years ago. It means a lot to him, he says, to play Criss’ guitar. It will mean a lot to Savatage fans as well.
And in 2009…? Stay tuned!