One of the coolest sounding songs on rock radio in 1993 was arguably Brother Cane’s “Got No Shame,” the lead single from their self-titled debut album which was released that same year. It digs its hooks in right from the get go as the sound of a lone harmonica comes spilling out of the speakers, instantly setting a certain scene. You can picture the weathered musician who makes a memorable entrance as if he stepped out of the shadows, playing those opening lines with an unmistakable rock and roll swagger attached to every note that he plays.
He has the floor for nearly 20 seconds before drummer Scott Collier brings the rest of the band thundering in, announcing his arrival with a few shots of cowbell as they lay things down heavy, with the harmonica continuing to weave in and out of the mix as the song progresses.
Brother Cane singer-guitarist Damon Johnson calls the harmonica work a “key part” of the song, which eventually sailed to #2 on the mainstream rock charts.
“It probably started our career, if you think about it, because that’s the first thing that the program directors at radio heard,” he says now. After wrapping up 2019 with a run of shows opening for Clutch, Johnson, who’s currently a solo act, is back out on the road, this time supporting hard rock legends UFO. He opens for the group at the Agora on Sunday. “They heard that harmonica and it got their attention enough that they would keep listening for at least another 60 to 90 seconds.”
“Got No Shame” was a late arrival, showing up as the Birmingham, Alabama band was knee deep in preparations to record its first album. Johnson, collaborating with songwriter Marti Frederiksen, couldn’t shake the thought that they still needed to write another song for the record.
“Marti had come to Birmingham and we had a schedule to start the record and I literally said, ‘Man, we need to write another song. We need a song that we can open the show with. Something that the curtain comes up and it’s just rockin’.’”
The pair met up at a Howard Johnson hotel, armed with a “shitty little Fostex four track” and an “even shittier Yamaha drum machine” and wrote the song together. While there was a feeling that they had done what they had set out to do, they had managed expectations about the track.
“Never did it occur to us that it would be a single. Certainly not the first single,” Johnson says. “It wasn’t until we were in Los Angeles making the record with our producer, Jim Mitchell, that the band and I started to go, ‘Hang on, man, this is really good.’”
The harmonica part would be a spontaneous thought that sparked as they worked on fine tuning the song, with someone suggesting that it might be something different in lieu of the usual guitar lead. Johnson knew the right person for the job, but he had to lobby hard against Mitchell, who had just come off of producing the Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion albums and suggested that they tap Teddy “Zig-Zag” Andreadis from the GNR camp to come in and play it.
“I said, ‘Jim, as much as I love that idea, you’ve got to trust me on this. We gotta get this guy from Alabama, because he’s the best of all time. He’s the greatest you’ve ever heard.’ Jim fought me, because I’m sure he was thinking, “Look, kid. I’m with Guns N’ Roses, you’re from Alabama, I’m telling you I can get this guy who is a badass to come over here and knock this out in an hour!’ But to Jim’s credit, I sold him on it.”
Topper Price, Johnson’s recommendation, got the nod and when they went back to Birmingham to do some additional tracking for the album, they brought him in.
“Topper was a few years older than us and a true blues man down to his lifestyle, sadly. Because he just lived it, man,” Johnson recalls. “He was playing five or six nights a week and had the greatest tone of anyone I’ve ever heard on the harmonica.”
He provided the icing on the proverbial cake for “Got No Shame,” laying down his magic in quick order. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of what you hear on that recording was Topper’s first take,” Johnson confirms. “One take.”
The song would be the meal ticket that would put the band out on tour opening for rock titans like Aerosmith, Robert Plant and Van Halen. Once the members of the group went their separate ways in the late ’90s, Johnson continued to rack up frequent flyer miles as the guitarist for Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy as well as the related Lizzy offshoot, Black Star Riders.
In 2018, he made the decision to step away from Black Star Riders as the band completed a lengthy tour supporting Judas Priest. He wanted to come home to Nashville where he had been living since 2013 and put the focus back on his family, first and foremost, and also look to establish himself as an independent solo artist.
He had already completed nearly an entire album of new songs that gave him a good bit of the necessary confidence to make the move, because it was a collection of music that he felt really strongly about. Memoirs of an Uprising, which arrived in early 2019, is a record which takes Johnson back to the later moments of Brother Cane’s career, when they were preparing to release their third album, 1998’s Wishpool.
“You know, it was a band. [With Wishpool], we were living our lives together, essentially, on the road and in the studio and in rehearsals,” Johnson explains. “This album, it definitely brought back a similar feeling as I had then. I think the thing that I’m most excited about is that it brought back a similar focus.”
Nick Raskulinecz (Rush, Foo Fighters), who had worked with Johnson on two Black Star Riders albums, helped to guide the album to its completion, offering helpful advice and a sonic assist in the closing moments.
“I asked Nick about producing Memoirs of an Uprising, but his schedule was really slammed and he just pushed me,” Johnson remembers. “He said, ‘Hey man, you can produce this record. I’ve worked with you so much that you get the whole process.’ He said, ‘Use a studio, track the drums and let’s see where you get when it’s finished and maybe I can mix it’ and that’s exactly what happened. He had four or five days, so he mixed the record.”
Listening to Memoirs of an Uprising, it’s not hard to hear why Johnson is so excited about the record that he came away with. Songs like “Call It a Trade” and “Shivering, Shivering” reveal that he continues to write some of the strongest songs of his career, while the soaring guitar work on songs like “So Brutal” demonstrates the payoff of his six-string focus of the past two decades.
He wrote the songs for the album with collaborator Jim Troglen, an Alabama friend who he met early on, even before Brother Cane arrived on the scene.
“He was in a band called the Autumn Lords and the first time someone said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go see the Autumn Lords,’ I remember saying, ‘Wow, that’s one of the coolest names I’ve ever heard in my life.’ They were super rock, trashy, New York Dolls meets the Rolling Stones with a pinch of ’80s hair band. Just a pinch,” he says. “But man, he was just fearless, and he was directing traffic. I found out very quickly that he wrote all of the songs and brought them in and taught them to the guys and that’s how they rolled.”
The writing sessions were productive ones, with Johnson recalling that he’d send over four ideas and Troglen would send 10 back in return. Creativity was running high, so much so that they’re already six songs into writing for the next round of recording and if things work out as he hopes, fans won’t have to wait very long to hear more new music.
“I want to go in with Nick this time from the outset,” he says. “The plan right now, is to work together for about five days in early March and record three songs and get them from beginning to total completion. Recorded, all of the overdubs and even mixed and ready.”
Once he’s got a few of those songs ready to roll, he plans to “dip a toe into the new model of releasing records,” putting out one song at a time, “maybe five or six months in advance of the actual full length album coming out.”
“Those are the times we live in, man. That’s just how people consume music, and it’s how people discover music,” he explains. “There’s a lot of good songs on my latest record that no one really got to know about, because I didn’t have the infrastructure, I didn’t have the financial backing to make multiple videos and keep a publicist on retainer and all of that kind of stuff. These are the kinds of things as an independent artist that I’m paying attention to now and learning so much about. I see the path. I see the way forward.”
Johnson is excited about where things are at as he digs into another year.
“It feels really good, man. I’m certainly proud of the resume and I’m grateful for all of the things that Brother Cane accomplished,” he says. “I think that band is certainly important for me to even have a solo career. Certainly, to be doing it the way that I’m doing it now and just committing to it full time. It’s a lot of work. I’m not going to deny that. It’s a lot of work to be an independent solo artist in 2020 in any genre, but especially in rock. Because most rock ‘n’ roll fans, they want to hear the songs that they’ve been hearing their whole life and I get that. I’m finding my niche, and I’m grooving it out.”
He says he can exist “between playing those old songs and tipping the hat from time to time.”
“Maybe we’ll do a Thin Lizzy song; sometimes we’ll play ‘I’m Eighteen’ by Alice Cooper because I was with Coop for five years,” he continues. “Just on an entertainment level, people dig that. But I see them, man. I see how they react to the songs and the conversations that we have at the merch table after the show. They love the new stuff, man. They love it. So there’s no better feeling for me than that, and I’m super grateful for that support and that reaction.”
Sign up for Scene’s weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.