Growing up in Austin in the 1960s, Johnson began playing guitar at age 11 and was drawn to an unusual range of influential music from rock dynamos like Hendrix and Cream to Chet Atkins' nimble fingerpicking and jazz players like Wes Montgomery and the great Django Reinhardt. Later, the great Texas blues ace Stevie Ray Vaughan left his mark as well. After cutting a demo with a psych-rock group called Mariani in 1970 (he was only 15 at the time), Johnson spent some of his post-high school years at the University of Texas at Austin and living in Africa with his family. After returning home, he found some regional success as part of a mid-'70s fusion band called the Electromagnets, who recorded a pair of independent albums before disbanding in 1977. Unable to find a label deal for his own music, he devoted himself to session work and played on records by some high-profile artists like Carole King and Cat Stevens while also gigging locally.
The tides turned in 1984 when Johnson landed a deal with Warner Bros. through a connection to Christopher Cross. A breakout performance on Austin City Limits brought more attention his way, and he finally made his solo debut with 1986's Tones, establishing the unique mix of instrumental rock, power pop vocal tunes, and blues/jazz fusion that became his hallmark. His real breakout came four years later with 1990's Ah Via Musicom, which made a strong crossover showing on the Billboard charts and yielded his signature showpiece, "Cliffs of Dover," which won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Johnson's inherent perfectionism cost him some of the ground he had gained, however, and his follow-up didn't arrive until 1996. While Venus Isle made a decent chart run, its mix of rock and world music elements didn't sit as well with critics. That same year, he joined Joe Satriani and Steve Vai to complete the inaugural trio of virtuosic guitar shredders on the G3 tour. He also formed a side project called Alien Love Child, who performed occasionally and released a live album in 2000. Prior to that, a 1998 album called Seven Worlds offered up the lost material from his time with mid-'70s band the Electromagnets. Another anthology, Souvenir, appeared in 2002 and featured previously unreleased material.
Johnson finally returned to new music with 2005's Bloom, an album divided into three phases that contained such a range of styles it played almost like a compilation. Despite this, it was well-received and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. That same year, his 1988 Austin City Limits performance was issued on DVD and CD, and he also filmed an instructional guitar DVD called The Art of Guitar. During the 2010s, Johnson continued to evolve and explore various musical forms, beginning with 2010's rock/fusion set Up Close, followed in 2014 by the duo album Eclectic, with jazz guitarist Mike Stern. Johnson took a quieter turn on 2016's EJ, offering up the first all-acoustic release on which he also played several piano pieces and supported it with a solo tour. Collage, which featured five originals and five interpretations of songs by inspirational musical figures in Johnson's life, including Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, followed in 2017. Two years later, he again visited the acoustic world with EJ II, a fuller-bodied acoustic band set with a strong Americana feel to it. ~ Timothy Monger, Rovi
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