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Even in new field, rocker stays true to himself

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2002

On a long ago Thursday night, we spilled into Kasey's Cove, a then-infamous bar on Fowler Avenue, to see a local rock group people would follow from one corner of Tampa to another.

On a long ago Thursday night, we spilled into Kasey's Cove, a then-infamous bar on Fowler Avenue, to see a local rock group people would follow from one corner of Tampa to another.

I had never heard of the Johnny G. Lyons Band, but I would soon learn why they were so popular.

Friends Scott Purks and Pat Conners baited Johnny into introducing me to the audience as the city's best sports writer. Johnny took the hook and went into a rhyming, minute-long soliloquy that concluded with, "Ernest Hooper is super."

Soon I was singing with the band and dancing along to the JGLB's version of You're Just What I Needed. Purks and Conners were standing on the table, rooting me on.

We laughed that night, and we laughed the next day, and we still laugh about Johnny's generosity. On subsequent nights out, I would wave to Johnny and he would let everyone know that Ernest Hooper was in the house, reminding me why I enjoy simple pleasures.

In the 1980s and early '90s, the Johnny G. Lyons Band was one of the city's most popular bands, if not the most popular. They could whip crowds into a frenzy. Johnny fulfilled a dream when he sang the national anthem for his beloved Bucs.

Yet Johnny, now 47, has always been a deeper thinker than your average musician. His uncanny recall has helped him develop friendships throughout the city, and he remains something of a trivia whiz.

Ask him about his formula for success, and Johnny will tell you he has borrowed positive aspects from books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. He patterned his approach toward business after former Bucs coach Tony Dungy.

Johnny and the band are still going. But in the twilight of his career, he has ventured into a new business by purchasing his own restaurant.

Since July, Johnny has been the proprietor of A.J.'s Ale House on Memorial Highway in Town 'N Country.

"I've been around bars and restaurants all my life," says Johnny, who started his career in the 1970s. "I've played in every building on Nebraska Avenue that was ever a bar. I always thought about getting my own place, but I was somewhat intimidated because I didn't know the inner workings of the restaurant business."

So whenever Johnny was given a chance to apprentice at a restaurant, he took it. Two separate stints working for Arnie Sillins at GoodFellas in Carrollwood and for George Wilds at Blue Shark in Ybor gave Johnny the experience he needed.

"I have just enough confidence to think I can avoid getting killed," says Johnny, a laugh creasing the pencil-thin mustache and goatee on his face.

Don't think Johnny has gone corporate.

When he first bought the business, he showed up at work in new suits, but quickly reverted to jeans and T-shirts. His sights are now set on making the Ale House more sports and music friendly.

The menu remains the same with a blend of pub grub, steaks and Tex-Mex, though Johnny has instituted a $4.95 buffet to stir up more lunchtime business.

More than anything, he wants to maintain the restaurant's neighborhood feel while attracting the same broad range of fans the band enjoyed in its heyday.

"I want people to be able to come in here in their Ric Flair clothes, or dress like me and be comfortable," Johnny says.

Achieving that ambience should not be difficult. Johnny has been making people feel comfortable all his life.

That's all I'm saying.

-- You can reach Ernest Hooper at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

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