Longtime drummer Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek releases first album of original songs

Going solo: Johnny “Bee” Badanjek.
Going solo: Johnny “Bee” Badanjek.

For his time-honored music compilation Big Beat: Conversations With Rock's Greatest Drummers, Max Weinberg, legendary percussionist for Bruce Springsteen, could have been forgiven for putting himself on the cover.

Instead, the artist he chose to adorn the front of his book, and place at the top of the list of featured drummers, was one "Johnny Bee."

Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts are listed sixth and seventh, respectively.

Make no mistake, Detroit's own Johnny "Bee" Badanjek is a pure musical treasure, beloved by his fellow Motor City rockers and admired by professional drummers everywhere. Driving the unforgettably propulsive beat of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels while still in his teens, he went on to become a founding member of the bands Detroit and The Rockets, record and tour with Nils Lofgren, Edgar Winter (that's his drumming on "Free Ride"), and countless others, and provide the backbeat for the first No. 1 album in Alice Cooper's career, last year's Detroit Stories.

In his long and illustrious career, however, Badanjek says he never considered recording an LP of his own.

Until now.

As proof you are never too old to rock 'n' roll, at 73 Johnny "Bee" has released his first album of original songs featuring himself on lead vocals. (And drums, of course.) The 12-track Arc of the Sweeping Sky, under the timely band name Johnny Bee and the Murder Hornets ("Bee." "Hornets." Get it?) is out on Royal Oak's Funky D Records whose president, Martin "Tino" Gross, also produced the disc.

C'mon, Johnny, "Bee" serious: in all these years performing on all those albums you never even thought about doing one yourself?

"No, not really," says Badanjek, who when not creating ear-pounding rhythms secludes himself as an accomplished painter. "I mean, people have talked to me about it because I write a lot of songs. Groups here locally started doing some of them. But I'm more...I can sing, but I don't think of myself as a lead singer."

Says the original lead singer for The Rockets. But Gross, a superb drummer in his own right who often asks "Bee" to take over when he fronts his own group the Howling Diablos, can relate. "He and I come from similar backgrounds, both being drummers," he says. "We write songs, we both sing. But that march from behind the drum kit to the front of the stage is like 1,000 miles."

Gross encouraging Badanjek to record his own music made that distance shorter. "Actually, it was my wife [Linda Lexy] who put the bug in my ear," he says. "I knew he had songs, and I knew he could sing because I'd hear him with the Diablos. I told him, 'Look at [drummers-turned-frontmen] Levon Helm. Look at Don Henley. Look at Ringo. You can do it.'"

That seed blossomed in 2019 while Badanjek and other local sidemen backed Cooper on his EP Breadcrumbs and Detroit Stories, both recorded at Royal Oak's Rustbelt Studios. "Alice had so much fun on Breadcrumbs he wanted to come back and do a full album," Badanjek relates. "We had a great time. Lot of laughs, lot of road stories."

They kept the good times going by sliding over to Funky D after finishing Cooper's sessions every day and laying down tracks for Badanjek's songs. Guitarist Garret Bielaniec, bassist Mike Marshall and illustrious keyboardist Jimmie Bones carved out time to rehearse with him at the home of his good friend Mary Ramirez, of Detroit Cobras fame. "Then we cut them like a blues band, just set up live and knock 'em down," says Gross. "Like we were in a club."

But Funky D, like the rest of America, shut its doors in 2020 at the outset of COVID-19. "Tino wouldn't let anybody in his house!" Badanjek recalls. So while the project lay dormant for over a year and a half, he kept writing. "We recorded five songs that didn't make the album," he notes. "I said, 'I'm not sure about the songs we've done.' Tino said, 'You gotta stop. You can do a double album. Just stop, so we can finally get this thing out."

Bassist Paul Randolph stepped in for a sheltering-at-home Marshall to record "Hoo-La-La," which Badanjek calls "my pandemic song." "Dark in Singapore," the eight-minute-plus track that opens the LP, has been around for a decade, inspired by a guitar riff from his longtime bandmate Jim McCarty. The other 10 tunes run a captivating gamut from hard-driving rock 'n' roll ("Bitter Man," "Someone Else") to saucy blues ("Sister Mojo"), melancholy ballads ("Ride") and "Wake Up Sleepyhead," landing on the ear like a lullaby. Which it is. "I used to play that for my granddaughter when she was five or six," he says.

Badanjek reached out to fabled rock poster artist Stanley "Mouse" Miller, the ex-Detroiter whose work has graced thousands of album covers, to design his Arc cover. "He didn't like the name of the band," "Bee" says, laughing. "He said, 'Am I supposed to put a butcher knife in front of an insect?'" Ultimately, however, he relented; Mark Arminski added the lettering in Detroit.

The pandemic may keep "Bee" from touring to support his new creation, but he plans to produce some music videos. Plus, Funky D's new worldwide distribution deal with Burnside Records/The Orchard/Sony should boost Arc's circle of support. "We're like Horton Hears a Who," says Badanjek. "We need everybody in Who-ville to pick up a copy and spread the news about this badass band from Detroit."

"Bee," one more thing: the almost Beatlesque title track does not have the words "arc," "sweeping" or "sky" anywhere in the lyrics. What's behind the name of that song? And the album, for that matter?

"The title came to me from my unconscious," he replies. "There's always words poppin' out of my head when I'm painting, or at night while I'm in bed. The thing is, you have to write them down right away or they could be gone in seconds.

"So I have books filled with lyrics, book titles, words that pop into my head. That's where Arc came from. Sometimes I don't know what the titles mean myself."

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