When Johnny Jensen was two years old, his parents gifted him a blue Smurf guitar. Now, this wasn’t one of those press a button and it plays an obnoxiously loud tune that drives parents nuts guitar — nope, this baby came to this toddler equipped with four strings and no instructions.
So imagine John and Gina Jensen’s surprise when their young son actually began to play a song, or two, or three — tunes he had heard around his house, or at the “stage” to be found at Jensen’s Twin Palm Cottages & Marina Resort, where Uncle Jimmy and his band (The Troublestarters) would often play on weekend evenings, among locals and guests with Pine Island Sound in the background.
Yup. It all started for Johnny Jensen not much after he was walking and talking. And today, at all of 14 years of age (he’ll turn 15 in September), this young man who only learned to read music a few years ago has found his passion — the blues — and is hoping to finish recording his first blues album of original music by the end of this summer.
Some people have used words like “prodigy” in describing Johnny’s talent, but his mother is not one of them. “While he’s certainly been given a gift, we know how challenging the music business is.” She pauses, then smiles. “But he can get there.”
As for Johnny, getting there is something that he readily admits to wanting. “Yes, I wanna be a rock star,” he laughs when asked.
“He heard a song and he started playing it. It was immediate. And then I began to wonder: are all kids doing this?”
If not prodigious, the path to getting there for Johnny Jensen might then be called phenomenal. Following his Smurf guitar, he was given a toy drum set at the age of four. Quickly thereafter, he showed his versatility by channeling Keith Moon and John Bonham, two of his favorite drummers from two of every four-year-old’s fave bands, The Who and Led Zeppelin. “He loved those drums,” his mother recalls. “He heard a song and he started playing it. It was immediate. And then I began to wonder: are all kids doing this?” She laughs.
The answer, of course, is no.
A multi-dimensional artist by the age of five, Johnny would occasionally accept an invitation to join a band playing at Jensen’s marina, or go solo between sets — with one of his first accomplishments Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Pride and Joy” (taking both guitar and vocals). But in his early years as he entered Sanibel School and began to work with its music directors, his first love of percussion took back stage to guitar, where he wowed annual talent show crowds to “Stairway to Heaven” and other favorites. Still playing it all by ear.
Guitar at the age of two. Drums at the age of four. Accomplished at piano. A voice among the top 100 in Florida. Hundreds of songs mastered by watching videos or attending hundreds of concerts with his parents.
It wasn’t until sixth grade (just two years ago, mind you) when he finally learned to read music upon taking guitar lessons at Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers, and joining the Sanibel School’s choir. Subsequently, his vocal skills have earned him acceptance into the Florida All-State Choir these past two years, a select group of 100 very gifted voices from across the state.
And then, along came the 2017 Sanibel Blues and Jazz Festival this past November, and an invitation to take the stage as opening act. Within a week, Johnny had mastered four blues songs and suddenly discovered his passion. “I love the classic blues, all the way back to Robert Johnson and Freddie King,” he says. “But now that I’m writing my own music, I’ll mix in some funk and jazz too.”
Currently, Johnny’s written six songs and recorded four for his yet untitled debut album being produced by Uncle Jimmy at Barefoot Studios in Sanibel. Dolphin Bay Records in Michigan, owned by a family friend, will be responsible for distribution.
Also in the near future, besides upcoming graduation from eighth grade, Johnny’s booked for two gigs at his marina home base, plus a performance alongside Brent Moyer, a family friend and Broadway “Ring of Fire” star, June 18 in Nashville at Brown’s Diner, the Southwest Florida International Blues Challenge in August, and a return engagement to this year’s Sanibel Blues and Jazz Festival.
Guitar at the age of two. Drums at the age of four. Accomplished at piano. A voice among the top 100 in Florida for his age. Hundreds of songs mastered by watching videos or attending hundreds of concerts with his parents — without even one parent who plays a lick of music. The word ‘prodigy’ certainly comes to mind, but Gina Jensen would prefer you didn’t.
“I want to ensure that he’s educated along with musically trained, but he has to do what he loves,” she says. “There are a lot of complications that can arise in life, and I want him to have a good head on his shoulders.”
True to form, Johnny Jensen takes a more mature perspective and agrees with his mom — to a degree. “If it’s not music, I want to be a litigator,” he says. “But I bond with guitar and drums.”
— Story by John Sprecher
— Photography by Milissa Sprecher Photography