By Ingrid Schnader
It isn’t hard for Black Jacket Symphony founder and guitarist J. Willoughby to remember what motivated him to pick up a guitar when he was 5 years old.
“I got bitten by the Beatles,” he said. “Just became a weird freak about the Beatles at age 4. I mean, I was an only child, and I think it’s because I didn’t have video games to play or anything. I just went insane. So much so that (my parents) finally got me a little, three-quarter-sized guitar. And I was just making up chords on it. I had no idea what I was doing.”
When he was 6, his mom started taking him to guitar lessons, but it wasn’t what he thought it would be.
“My mom tricked me,” he said. “She was taking me to take classical guitar lessons. … I was like, ‘I don’t think this is what John Lennon did.’”
But then he finally learned how to play a barre chord, and he started to get better and better at playing rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was just this weird magic that came up early on — that’s the time I felt most right in this universe,” he said about playing music. “It was doing something that was bigger than me.”
By the time he reached junior high at Mountain Brook, he was in his first rock band; they called themselves Fox. They played a few of the junior high dances and even got a gig at the zoo every once in a while, but it wasn’t long before Willoughby left to join a band in Tarrant that played at roller skating rinks every Saturday night.
“I played football on Friday nights and the roller skating rinks on Saturday nights,” he said. “We had homemade explosions, smoke, dry ice.”
He studied creative writing and communications at the University of Alabama, learning how to write lyrics and short stories. After he went to graduate school in Nashville to study music business, he went back to Tuscaloosa to start his first “real” traveling rock ‘n’ roll band. They were called Newboys.
Not What He Expected
“(It was) something out of a bad short-story,” he said, remembering what it was like living in Motel 6s and riding around in a beat-up van. “And I was always trying to get to the next level. I don’t think I enjoyed it. I always look back, ‘I wish I would have enjoyed that more than I did in the moment.’”
They came close to a record deal in Nashville, but it slipped away. Willoughby decided to try the radio business, thinking it would be safer than music.
“And boy was I wrong,” Willoughby said, laughing at another failed venture.
“I literally had to do something,” he said. “I’d lost my job and applied at other things. And at my age, I’d only done music and radio. It wasn’t like I was going to go be the president of a bank all of a sudden.”
Finally, he got the idea for Black Jacket Symphony – a band that plays full albums, sound for sound, from some of the greatest artists in rock ‘n’ roll history. Their first show, Abbey Road in May 2009, had a sold-out crowd at Workplay.
“There’s a bunch of Beatles tribute bands,” he said. “They go out and talk like the Beatles, dress up like them, pretend to be them – which is fun at first, but you always feel kind of cheesy halfway through it. … It hit me that symphonies don’t go out and dress up like Mozart when they’re playing Mozart. They don’t wear powdered wigs and speak in weird Austrian accents. They play a piece.”
It was successful from the beginning. The group played a few more sold-out shows before finally moving to bigger venues. As the group’s business kept growing and growing – playing shows all over the Southeast – Willoughby had to take a step back. He said that was OK, because the group was able to hire other great guitar players, and he didn’t have to travel so much.
“I’m happy to be home on a Saturday night every now and then,” he said. “And my daughter (Sammie Jean) is 14. I don’t need to miss any more than I have.”
Willoughby now spends his time managing the band and recording a radio show that is broadcast on WBHM every Sunday morning. The show gives him the chance to “geek out” on the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll trivia he’s been memorizing since he was 4.
For those who want to be professional musicians, he has some advice.
“Know music theory,” he said. “You’ll always have a gig if you can read and write music and really break things down like that. And be prepared to play in a wedding band. And I’m serious, because that’s really the reality of the music business now. Don’t do it to be a star, because it’s few and far between.”