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30 years later, The Pulsators still pack venues across the North Bay

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One of the tougher jobs in rock music is playing drums and singing lead vocals at the same time. Yet there have been some great drummer/vocalists: Don Henley of the Eagles, Levon Helm of The Band and Phil Collins of Genesis, to name a few.

You also could make a case for Karen Carpenter or Buddy Miles if you’re so inclined, but there’s one singing drummer you might overlook.

Johnny Campbell celebrates three decades with the popular and venerable Sonoma County band The Pulsators this summer, and although the band is best-known close to home, it’s still packing the house at venues all over the North Bay, including at the Sonoma County Fair Friday, and at the Barlow next weekend.

Admired for volunteering to play benefit shows whenever local musicians need help with medical costs or other crises, the band enjoys a sterling reputation among leaders of the local music scene. The Pulsators have been the first to volunteer when the need arose, said Frank Hayhurst, organizer of numerous benefits for musicians in need.

“This band has been at the heart of this community,” Hayhurst said.

The public likes them, too. The Pulsators have repeatedly won local popularity polls, including three Press Democrat Readers’ Choice awards.

“Great music and dedication to the community are why The Pulsators are such enduring band,” said concert producer and music educator Jim “Mr. Music” Corbett. “It is not a simple task to keep a band together for even five years, much less 30 years. Under the direction of Johnny Campbell, the group not only survived, but thrived.”

One of Campbell’s fellow Pulsators has a simple, practical explanation for that longevity.

“In almost every band I’ve been in over the years, the hardest thing to do is keep a drummer,” said guitarist Doug McKenzie, co-founder of The Pulsators. “When the drummer is your main guy, then you’ve always got a drummer.”

Manageable level

Another reason they’ve lasted, Campbell figures, is that they’ve kept their careers as a band at a manageable level, playing often but working at other jobs, too. Campbell has been an audio visual recording studio owner, music teacher, software IT manager, bicycle shop manager, auto paint salesman, truck driver and more. But as musician, he remained independent.

“I didn’t sign up with management. I didn’t sell my soul to the devil,” he said. “We stayed true to ourselves. We argue like brothers, but fortunately, I can still play with a bunch of guys I really like. That’s the real reason we’ve able to stay together all this time.”

McKenzie was working with his sister in a band called Teresa and the Brewers and looking for a drummer when he first met Campbell. What struck the guitarist most was that Campbell wrote his own songs.

“I wasn’t trying to find a top 40 band,” McKenzie said. “That’s not me. I like to play original music.”

That fit nicely with Campbell’s goals back in 1989, the drummer recalled.

“I wanted to form my own band, and in order to do that, I felt I needed a body of songs,” Campbell said. “We play 70% original music. We can always play original songs. I write a lot. It’s all about the songs.”

The band has recorded four albums and is working on a new one, the first in 10 years.

“Johnny comes up with a song, and allows all to put our own spice in,” McKenzie explained. “For a serious musician, it’s a dream come true.”

As for drumming and singing simultaneously, playing the drums came naturally to Campbell, but the singing and songwriting took time and hard work.

“I just had a knack,” he said. “I’ve been playing the drums since I was pretty small, about 8, and that’s a helluva long time, but I don’t know what I was thinking when I started drumming and singing,” Campbell joked. “Had I known ... but the band all helps.”

The Pulsators are all in their late 50s and early 60s now, and although the band has had an understandable amount of turnover for such a long-lived group, the only change in the past decade was the addition of keyboardist John Farey (pronounced “Fa-Ray”) four years ago.

Bassist Mick Whittington, on the other hand, joined the group roughly a year after Campbell and McKenzie started it. Other longtime members include Rick Clifford on saxophone and Glenn Sullivan on trumpet.

Campbell remembers McKenzie suggesting the band’s name, and McKenzie remembers glancing at a piano during the discussion about band names and thinking of pulsating piano strings.

Onstage and on the band’s videos, the focus is most often on Campbell, seated front and center at his drum kit, wearing his trademark porkpie hat. (“I am bald, if you want to know,” Campbell confessed.)

Fillmore, Warfield

While the Pulsators are better known on their home turf, their experience and professional contacts go well beyond the county lines.

“We’ve opened shows at the Fillmore and the Warfield in San Francisco and the House of Blues in Hollywood,” McKenzie recalled.

One of the bands The Pulsators got to meet was the Neville Brothers, which led to a working relationship with co-founder Art Neville, also leader of The Meters.

“Art kind of took us under his wing. We flew to New Orleans to play on the road with the Neville Brothers,” Campbell said.

Art Neville died last month at age 81, and the Pulsators are grieving, but thankful for the memories.

“Art played keyboards on our second CD,” McKenzie said. “He actually made my guitar part sound better.”

When a band has held together for 30 years, it’s natural to wonder just how much longer the good times can roll, but The Pulsators still report a strong and steady pulse.

“We still feel vital,” Campbell said. “We’re not just the playing the same old stuff.”

And he’s not the only one who still reads strong vital signs from the band. Old fans are still coming back for more and new fans are showing up.

“This band continuously puts out quality music with the same commitment they had when they started,” said Bill Bowker, concert promoter and KRSH deejay. “With their dedication to making music that matters, combined with an infectious dance beat, their audience will continue to grow.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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