Chemistry Lesson: Band Members Connect In Electric Performances

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If hot, local country band Junction 87 does not know your request in English they will sing it in Japanese.

Backwards.

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Billy Ichida, Robert Lewis and Jim Norman are the sound of Junction 87. The band will be at the Strawberry Festival the weekend of June 9; and they will perform for the Concert Under the Stars series June 23 at Green Valley Park.

Well, not really, but some people show surprise when tennis shoe-clad Billy Ichida draws his bow across his electric fiddle.

"The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is a perennial set closer for band members who started jammin' together at the Rye Creek Restaurant and Bar nearly a decade ago and at the Buffalo Bar on Sunday afternoons four-and-a-half years ago.

Fiddle tucked under his chin, Junction 87's founder, Jim Norman, plays the devil with red blinking horns on his straw cowboy hat. He has to watch out for Ichida's antics -- he might get tapped with Ichida's bow or have his horns stolen.

"If playing music stops being fun, it becomes work real fast," Norman said.

Norman and Ichida started jammin' in Rye, lead vocalist and guitar player Robert Lewis joined in at the Buffalo. At that time the band was playing country with lots of country-rock music.

"Changing our format to just classic country is the wisest thing we have ever done; we've been booked every weekend since," Norman said.

A drum machine holds the beat.

"In a way ‘he' is the best musician in the band," Norman said. "He never gets drunk, never makes a pass at your wife and only misses the beat once in a while."

"All three of us are self-taught musicians," Norman said. "Except I studied at Julliard."

"Bar and Grill in Oklahoma," Lewis adds.

Norman plays rhythm guitar, bass guitar, "upright bass" (a vintage 1940s German bass fiddle), and sings backup vocals.

He started playing bass guitar in a rock 'n' roll band in high school, covering Beatles and Rolling Stones tunes.

After he graduated high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and did not play music for the next 20 years.

Upon retirement, he bought a used bass guitar and he has been playing ever since.

He also works part-time in a job that takes him all over the world as a semi-conductor fabrication technician. "I have a great boss who tries to work around the band's schedule," Norman said.

But it's his band he loves.

Norman finds his stage-time rewarding. As with his job in fabrication, he enjoys putting out a quality product and is delighted to make money at it.

Judging by the men's easy banter on and off stage, the three are good communicators.

"The challenge is trying to learn more complex songs with intricate progressions and harmonies," Norman said.

"Bob has taught Billy and I so much about singing harmony."

Bob Lewis is Junction 87's lead singer and rhythm guitar player.

The Arizona native grew up in a musical family; picked up his first rhythm guitar at age 10 and hit the road in 1970.

But his first paid performance was at the old Log Cabin Bar in Prescott, with his cousin, Jerry, who used to be the piano player there. Lewis was just 14.

In 1978 Lewis toured with Jim Monnett and the Arizona Outlaws for two years.

In 1980, he settled in Chandler and started his own band, Bob Lewis and Crystal Creek.

The band was together for six years, then Lewis took a hiatus.

"When I moved here in 2002, I told my wife, I've got the itch again," Lewis said.

During the day, Lewis is a jack-of-all-trades at Payson Driveline.

"I am a guitar player first," Ichida said.

"And second fiddle," Lewis quipped.

Ichida dusted off the guitar his sister had briefly used when he was in junior high. He initially played classical music on the instrument, but soon started playing surfer rock music with friends, a style of music very big in Japan at the time.

One of the reasons Ichida enjoys playing country music now is, "There was no country music in college in Japan."

Ichida came to the states in 1970 and played in different bands. He moved to Arizona in 1978 and joined Coyote, the No. 1 country-rock band in Phoenix at the time.

He played with them for 10 years.

The six-piece band included a female singer, a pianist and a banjo player.

Guitarist Ichida was the only one who did not sing, so Coyote asked him to learn another instrument. And that is why Ichida can play the electric fiddle.

He also plays the mandolin, "a very limited instrument," and the saxophone, "I hate it," he said.

After Ichida quit Coyote, and thus the life of a professional musician, he worked as a computer programmer and did not touch the fiddle for 14 years.

The move to Payson in the fall of 2001 prompted him to rosin up his bow.

Now Ichida makes his living with his recording studio, teaching guitar lessons to adults and children, playing Junction 87 gigs, and occasionally playing with John Carpino and the Hot Cappuccinos.

Fans look forward to Junction 87's donning beards for their rendition of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" made popular in the film "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"

A Junction 87 concert is a mixture of country western music from classics such as "16 Tons" to the more recent, "I Love This Bar."

Lewis' romantic vocals on "I Want to Go Home" by Bobby Bare got couples dancing one Friday night at the Main Street Grille.

"We try to read the mood of the crowd," Lewis said. "If there are cowboys trying to make their moves during the last set we'll play slow songs."

From, "... Home" the guitars flow softly into "Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain," and a couple head to the dance floor to hold each other close and sway.

Lewis pegs Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." The impersonation is effective.

Another crowd-pleaser is "Orange Blossom Special." One almost expects Ichida's bow to start a fire on the strings as his fingers move in a blur.

And one fan called out, "Billy, you almost hurt yourself up there."

"Outlaw Night Train," opens with a low train whistle. The song is a Junction 87 original and tells the story of a ramblin' man going home to see his baby.

Junction 87 is working on the song "Love Isn't Love," a song Lewis recorded in Nashville in 1984 (written by Bobby Fisher and Roger Moreno).

When people ask Lewis about Junction 87 compared to other bands he has played with over his 40-year career, he says, "This is the second group I have played with that the magic is there."

Junction 87 will be at the Strawberry Festival the weekend of June 9; and they will be the featured band for the Payson Parks and Recreation Department's Concert Under the Stars series, June 23.

The band's complete schedule can be found at www.junction87.com.

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