Wednesday, Jun 25 2014 04:18 PM

Keyboardist's voice 'just melted' his fans

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    By courtesy of Lisa Farris

    Johnny Blue Villalovos, left, with fellow performers Richard Perez, far right, and an unidentified musician in an undated photo.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Johnny "Blue" Villalovos was talented enough to attract notice from the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, but his musical abilities likely made the biggest impression on a woman who walked into a Union Avenue club one evening in 1982.

As the lifelong music lover and piano teacher tells it, she heard a deep, smooth voice she couldn't ignore coming from a man playing a keyboard on stage.

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Johnny Blue Villalovos | 1938-2014

"Oh man, I tell you what," Patricia Villalovos said Wednesday. "It just melted me."

The two were introduced, moved in together shortly afterward against her mother's wishes -- "we shacked up" -- and married a few years later.

Patricia Villalovos said her husband, who died June 18 from a massive stroke at the age of 75, had an innate talent when it came to his livelihood. He could play any song in any style of music you could think of.

"You request it, he could do it," she said. "He had a thousand songs or more in his brain."

He'd slowed down in recent years following knee surgery, but still managed to play a few shows a year. A self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, when Villalovos heard something he liked, he could pick out the bass line and easily learn the tune.

As for the nickname "Johnny Blue," the true story of its origin died with Villalovos. He told several tales of how it came into existence.

Patricia Villalovos said you could never be sure which story he'd give when asked about it, but she believes he first received the name in the early 1960s when the dark Villalovos walked into a nightclub and another musician told him the club's lighting made it appear as if he had blue skin.

It stuck. Forever after he was known as "Johnny Blue" when he performed.

Born in a Buttonwillow farmhouse to Mickey and Ellis Villalovos on Nov. 18, 1938, Villalovos attended local schools and entered the U.S. Army upon graduating from Bakersfield High.

After a two-year stint, during which he realized he had a natural talent for both the saxophone and keyboard, Villalovos toured with several bands, traveling to Alaska and even parts of Europe for tour dates. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard contacted him when they needed a keyboardist for Bakersfield-area shows, Villalovos' wife said.

After a few years of jumping from one tour date to the next, the musician settled in for a long run in San Francisco.

Edward "Lalo" Castaneda performed with Villalovos for about eight years at a San Francisco club called The Jolly Friar in the 1960s and 1970s. As Johnny Blue and the Providers, the band played the popular rock hits of the time, some Latin jazz -- whatever the crowd wanted to hear.

It was a wild scene.

"That's when the hippie days were over there in San Francisco," said Castaneda, who played saxophone and grew to close to Villalovos, both as his bandmate and roommate.

"We went through all that stuff, man."

The laidback hippie attitude extended to Villalovos' arrival times for gigs. It was always a guessing game as to when, exactly, he'd show up.

"Gave me a damn ulcer, man," Castaneda said with a laugh.

Arriving late was just part of who he was, said Castaneda, another quirk to go along with his unusual nickname and love of burnt popcorn.

The counterculture heyday ended and Villalovos made his way back to the Central Valley. It was while playing in the Johnny Blue Trio that he met Patricia and settled down for good in Arvin.

The last couple decades saw Villalovos gradually slow down, but he still played dates at KC Steakhouse, Cafe Med, Mama Tosca's and other spots around town.

Patricia Villalovos certainly appreciated her husband's musicianship, and his voice was enough to make her say to herself, "Patricia, you're in trouble," but she made sure his talent never went to his head and he kept up with his share of household chores.

"I told him many times, 'You're not Johnny Blue here, you're Johnny Villalovos, and that yard needs to get done."

In addition to Patricia, Villalovos is survived by four sons: Anthony and wife Elizabeth, of Albuquerque, N.M.; Michael, of Freeport, Texas; Frankie, of Bakersfield; and John, of Arvin. He also leaves behind two sisters, 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

A Memorial Mass will be celebrated at St. Francis of Assisi Parish at 9 a.m. today. Interment will take place at 10:45 a.m. Monday at Bakersfield National Cemetery.

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