Backstage and on the Road: Johnny Starbuck Discusses 30 Years of Life as a Roadie for The Rolling Stones (Part 1)

Being a roadie or tech for a band is not easy. Being a roadie for arguably one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever in my mind is just plain frightening but that’s exactly what Johnny Starbuck has done. Johnny has been traveling as a roadie with The Rolling Stones for over 30 years and when the opportunity to interview Johnny for the Line 6 blog arose I was thrilled! The Rolling Stones are undoubtedly one of my favorite bands in the universe and I just couldn’t wait to get a small glimpse of what life is like behind the scenes and on the road with a juggernaut act like The Stones.

Special thanks to all of  the Line 6 Facebook fans that asked questions for Johnny via the Line 6 Facebook wall!

What got you into becoming a roadie? How did it all start for you?

I grew up in Los Angeles not far from Hollywood and the Sunset Strip. At the time (1969) there were lots of clubs on the Strip and all over Hollywood. Loads of live music. My passion was going to see bands play as often as possible. One day I heard the word “roadie” and realized that that was what I wanted to do. I figured out that the bands would arrive at the club they would be playing that night at 3 or 4 in the afternoon to unload their truck and set up for a sound check.

I was 20 years old and I didn’t have much money so I would go to a club at 3 or 4 PM that I would want to go to that night and volunteer to help unload and set up. It was always welcome help and that way I would get in for free. That went on for a while until one of the bands told me that if I didn’t want to keep going back and forth from where I lived about 20 miles away I could crash on the bass player’s couch and work for them full-time. They couldn’t afford to pay me because all of the money they made went into paying for rehearsal hall time and truck rental. But I would have a place to stay and when they ate I would eat. That went on until another band offered to pay me and then later on another band paid me even more and eventually I could afford to share an apartment with other roadies. Our goal was to be away from LA and on the road as much as possible. I did that for 6 years always working my way up the ladder. Each band I worked for was more famous than the last and would pay me a little more.

In 1976 I worked for Billy Preston and when the Rolling Stones called him to be their keyboard player they made sure to tell him to bring his own roadie because he had so much gear (Yamaha Grand Piano, Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer electric piano, Fender Rhodes electric piano, and a synthesizer he would hang around his neck).

The Stones have called me back for every tour since and the funny thing is I’m still unloading the truck and getting in for free.

"The Stones have called me back for every tour since and the funny thing is I'm still unloading the truck and getting in for free."

Was there a particular person that helped you the most in learning the ins and outs of being a roadie when just starting out?

When starting out? The best answer to that is NO. When I was just starting out I didn’t know where it would go and all the things I would have to learn. Remember, I was just trying to get into a nightclub for free. I didn’t know squat about musical instruments and amplifiers and sound systems. I was just helping to unload the truck and hump the gear.

Back in those days it was pretty simple. The band members set up their own equipment and all I did was the heavy lifting. Along the way I learned more about how to hook up the cables and could relieve some of the work from the band by learning how to set up the drums and keyboards.

It wasn’t until six years went by – six years of working my way up the ladder learning more and more about how to be a roadie by the seat of my pants – that I finally worked with Chuch Magee, the famous roadie for the Rolling Stones. All road guys knew who Chuch was, the way an up-and-coming guitar player would be aware of Jeff Beck.

When I went with Billy Preston to work for the Stones I knew I would be working with this legendary cat and more than anything I was nervous about that. But he was gracious about my shortcomings and took me under his wing and it was then that I really learned how to do the job professionally.

What was one of the biggest obstacles you have had to face in your career?

Without a doubt the biggest obstacle was making it work in the first place. Roadie gigs were few and far between at the beginning. After the first band I worked for let me sleep on the bass player’s couch and after I moved on to other bands, I just wasn’t working enough or making enough money to have a place to live. So between jobs I slept on friends’ couches or floors and a few times I even slept in parks in Hollywood because I just had nowhere else to go. At night I hung out at the famous Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip, the meeting place for roadies and rock stars alike, and just kept networking and looking for someone to put me on their crew so I could go on the road again.

The alternative would have been to bite the bullet and just go find a straight job and give up my dream. But something in me wouldn’t let me do that. I was going to hang in there come hell or high water and make it work without giving up.

Eventually I developed a reputation and began getting more work and the more I went on the road the less I needed a place to live. Then finally the work was regular enough that I could afford to share an apartment with other roadies while we weren’t working. I look back on those days and it amazes me that I had that much determination, but I know that without it I would have given up and everything would have turned out very differently for me.

"Without a doubt the biggest obstacle was making it work in the first place. Roadie gigs were few and far between at the beginning. "

Over the years, have you seen any drastic changes with the way stages, crews and setup works now as compared to when you first started out?

I think I must have seen ALL the changes. The bands I worked with when I first started out were of course small Hollywood bands and it was just band gear on a fixed nightclub stage with a few lights and a small sound system. Even the big bands at the time weren’t yet playing in arenas and stadiums and were usually on a scaffolding type stage with a curtain behind them.

In 1976 when I started with the Stones the whole band and crew would all stay on one floor of a hotel. There were only about 12 guys on the crew which included the band crew (there was no such word as ‘backline’ yet) three or four lighting guys and three or four sound guys and a road manager. No video screen, no dressing room furniture and no catering. The promoter was contractually obligated to give us some kind of lunch and a “hot food” dinner, so lunch usually ended up to be a deli tray while dinner would be Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Now the Stones crew numbers around 120 with backline, sound, lights, video, dressing rooms, catering, power, a stage manager and assistant stage manager and a production manager with a staff of three or four people, and a crew called “carpenters” which is really a half dozen guys that can do or make anything at all necessary to put up a show. A stadium tour usually uses about 52 semi-trucks and a dozen tour buses. The stage takes two days to assemble and a whole separate crew to do it. The difference between the way it was done in the 70′s and today is enormous.

If you had to pick one, what would you say your favorite single moment on the road has been?

That’s a tough one. A single moment. There are so many things that I have enjoyed about my life on the road …. All the foreign travel (my country count is up to 54 now); being able to see so many other bands as they came and went as opening acts; even little things are memorable like closing and locking the truck at the end of a load-out on a long hard day.

But if I had to come up with the thing that sticks in my mind most about being on the road, it would have to be being on the Stones stage on a night when they are so unbelievably ON. Usually during a show I’m not really paying attention to it. My mind is on the next song and getting the guitars ready for 4 or 5 minutes from now. I’m always thinking ahead. But sometimes I’ll stop for a second and say to myself “What is that I hear?” and I’ll look around to the other guys I work with backstage to see if they hear it too and pretty soon we’re all at the top of the stairs and we’ll see that the guitar players are huddled up in front of the drums and they’re all smiling and at that moment they sense it and we sense it. That at that moment the Rolling Stones are playing as good as they can play and they are absolutely on their game. I can honestly say that it doesn’t happen at every show. In fact it only happens maybe a dozen times in a whole tour. But when it does, man it’s something to see.

At that moment I always say to myself, ‘THIS is why I do this. THIS is why I keep coming back to do this job.’ There’s nothing like that moment. At that moment you realize that they truly deserve the title Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band in the World. And I also realize how damn lucky I am to be there.

The Rolling Stones are in no way affiliated with Line 6.

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