Benjamin (Bennie) LaBarge was a self-taught musician that played piano, guitar, and bass. Ben’s true love was being a frontman where he could captivate audiences of any size. NO THANKS was his first band in the Bay Area of California to really make noise. Ben formed this band while attending Tennyson High School in Hayward, California. There were a lot of amazing artists and bands in Hayward at that time that went onto varying levels of success. Some of these include members of; TESLA, ALDO NOVA, UFO, Y&T, 415, THE ERIC MARTIN BAND, MR. BIG, EDDIE MONEY, METALLICA, and FAITH NO MORE. The local competition was tough, but Ben was determined to get his music heard. The band NO THANKS only lasted a short time, but Ben quickly formed his band BENNIE AND THE JETS with drummer Troy Luccketta (NO THANKS, 415, THE ERIC MARTIN BAND, TESLA), guitarist Larry Litz (NEXT, NO THANKS, JAMES MCCULLEN GROUP, HARI KARI), bassist Keith Bellino (AFTERSHOCK, HOMEBOYS) and guitarist Kevin Carlson (THE TOYS, ALDO NOVA, CANYN, UFO). He would later add Byron Lange on guitar after Larry Litz made a brief departure. BENNIE AND THE JETS found mild success between 1978 and 1980. In 1980, Troy Luccketta departed and joined the band 415 (which renamed itself “THE ERIC MARTIN BAND”) and he later joined TESLA. This vacancy was quickly filled by Rich Carlson (THE TOYS, HARI KARI, CAPTURED, XPD, CANYN, G-FORCE, BADD BOYZ) who was the younger brother of Kevin Carlson. This version of BENNIE AND THE JETS only lasted about a year before they disbanded.
Not too far from Tennyson High, rival high school Mission San Jose in Fremont, California, had its own group of talented musicians. This is where the young, up-and-coming guitarist Danny De La Rosa (HARI KARI, RISK, CAPTURED, TERRAPLANE, BABYLON A.D.) was honing his skills. Danny was playing at an entirely different level from those around him which landed him a spot in the band HARI KARI while he was still in high school.
Danny played with Rich Carlson in a version of HARI KARI that changed again when Larry Litz, who had recently departed the band BENNIE AND THE JETS, joined the band. HARI KARI started out playing original songs and soon shared packed venues as an opener for THE ERIC MARTIN BAND and Y&T. Danny was now barely nineteen years old and still living at home when Mike Varney (THE NUNS, CINEMA, ROCK JUSTICE, SHRAPNEL RECORDS) told him to get in touch with KISS’s management because they were looking for a new guitarist. Danny called and was asked how he got the number. When he replied that he got it from Mike Varney, they seemed to take the call a little more seriously. Days had passed and Danny did not give it much thought until the phone rang. Danny’s sister picked it up and told Danny that the phone was for him and it was a man named Gene Simmons on the line. Danny quickly thought his sister was teasing him because there was no way Gene Simmons would call him directly. Danny got on the phone and heard that very distinct voice and knew right away that his sister was not pulling a prank on him. Gene told Danny that he had heard his demo and was very impressed. Gene only had two questions for Danny: do you have dark hair? And, are you six foot or taller? Danny was exactly six feet tall and had the desired dark hair. Gene and company sent Danny a ticket to fly to Los Angeles to show off his talents. Danny joined the band in the studio and worked on new material. He also played classic KISS songs with Paul Stanly, Gene Simmons, and Eric Carr; and, as a bonus, he got to see the band without makeup before the band revealed their faces publicly. Even though Danny did not end up getting the gig, he was one of the finalists for that very coveted spot and it turned out he was in the very good company of other notable guitarists.
After HARI KARI broke up, Danny played in a few traveling cover bands with Rich Carlson and BABYLON A.D. alumni Derek Davis and Robb Reid, but he eventually relocated to the Sacramento, California, area to join a band called CAPTURED with former BENNIE AND THE JETS drummer Rich Carlson and BABYLON A.D. Bassist Robb Reid. CAPTURED played all over California, Nevada, and Arizona. This band broke up in the summer of 1985. At Danny’s request, Rich reached out to Bennie LaBarge to see if he wanted to start jamming. Bennie and Keith were ready to start playing again so a jam was set up and the chemistry was obviously there. The band started out performing BENNIE AND THE JETS songs and went by the name THE JETS. A second guitarist departed from the band shortly after and the group played as a four-piece with Danny handling all guitar duties. Soon thereafter the band began playing songs written by Danny. They also changed their name to JOHNNY.
Leonard Haze (Y&T, HOMEBOYS) offered to let the band rehearse in Y&T’s studio while Y&T was out on tour. This allowed the band to progress rapidly and lay down some demo songs including the song “I’m Gonna Get Your Love” recorded at Music Annex in Menlo Park, California. JOHNNY began to play live shows and the fanbase started to grow. There shows combined a high-energy style with fantastic songs, making them one of the premier acts in the Bay Area. Toward the end of 1986, the band entered Prairie Sun Studios and laid down the songs “She’s A Killer,” “No Destination,” and “Fly By Night.” Shortly after the first recording session at Prairie Sun, Rich Carlson departed the band and moved to Colorado. This came as a bit of a shock to the rest of the band as they felt that things were finally getting going and they had some fantastic songs. JOHNNY tried out several drummers, but nobody was quite to their liking. It was not until Sammy Morar (MAX LYNX, SPY VS. SPY) tried out, that the band felt they had found their guy. Sammy not only had the killer look they wanted, but he played over the top as well.
The band continued to open for Y&T, BLACK ‘N BLUE, and HUMBLE PIE, and headlined at venues such as Niles Station, The Stone (in San Francisco), Keystone Palo Alto, Keystone Berkley, The Omni, and the Kabuki Theater (in San Francisco). The band made some great traction and the fan base was ever-growing. With the band in such demand, they knew it was time to get into the studio, so they could create a demo to shop record labels.
JOHNNY re-entered Prairie Sun Studios once again, to lay down four more tracks (“Little Angel,” “Wasted Time,” “I Want Your Love,” and “Morning After”). The band released a six-track cassette which sold out almost immediately. This cassette grabbed the attention of Atlantic Records and Capitol Records. However, it was Gene Simmons who started looking at the band to sign to his label “Simmons Records.” With the new interest, JOHNNY started writing new songs and went back into the studio to record a few more tracks. During this time in the studio, some issues developed within the band. Sammy ended up leaving the band and they were now on the hunt for a new drummer. At this same time, Rich moved back to California and re-joined the band JOHNNY. Unfortunately, this final version of the band was very short-lived. The desire and excitement from frontman Bennie LaBarge began to decline. Ben had just turned thirty and he had made a promise to himself that if he had not made it as a musician by then, he would hang it up. Bennie had a very good paying job and his priorities changed. It was also at this same time, that Danny was contacted by the band BABYLON A.D to replace the departing John Matthews. They were entering the studio to record a self-titled album on Arista Records. Danny went to Bennie and told him about the offer, but let Bennie know that he would stay with JOHNNY if Danny could give him a reason to. He was fully committed to the band JOHNNY and the songs they had written and recorded, but Ben offered him no good reason to stay.
Danny immediately moved to Hollywood to record the Babylon A.D. self-titled album. He found much success and was able to showcase his talents as he wrote the majority of the band’s second release “Nothing Sacred.” Even though the JOHNNY demo did not receive its dues during the heyday of the 80s, the band looks back on their time together and the songs they created with much fondness. Many of these songs were their favorites during their careers.
Sadly, in March 2020, Benjamin LaBarge passed away. Bennie never reached his aspirations for success, but he did touch the lives of those he encountered. Ben was able to have two of his songs (“Do You Know” and “Lipstick And Leather”) gain some success when they were redone by Y&T on their “In Rock We Trust” album. And now both of his albums “Bennie and The Jets – Lipstick And Leather” and “Johnny – No Destination” have been released on Metallic Blue Records. Recently a few words about the late Bennie LaBarge were shared by MR. BIG vocalist Eric Martin: “I didn’t know Bennie on a personal level. I knew him as a singer, songwriter and ‘helluva performer. I’m sure I borrowed something from him. He was great live. He had a lot more confidence than I did when I rolled into Hayward, CA, in 1979. I definitely had beers and chats with him back in the day at the gigs and events around town, but back then we were all fighting for a Friday night spot at either Frenchys, or the Alpine Glow in Hayward, couldn’t hang too close…ha. It wouldn’t matter if it was Saturday night at the battle of the bands at Chabot College or Monday at 3:00 in the afternoon at a laundry mat in Castro Valley, every time you saw a Jet they were always dressed like rockstars.
When we got drummer Troy Luccketta to play with us (415... later Eric Martin Band) on gigs and eventually a record, Troy played me Bennie’s demos. ‘Say it again’ ‘Lipstick & Leather’ etc... I was blown away and thought holy shit I had better step up my game if I want to keep this dude in our band.
Bennie had a great sense of melody, his lyrics were cocky, his riffs and changes were right out of the British Invasion playbook… I mean that with all sincerity.... he channeled the glam stars of England “Mott the ‘Hoople,’ ‘The Sweet,’ ‘The Move,’ and the swagger of John Waite and Rod Stewart and made it his own brand. The kid knew how to write Pop Rock hooks no question about it!! They should have been as Big as any band out there in those years... Hail to the Jets!”