Johnathan Len is hoping he has dipped into the same karma pool as his mentor.
Len has been a background vocalist for the past six years for country star Ronnie McDowell.
McDowell was thrust into the limelight with debut 1977 single “The King is Gone,” a song he wrote and released just 25 days after the death of Elvis Presley, who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Ironically, it was also the magic of Tupelo that allowed Len to create a buzz with a song he performed at a solo concert. The emotional ballad was written by McDowell and deals with the devastating consequences of dementia.
Because the soulful tune tugged at the heartstrings of a media-connected member of the audience, Len was ushered after the show to a local radio station to perform the song live, and was interviewed on local television the following day.
“I thought it was going to be just another trip, but the right person heard it and things snowballed,” Len says. “This is going to be the song that allows me to take that next step. It has opened so many doors.”
Len had a worldwide video release for “You Will Never Leave My Mind” on Wednesday. The former Herrin elementary school teacher gave Southern Illinois fans a sneak peak of the video Tuesday at a standing-room-only concert at the Little Egypt Arts Center on the Marion Square.
“Every bombastic career started in a room like this,” said Marion Mayor Mike Absher, introducing Len to the packed house. “We will be watching you as you rise through this industry.”
A single version of the song was released through various media platforms earlier this year. The video to accompany the single was recorded at several area locations, including Parker’s Drive Inn in Lone Oak, Kentucky, The Landings in Carbondale and throughout historic downtown Paducah.
“I’ve got a lot of cool stuff about the happening in my career, but I can’t let the cat out of the bag yet,” says Len, who has a busy calendar of personal shows when he is not performing with McDowell.
Tonight he plays a free 6-8 p.m. concert at Bower Park in Olney. He performs Saturday in Duck River, Tennessee, in front of Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri on June 27, and has a July 4 event in Kennett, Missouri, home of both Narvel Felts and Sheryl Crow.
Len was born in Paducah and attended grade school briefly in Vienna. He showed a strong emotional attachment to music as a youth.
“I loved the rock sound of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Buddy Holly. That’s what I grew up on. I can remember crying at night wondering, “Why did he have to die?’” Len says.
His interest started leaning toward country when he was 8 years old. He vividly remembers the moment. It came during the 1990 movie “Ghost,” specifically when Ronnie McDowell crooned a cover of the Righteous Brothers' signature tune “Unchained Melody.”
“We didn’t have a compact disc of the song. The only way I could listen to it was on a VHS tape,” Len says. “I would find the song on the tape, listen to it, then rewind it and start again. I did this over and over, until mom caught me.”
Len was simply listening to a tune that touched him and made a deep emotional impact. The problem was the song appeared during the movie in conjunction with a steamy love scene between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.
“She wondered, ‘What in the world is wrong with this boy?’ I wasn’t even watching the movie, but I sure loved the song. She bought me the CD the next day,” Len says.
Len says he is finally on the right career path.
“I was an elementary school teacher and I still wonder why I did it because I wasn’t passionate about it. I’ve always loved music,” Len says. He taught in the Herrin school system from 2010 to 2016.
Len was in the local a cappella group Blend from 2005 to 2017. Blend provided background vocals as a unit for McDowell for fours years, and Len has continued in the role for the past two years.
His vocal style is a smash-up of Rascal Flatts and Southern gospel icon Kenny Henson, drenched in the influence of the 1980s country greats Conway Twitty and George Jones.
Len performed in Marion for over an hour, working up the crowd with McDowell-written “Sheet Music” and numerous covers of his favorites songs, including Delberts McClinton’s blues torched “”I’m With You.” He traveled to Nashville Wednesday to record the song for an upcoming album.
During the Marion showcase, he invited three of his favorite local singers to the stage, including Carsyn Berry, Matt Basler and Edwin Linson.