On the Beat

Owner of 2112 Percussion passes on, with admirers lifting drumsticks in his honor

Steve Johnson, owner of 2112 Percussion, died on Sept. 1. He was 61 years old and the cause was lung cancer, diagnosed in late May.
Steve Johnson, owner of 2112 Percussion, died on Sept. 1. He was 61 years old and the cause was lung cancer, diagnosed in late May. Courtesy of the family

In the end, Steve Johnson died as he lived: surrounded by friends, rocking unto death and even beyond.

The proprietor of 2112 Percussion passed away on Sept. 1. He was 61 years old and the cause was lung cancer, diagnosed in late May; his final stretch was not easy.

But Johnson went out in style, carried out of the hospice facility afterward in his white Ringo Starr Skechers shoes, past a line of admirers holding drumsticks aloft while his minister sang his favorite hymn (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”).

Still clutched in Johnson’s hand was a keychain that a friend had given him.

“I told him he had the keys to get into heaven,” said Teres LaRocca, Johnson’s longtime partner. “And when they were taking him out afterward, his hand had naturally gone into the rock and roll position while holding the keychain. I told them to leave it that way.”

2112 on East Whitaker Mill Road has been a local-music hub in Raleigh for more than two decades – a place to buy drums, get them fixed or even learn to play. It numbers players both famous and obscure among its regulars, from weekend-warrior hobbyists to touring professionals. Members of acts ranging from grunge band Pearl Jam to arena-country hitmakers Rascal Flatts drop by when they’re in town.

Over the years, 2112 counted local luminaries like Cry of Love frontman Kelly Holland and Dag/Nantucket drummer Kenny Soule among its teachers and employees, and they helped make the store a communal hangout spot. John Custer, Grammy-nominated producer for acts including Corrosion of Conformity and Chris Whitley, likened 2112’s personal touch to a security blanket.

“Drummers around here have always had this sense that if there was anything wrong, Steve would hook them up and take care of them,” Custer said. “He was so attentive to everybody, and he always shot straight whether it was good or bad news. I love the fact that 2112 survived after so many people saying a drum-only shop could not possibly make it – and yet there it still stands.”

Early on, Johnson operated 2112 more like a yard sale than a retail establishment. He set up shop 30 years ago in a Zebulon storage space with a roll-up door, taking the name from the landmark 1976 album by the Canadian power trio Rush.

It was a part-time operation and Johnson would advertise in the News & Observer’s classified section, using his own drum kits for inventory to buy, sell and trade. Told he needed a shop with a real door before he could carry a manufacturer’s line, Johnson got the storage-shed owner to cut an opening and install one for him.

By the early 1990s, Johnson had gone full-time, moving 2112 to Raleigh and establishing it as ground zero for the local drumming community – in part because his price was always negotiable. Jeff Dennis recalled buying the vintage Slingerland drum kit he played in the Backsliders for $300, a fraction of what Johnson could have sold it for.

“That’s the kind of guy Steve was,” Dennis said. “He’d always say, ‘Work with me,’ but the reality was that he was working with you to get the price to what you could afford.”

“Work with me” was one of Johnson’s many trademark phrases in the shop, along with “You’re Killin’ me” and “Ouch.” There even used to be a top-10 list of his favorite negotiating sayings on the wall.

“Steve was always trying to sell something in his way,” said longtime 2112 employee Chris Henderson. “If you pointed out something you liked, he’d quite often say, ‘Better jump on it because that guy from Garner’s coming.’ Always ‘That Guy From Garner.’”

In the works is a Johnson memorial event later this fall in Raleigh. And the store will continue, along with its 2112 Rock School and other teaching programs.

“There are details to work out, but I think it will be me and Chris (Henderson) taking it over,” said manager Tony Williams, who has been working at 2112 since he graduated from high school 20 years ago.

“2112 has always been like an oasis,” said Soule. “The big stores like Sam Ash have their good points but they can’t do what Steve was willing to do – to mess with all the stupid little wing nuts and washers and screws that break, and dig through boxes to find what you need. Steve and his guys have always gone to the trouble and that’s wonderful to have.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi