Johnny Dee, rock-and-roll bandleader, was born Keith Landers in Abilene, Texas, on January 15, 1951. He was the son of William and Kathleen Landers. He received his first guitar as a Christmas present in 1964 and quickly took to the instrument. He attended Lincoln Junior High and graduated from Abilene High School in 1969. Landers performed and toured the area with fellow guitarist Dan Wallace, childhood friend Bill Maddox, and Noel Kelton in a band called Omaha. He later was a member of a rock-and-roll band named Cadillac, which included Maddox, Kelton, and keyboardist Stephen Barber. In 1971 he moved to Austin with the other members of Cadillac.
From his musical beginnings and stretching well into the 1970s, Landers had performed contemporary rock and pop songs, but his career took a turn when he decided to reinvent himself as a 1950s rocker. His new persona included a stage name, “Johnny Dee,” and a retro look complete with colorful vintage costumes and a shark-fin pompadour. With Noel Kelton, he formed a new band, Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88’s, and their repertoire included early rock dance songs and doo-wop.
Johnny Dee and his group became very popular throughout the Austin area and beyond. They toured throughout Texas and shared the playbill with such notable classic performers as the Beach Boys, Ricky Nelson, Dick Clark, James Brown, and Wolfman Jack. They also garnered significant attention in 1986 as one of the featured bands in the “Don’t Mess With Texas” ad campaign against littering—a series of public service announcements initiated by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Landers, as Johnny Dee, was known for his high-energy, zany showmanship onstage but retained a laid-back and fan-friendly demeanor when not performing. His group released a number of recordings throughout the years, including Coolest Car in Town (1975), Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88’s (1979), and Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88’s Live at Leon Springs (2000). Over more than three decades of performances their shows included many fundraisers as well as concerts for United States presidents and other dignitaries.
By the 2010s Johnny Dee maintained his rigorous performance schedule but was increasingly ailing from kidney problems and received weekly dialysis. He died after one such treatment in Austin on October 17, 2011. He was survived by his wife Marylyn, three sons, and a grandson. The Rocket 88’s continued to perform and carry on his legacy.