A Trip Down Memory Lane With the ‘Vegas Rock Doc’

From KISS to U2, Joe Johnson was the go-to for the stars.

If you go to a concert in Las Vegas and see a guy in a red tie and blazer, it’s probably the “Vegas Rock Doc,” Dr. Joe Johnson, M.D., who has been on call for rock stars since 1984. The Arkansas native moved to town in 1976 to be the flight surgeon for the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. He opened his own practice the day Elvis Presley died—August 17, 1977.

Johnson has seen more than 200 rock stars in Las Vegas, beginning in the early ’80s when he got a call from HC Rowe at the Aladdin. KISS needed medical attention.

I first met Doc when Ozzy Osbourne needed medical attention at the Thomas & Mack Center later that decade. “Ozzy was a great guy,” Johnson remembers. “It was the first date of the tour and he had a copy of the souvenir program. I spent 20 minutes with him as he doodled over the pictures and told me stories.”

Doc became a regular fixture at concerts for three reasons: He is a good doctor, has a great demeanor and the price was right (i.e., free). Yes, he drops everything (including stars’ drawers on occasion) to attend to rock icons. Do any stars offer to pay? “Most the country stars offer me something; the rock stars feel privileged,” Johnson says.

In 1993, Mark Prows, general manager of MGM Grand Garden, requested the Rock Doc. Probably half the performers Johnson attended to were at the Grand Garden.

It was about a half of a decade later that U2 came calling. The band had set up camp two weeks before their April 25 PopMart show at Sam Boyd Stadium. On one of the rehearsal nights, Johnson treated both Edge and Bono. He recalls a comical incident in which the band was attempting to integrate an accordion into the show. “The accordion kept falling apart each night at rehearsals. Bono was getting irritated. ‘We better get this right pretty fucking fast,’ he said. On the last night of rehearsals, they finally got it right, but it fell apart again during the show.”

Former President Bill Clinton, who Johnson already knew, was at Sam Boyd Stadium also. The president invited Bono up to the suite, unbeknownst to the Secret Service. “When I reached out to shake his hand, the boys in black pinned my arm behind my back, but Mr. Clinton straightened all that out.”

Of all the stars Johnson has treated, one stands out as a favorite: Luciano Pavarotti, who he saw every time he came to Vegas. On one occasion, Doc was on the 17th tee when he got an SOS call from Mandalay Bay’s Glenn Medas. “You’ve got to come now. The ambulance and paramedic guys are here and want to take [Pavarotti] to the hospital. We’ve sold $2.6 million in tickets,” Johnson recalls. “I sat with him awhile, settled him down. We played gin rummy. I told him my sister was in town and he called her on the cell. They talked for five minutes. She was stunned.”

More recently, in 2015, Billy Gibbons, another Doc friend, was in town and wanted to go to the NFR. “We put him up in our suite and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. He gave me his card. How many rock stars have a card? It said ‘Billy Gibbons—Friend of Eric Clapton,’” Johnson says.

“At one of the awards shows, I am at the office and I get a call that Steven Tyler needs a B12 shot,” Johnson recalls. I had a waiting room filled with patients. I said, “If he can be there at exactly 4:15, I can do it. Of course, he wasn’t there, but I found him onstage in rehearsal. He stops everything, jumps offstage and has his arm around me and slides it down to my ass. It provided a good shot for the eager photographers.”

The Vegas Rock Doc got into a habit early on of getting pictures every time he treated celebrities and has amassed quite a collection. He says the most challenging image was the Eagles. “I had pictures of them all individually, but I could never get one together,” Johnson says.“The last show I was determined. ‘We need to get a picture of everyone,’ I said to each of them individually. None of them, who arrived alone and had their own dressing rooms, wanted anything to do with it. I patiently waited until I heard the collective countdown over the radios as they all exited their separate dressing rooms and made their way toward the stage. I was there with a photographer. They didn’t like it, but I got it.”

Pat Christenson is the president of Las Vegas Events and the author of the book Rock Vegas and the blog rockvegasnation.com, which chronicles the evolution of live music in Las Vegas.