His first musical performance was in the winter of 1967 with The Reign followed by a gig at Quintano’s School for Young Professionals with “Johnny and the Jaywalkers”, under the name Johnny Volume.
In 1968 he began going to the Fillmore East and Bethesda Fountain in Central Park on weekends. His older sister, Mariann, started styling his hair like Keith Richards. In late 1969 he got a job as a sales clerk at D’Naz leather shop, on Bleecker Street in the West Village, and started trying to put a band together. He and his girlfriend, Janis Cafasso, went to see the Stones at Madison Square Garden in November 1969, and they appear in the Maysles’ film, Gimme Shelter.
In London, after the Isle of Wight Festival, the following summer, his girlfriend Janis fell sick and they flew home. Back in NYC from the UK, toward the end of 1970, he started hanging out at Nobodys, a club also on Bleecker Street in the West Village. It was near there that he met future Dolls Arthur Kane and Rick Rivets. (Dolls bass guitarist, Arthur Kane, later wrote about Thunders’s guitar sound, as he described arriving outside the rehearsal studio where they were meeting to jam together for the first time: “I heard someone playing a guitar riff that I myself didn’t know how to play. It was raunchy, nasty, rough, raw, and untamed. I thought it was truly inspired…” Adding, “His sound was rich and fat and beautiful, like a voice.) Johnny joined their band “Actress” which later, after firing Rivets and adding David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, became the New York Dolls. At this time he changed his name to “Johnny Thunders”, inspired by a comic book hero.
After the Dolls he formed The Heartbreakers touring the US and UK, releasing one official album, L.A.M.F., in 1977. The group relocated to the UK, where their popularity was significantly greater than it was in the U.S., particularly among punk bands. In late 1979 Johnny began performing in a band called Gang War and recorded a number of solo albums beginning with So Alone in 1978. The notoriously drug-fueled recording sessions featured a core band of Johnny, bassist Phil Lynott, drummer Paul Cook, and guitarist Steve Jones, with guest appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriott, Walter Lure, Billy Rath, and Peter Perrett of The Only Ones.
The CD version of the album contains four bonus tracks, including the single “Dead or Alive”. After its release, Thunders and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious played in the Living Dead for a short time.
He died on 23 April 1991, primarily from methadone and alcohol poisoning, although doctors had diagnosed leukemia in him earlier in the year. He was 38 years 9 months and 8 days old.