When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame established a new category for sidemen in 2001, pianist Johnnie Johnson was a natural pick. As the longtime piano player in the band of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, Johnson did a great deal to shape the sound of the new genre. Johnson, in fact, gave Berry his start in the music business. For many years Johnson, like many other rhythm-and-blues and rock instrumentalists, was an almost anonymous figure as far as the general public was concerned, but a retrospective look back at Berry's career began to cast a new light on his talents, and eventually brought fame and an independent career to the man with "the baddest right hand in the land."
Johnnie Clyde Johnson was born on July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, West Virginia. His father was a coal miner. When he was four, his parents bought a piano. Johnson started playing it right after it was delivered to the family's home, and he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post that his mother "cried out that it was a gift from God." On the household record player, too, Johnson gravitated toward piano music; self-taught, he honed his skills by trying to imitate great virtuoso players like jazzman Art Tatum and boogie woogie master Meade "Lux" Lewis. He also tuned in to the "Dawn Patrol" program on a Pittsburgh radio station, and he sometimes said he learned rhythm by listening as trains passed by his mountain home. By the time he was nine, he was playing on the radio himself.
Worked on Tank Assembly Line
Johnson started a band, the Blue Rhythm Swingsters, when he was 13. As World War II broke out, he was drawn north by the promise of factory work, and did a stint in Detroit, building tanks on a Ford assembly line. In 1943, at a time when there were very few African Americans in the United States Marine Corps, Johnson enlisted and served with the Marines in the South Pacific. That gave him the chance to play music with the Special Service Band that accompanied jazz and swing musicians on tour to entertain the troops. As he worked with sidemen from the Count Basie and Lionel Hampton big bands, he began to think about a career in music for himself.
After the war Johnson made his way to Chicago, taking a factory job but using evenings to try to break into the city's growing blues scene. On records he occasionally backed guitarist Albert King. A job at American Steel took him to St. Louis in 1952, a city with a flourishing music scene of its own. He formed a group variously called Sir John's Trio or the Johnnie Johnson Trio, playing standards and swing tunes. On New Year's Eve of 1952, one of Johnson's regular musicians called in sick for a gig at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois, and Johnson hired guitarist Chuck Berry, who at the time had only six months' experience, as a replacement. Berry was paid four dollars. The band tried out a few of the substitute musician's originals—upbeat blues numbers with a storytelling bent borrowed from country music—and they went over well with the crowd.
The club manager invited Johnson's band back, and soon Berry emerged as the group's frontman. After Berry signed with Chicago's Chess label, Johnson stayed on for the long ride in the spotlight—although he hated airplane rides and kept his steel mill job for a time. Berry complained of Johnson's chronic lateness to gigs, a problem that intensified as his alcohol consumption grew. But the two musicians worked closely together for more than 20 years. Johnson's style, according to St. Louis bluesman Henry Townsend, was malleable. "If you wanted jazz, he gave you jazz," he told Kevin C. Johnson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "If you wanted R&B, he gave you R&B. Or dance or whatever. And he was no slouch at whatever he was doing."
Featured on Berry Hits
That made him the ideal keyboardist for the music that was coming to be called rock and roll. Johnson and bassist Willie Dixon laid down solid rhythms to back up Berry's distinctive guitar style, providing the beat for dance hits like "Sweet Little Sixteen." And he emerged into the foreground on many songs; on "Rock and Roll Music" he applied a magical layer of boogie woogie piano that helped shape one of the new style's first true classics.
Many of Berry's songs, in fact, may have had strong compositional input from Johnson. "You can tell how much Johnnie's blues stylings had do with the music for Chuck's tunes by the fact that a lot of those characteristic Chuck Berry guitar riffs and compositions are in keys familiar to Johnnie and other pianists"—keys such as F, B flat, and E flat—"but [are] seldom used by guitarists," Johnson admirer Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. In 2000 Johnson, after years of urging on the part of his friends, sued Berry for co-writing credit on 57 songs, but the suit was thrown out after a judge ruled that too much time had elapsed since the alleged events.
One of Berry's most famous songs may have been written as a tribute to Johnson. The pianist often claimed that he was the original "Johnny B. Goode," saying once that the title originated as a punning way for Berry to tell him to mend his chronic late-arriving ways. The song, however, refers to a guitarist, not a pianist, and Berry was inconsistent in his own comments on the matter. Johnson remained with Berry's band until 1973, finally returning to St. Louis. He held a job driving a bus for some years, but alcohol eventually took away his options and left him living in a downtown flophouse. Berry's own autobiography spoke bitterly about Johnson's hard-drinking ways, and Johnson didn't argue with Berry's characterizations. "It didn't hurt, because it was true," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I was a heavy drinker, and it did interfere with my playing. Reading things like that ... brought me out of it."
Film Highlighted Role
Another good break was a set of 1986 concerts in which Johnson briefly rejoined Berry. The concerts were filmed by director Taylor Hackford, and parts of them were included in the widely praised documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (1987). The film seemed to focus the attention of the musical world on Johnson's contributions. After his third wife, Frances, succeeded in convincing him to give up drinking, Johnson returned to top form and began to find new recording opportunities, mostly with the 1960s and 1970s rock musicians who had, wittingly or unwittingly, learned so much from him in the first place. He worked with Keith Richards's band the X-Pensive Winos and also recorded with such blues-rock stalwarts as Eric Clapton and George Thorogood. In 1989 and 1990 he toured with the Rolling Stones.
For the Record . . .
Born on July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, WV; died on April 13, 2005; married three times; children: ten.
Formed Blue Rhythm Swingsters at age 13; performed in Chicago clubs and sometimes backed guitarist Albert King, 1946-52; moved to St. Louis, 1952; performed with Chuck Berry, 1952-73; worked as bus driver, 1970s; performed with Berry, 1986; featured in film Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, 1987; released solo debut, Blue Hand Johnnie, 1987; recorded for Elektra label, 1990s.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.
Johnson's own career as a frontman began with the 1987 Evidence Records release Blue Hand Johnnie, and his catalog grew to include a pair of releases on the major Elektra label, Johnnie B. Bad (1992) and That'll Work (1993). The latter disc was an innovative collaboration between Johnson and the country band the Kentucky Headhunters. In his hometown of St. Louis, Johnson had become a legend and an inspiration to many younger musicians. The city declared a Johnnie Johnson Week in 1999, and despite serious illnesses he kept giving concerts almost until his death on April 13, 2005. "I don't feel any animosity coming up as slow as I did," he told Johnson, as he reflected on his late-in-life renown. "I'm making it now, and I didn't have to wait until I was deceased to get some of the recognition I was due years ago." In addition to his 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Johnson gave himself some recognition by registering a certificate with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in which he declared himself the father of rock 'n' roll.
Blue Hand Johnnie, Evidence, 1987.
Rockin' Eighty Eights, Modern Blues, 1990.
Johnnie B. Bad, Elektra, 1992.
(With the Kentucky Headhunters) That'll Work, Elektra, 1993.
Johnnie B. Back, Music Masters, 1995.
Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!, Cousin Moe, 2005.
Fitzpatrick, Travis, The Father of Rock & Roll: The Story of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson, Cooke & Co., 1999.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 15, 2005, p. 31.
Independent (London, England), April 15, 2005, p. 48.
Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2005, p. B9.
New York Times, April 14, 2005, p. A25.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 2005, p. A1.
Washington Post, April 14, 2005, p. B7.
"Johnnie Johnson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
Considered by Rolling Stone to be "the greatest sideman in rock & roll," pianist Johnnie Johnson spent most of his career in the shadow of his musical partner, Chuck Berry. Johnson played on most of Berry's hit records and co-wrote the music for several of Berry's songs, but did not begin to achieve particular recognition until he pursued a solo career in his seventies.
After Johnson came out of retirement to appear in the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll in 1986, interest in his music grew. The following year, he put out his first solo album, Blue Hand Johnnie, the first of several well-received recordings. He also toured extensively, playing with such superstars as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Johnson died in 2005 at age 80, he was at the height of his musical fame.
Learned to Play by Ear
Born in Fairmont, Virginia, in 1924, Johnson taught himself to play piano by ear and played his first radio gig at age eight. As he told interviewer Ken Burke of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, he "didn't even know what a piano was" when he was first introduced to the instrument at age five. "My parents bought a piano and put it in the home. To me it was a great big toy and I went over and went to banging on it, running everybody out of the house. Finally I started hitting on keys and things that made a sound that I liked, and I just kept developing that sound until I just started playing." Eventually, Johnson explained, he could play along to records by ear. "I could hear what they were playing and I could get on the piano and follow them," he said. "That's the way I developed my playing until I got up where I actually knew some of what I was doing." By the time he was 13, he had joined his first band, the Blue Rhythm Swingsters.
Johnson moved to Detroit in 1941 to work at one of the Ford defense plants in nearby Dearborn, Michigan. At the same time, he found gigs in local clubs and at private parties, and competed for jobs with various bands. In 1943 he joined the Marines, serving in the South Pacific, where he played in a 23-piece band called The Barracudas. "That's when I kinda made up my mind that I wanted to be a professional musician," he told Burke.
After leaving the service Johnson returned to Detroit, where he discovered the blues music of T-Bone Walker. "Finally I ended up in St. Louis, met Chuck Berry, and I hired him one night because I was short a musician," he said. "And that's when history actually started."
Achieved Success with Chuck Berry
Johnson's band, Sir John's Trio, had been hired to play a New Year's Eve show at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis in 1953. But when a regular band member suddenly became ill, Johnson hired Berry, a guitarist, as a one-night replacement. "And that one night," he explained in material quoted in Blues Music Now!, "lasted pretty close to 30 years." Though he lacked professional experience compared to Johnson, Berry had a strong personality and natural leadership skills. Soon he had taken charge of the band, with Johnson's tacit approval. "He did so many things for the band," Johnson explained. "We didn't have a booking agency or nothing, so he got out and hustled up the jobs." Berry also took a demo tape of the trio's music to Chicago, where Leonard Chess, head of Chess Records, was so impressed that he requested that the band come to his studio and perform the numbers for him live.
"Maybellene," the first song the trio recorded, became a huge hit, as did dozens of others such as "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." Yet Johnson never received songwriting credits. "Chuck wrote all the lyrics himself. I had nothing to do with that," Johnson commented in Blues Music Now! "It was just that we'd get down to the piano and guitar between recordings and have our little rehearsal. That's when we'd work out the music to what he had already written." As Johnson's biographer Travis Fitzpatrick, quoted in Blues Music Now!, explained, most of Berry's songs were written in musical keys commonly used by piano players but more difficult for guitarists to play in. Clearly, if Berry had developed the music on his own, he would likely have chosen keys more suitable for guitar. In addition, Fitzpatrick noted, "Johnnie had a left-hand rhythm … called a chopping bass…. It is a certain rhythm and it adds kind of a swing feel to what he plays. Chuck adapted that style to the guitar." Glenn A. Baker, on the World Today on ABC, went further, calling Johnson Berry's musical mentor. Johnson "understood dynamics," he said. "He understood tension and relief and build and all those wonderful aspects of black music. And so, you know, Chuck couldn't have had a better teacher."
In the early 1970s Johnson's partnership with Berry ended, at least partly because of Johnson's serious problems with alcohol. The pianist lived in obscurity for several years and worked odd jobs. He was driving a van for senior citizens when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones looked him up in 1986 and invited him to perform in the concerts scheduled to be filmed for the Berry documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Oddly enough, Richards—like Berry—is a guitarist, yet he felt a special attraction to Johnson's piano style. "Johnnie had amazing simpatico," Richards told Rolling Stone. "He had a way of slipping into a song, an innate feel for complementing the guitar." In the film, Richards pointed out Johnson's prominent role in collaborating with Berry. "He ain't copying Chuck's riffs on piano," he stated. "Chuck adapted them to guitar and put those great lyrics behind him. Without someone to give him those riffs, viola, no song … just a lot of words on paper."
Rekindled Musical Career
The exposure he got in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll offered Johnson the opportunity to resurrect his musical career. In 1990 Eric Clapton invited him to perform at a huge concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall. During the show, Johnson's nose started to bleed uncontrollably; though seriously ill, he managed to finish the show before later collapsing in the hospital emergency room. It was just "determination, that's all," he told Burke. "I wasn't about to stop and mess up the arrangement we already had, and the stagehand was bringing me towels and things out to kinda help me along so that's why I was able to finish out the complete show while my nose was still bleeding." Everybody noticed it, he added, "the audience, the people on the bandstand and everywhere else because the piano keys looked crimson, they was so red." Johnson nearly died that night, and the event prompted him finally to give up drinking.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s Johnson enjoyed a successful performing and recording career. In addition to many commercial appearances, he played at both of President Bill Clinton's inaugurations, and also at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1999 Johnson received a congressional citation from the Congressional Black Caucus, which named him "one of the most influential musicians in American history." In 2001 Johnson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
At a Glance …
Born on July 8, 1924 in Fairmont, VA; died on April 13, 2005, in St. Louis, MS; married Frances Johnson; children: ten. Military Service: Marines, 1943–45(?).
Career: Musician, 1930s–2005; Blue Rhythm Swingsters, band member, 1930s; The Barracudas, band member, 1940s; Sir John's Trio (with Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker), 1950s–1970s; odd jobs, 1980s; revived musical career, 1990s–2000s.
Awards: St. Louis Walk of Fame inductee; Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Citation, 1999; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, 2001.
In 2000, Johnson sued Berry to obtain credits and royalties on more than 50 Berry songs, but the suit was dismissed in federal court because too much time had passed since the songs were first written. Johnson, who once stated that "I don't have no intention of retiring," according to the Johnnie Johnson Web site, played at his final performance at the NCAA Final Four activities in St. Louis on April 3, 2005, ten days before he passed away at age 80. Musicians from across the country eulogized him as a great influence. "He was the ultimate living blues pianist," commented blues harmonica player Tom "Papa" Ray to Kevin C. Johnson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "Scratch that. He was just the ultimate pianist."
Blue Hand Johnnie, 1987.
Johnnie B. Bad, 1991.
Johnnie B. Back, 1995.
Johnnie Be Eighty, and Still Bad! 2005.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, 1986.
Fitzpatrick, Travis, Father of Rock & Roll: The Story of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson, Thomas, Cooke & Co., 1999.
Rolling Stone, April 15, 2005.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 2005.
"The Father of Rock & Roll, Johnnie Johnson, Has Died," The World Today, ABC, www.abc.net.au (November 4, 2005).
"Johnnie Updates," Johnnie Johnson, the Father of Rock & Roll, www.johnnie.com (November 15, 2005).
"Who Is the Father of Rock & Roll? The Answer Might Surprise You," Blues Music Now!www.bluesmusicnow.com (November 4, 2005).