Johnnie Johnson Biography - Learned to Play by Ear, Achieved Success with Chuck Berry, Rekindled Musical Career, Selected works
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.
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).
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