Spectropop remembers

JOHNNIE JOHNSON (1924 - 2005)

Johnnie Johnson is one of the unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll. He was called "the world's greatest living blues pianist" and "the founding father of rock 'n' roll", but relatively few knew his name because he played piano in Chuck Berry's band and did relatively little recording on his own. That, however, changed, as Johnson's role as a key player in some of rock 'n' roll's most classic songs was brought to light through the efforts of music journalists and boosters like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Sebastian and Terry Adams.

Johnson began playing at age four when his parents brought a new piano into their Fairmont, West Virginia, home. The youngster seemed to possess an innate mastery of the instrument. By nine he was playing jazz tunes by Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Earl "Fatha" Hines on a local radio station. While serving in the Marines, Johnson performed alongside seasoned jazz professionals in the Special Service Band, and it was here he decided to make music his life's work. Moving to Chicago after the war, Johnson apprenticed with such blues masters as Muddy Waters and Albert King on the club scene. By the early '50s, he was living in St. Louis, where he worked in a factory by day and fronted the Johnnie Johnson Trio, an R & B band, as time allowed. When he had to replace an ailing saxophonist for a club date on New Year's Eve 1952, he called a guitar-playing friend on short notice to sit in. His name was Chuck Berry.

Berry's rocking hillbilly style melded with Johnson's jazz-tinged blues and boogie. Many of Chuck Berry's classics - including 'Sweet Little Sixteen', 'School Days' and 'Roll Over Beethoven' - came about during impromptu rehearsals when Berry would show up with lyrics and ask Johnson to play some music behind it. "Just me, Chuck and the piano" is how Johnson put it. Johnson and Berry travelled to Chicago in 1957, where they recorded 'Maybellene', the first of many Chuck Berry hits that featured Johnson on piano. In fact, Berry wrote 'Johnny B. Goode' as a tribute to Johnson, who often kept playing piano long after a show ended, sitting in with jazz bands and anyone who would have him. "I would play anytime, anywhere, with anybody," he said. Referring to his disappearing acts, Berry would look at him and say, "Why can't you just be good, Johnny?"

Johnson remained with Berry until 1973. "It was nothing personal," he said of his departure. "I was just tired, plus I was scared to fly." Over time, there was a growing recognition that Johnson's musical contributions to Berry's songs were essential to their success. The humble, overlooked pianist finally received some long-overdue attention in the Chuck Berry film documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, wherein Keith Richards testified to the importance of Johnson's piano stylings. Ironically, Johnson at the time was working as a bus driver in St. Louis. The intervention of Richards and others and the attention brought to him by the film returned Johnson to the world of music.

Johnson began recording on his own in the late '80s, debuting with 'Blue Hand Johnnie' and receiving a lot of help from famous friends on such subsequent releases as 'Johnnie B. Bad'. In the words of biographer Travis W. Kirkpatrick, "Without Johnnie Johnson, that perfect mixture of blues, country and jazz flowing together into joyful cohesion - that sound we call rock 'n' roll - may never have been."

Chuck Berry had just returned from a European tour when he learned at Chicago's O'Hare Airport that his longtime friend and collaborator Johnnie Johnson was dead at age 80. He went directly to the Blueberry Hill nightclub in St. Louis where he and Johnson had played together as recently as a year ago, to remember "the man with a dynamite right hand" with whom he shared a half-century of music and memories. A master of boogie-woogie, Johnson was "my piano player who no one else has come near," said Berry, 78. Through 50-plus years of riffs and syncopation, late-night jams - and later a painful lawsuit - Berry and Johnson only grew in their mutual admiration and respect. "Johnnie and I have always been friends," said Berry.

Johnson was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 in the "sidemen" category. Johnson's and Berry's long collaboration helped define early rock 'n' roll and put St. Louis on the music map along with the budding team of Ike and Tina Turner. Each performed at clubs on both sides of the nearby Mississippi River. On New Year's Eve 1952 at The Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis, Ill., Johnson called Berry to fill in for an ailing saxophonist in his Sir John Trio. The struggling and unknown Berry, who says he was playing more then for enjoyment than money, rushed over. "He gave me a break" and his first commercial gig, for $4, Berry recalled. "I was excited. My best turned into a mess. I stole the group from Johnny." Johnson never held it against him. "Midway through the show, Chuck did a hillbilly country number with a bluesy vein, and it knocked people out," said Blueberry Hill club owner Joe Edwards, a friend of both men.

Johnson later recalled Berry had a car that allowed them to travel to more distant clubs - the Blue Flame, Blue Note and Club Imperial. Berry played so well he became front man for the band, which took his name. Their long partnership would run steadily for another 20 years. They still performed occasionally in the 1980s and '90s. Edwards said their collaboration formed the bricks of rock 'n' roll, and that the two stirred hillbilly and blues in one pot to create a unique sound. Johnson often composed the music on piano, then Berry converted it to guitar and wrote the lyrics.

After he and Berry parted ways, Johnson performed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, among others. Still, there were rough spots in the pair's collaboration. In 2000, Johnson sued Berry over royalties and credit he believed he was due for the songs they composed together. The lawsuit was dismissed two years later. Berry said he always wondered who was behind the lawsuit, because "Johnnie would never initiate a complaint such as that. Johnnie would never have waited 40 years to sue."

Though Berry said he'll miss his friend and his music, he's not melancholy. "My turn is coming very soon," he said. "Would you shed a tear for Chuck? I hope not, because I don't see why one should weep when something inevitable must come. At 78, I'm glad to be anywhere, anytime." Berry said he would perform a tribute concert in Johnson's honour, ideally at downtown St. Louis's roughly 70,000-seat Edward Jones Dome. "We'll fill that sucker," he said.

(Sources: The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Cheryl Wittenauer, Associated Press)

Johnnie Johnson, musician: born July 8th, 1924 - died April 13th, 2005.