Johnnie Johnson (musician)
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Johnson at the 1996 Riverwalk Blues Festival
|Birth name||John Clyde Johnson|
|Born||July 8, 1924|
Fairmont, West Virginia, United States
|Died||April 13, 2005 (aged 80)|
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
|Genres||blues, jazz, rock and roll|
|Associated acts||Chuck Berry|
Johnnie Clyde Johnson (July 8, 1924 – April 13, 2005) was an American pianist who played jazz, blues and rock and roll. His work with Chuck Berry led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for breaking racial barriers in the military, as he was a Montford Point Marine - where the African-American unit endured racism and inspired social change while integrating the previously all-white Marine Corps during World War II.
Johnson was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, United States. He began playing the piano in 1928. He joined the United States Marine Corps during World War II and became a member of Bobby Troup's all-serviceman jazz orchestra, the Barracudas. After his service, he moved to Detroit and then Chicago, where he sat in with many notable artists, including Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
He moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1952 and immediately assembled a jazz and blues group, the Sir John Trio, with the drummer Ebby Hardy and the saxophonist Alvin Bennett. The three had a regular engagement at the Cosmopolitan Club, in East St. Louis. On New Year's Eve 1952, Bennett had a stroke and could not perform. Johnson, searching for a last-minute replacement, called a young man named Chuck Berry, the only musician Johnson knew who, because of his inexperience, would likely not be playing on New Year's Eve. Although then a limited guitarist, Berry added vocals and showmanship to the group. Bennett was not able to play after his stroke, so Johnson hired Berry as a permanent member of the trio.
Berry took one of their tunes, a reworking of Bob Wills's version of "Ida Red", to Chess Records in 1955. The Chess brothers liked the song, and soon the trio were in Chicago recording "Maybellene" and "Wee Wee Hours" – a song Johnson had been playing as an instrumental for years, for which Berry quickly wrote some lyrics. "Maybellene" got Berry and Johnson onto the Billboard charts in 1955. Berry got signed as a solo act, and Johnson and Hardy became part of Berry's band. Said Johnson, "I figured we could get better jobs with Chuck running the band. He had a car and rubber wheels beat rubber heels any day."
Over the next 20 years, the two collaborated on many of Berry's songs, including "School Days", "Roll Over Beethoven", "Carol", and "Nadine". The song "Johnny B. Goode" was reportedly a tribute to Johnson, with the title referring to Johnson's behavior when he was drinking.
Berry and Johnson played and toured together on & off, until 1973. Although never on his payroll after 1973, Johnson played occasionally with Berry until he sued Berry over songwriting credits & royalties.
Johnson was known to have a serious drinking problem. In Berry's autobiography, he wrote that he had declared there would be no drinking in the car while the band was on the road. Johnson and his bandmates complied with the request by putting their heads out the window. Johnson denied the story but said he did drink on the road. Johnson quit drinking in 1991, after nearly suffering a stroke on stage with Eric Clapton.
Aside from songwriting and performing with Chuck Berry, Johnson made many significant contributions to blues & rock and roll. Johnson was the leader of Albert King's rhythm section during King's most prolific and musically significant period. Johnson also served as one of the cornerstones of the St. Louis blues scene. In the early and mid 80s he was a member of The Sounds of The City, with Larry Thurston, bassist Gus Thornton, and guitarist Tom Maloney. Johnnie performed all over St Louis with Tommy Bankhead, Oliver Sain, and many significant blues artists throughout their lives.
Johnson received little recognition until the Chuck Berry concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was released in 1987. Johnnie stood out in the performances in the film. The experience forged a permanent bond between him, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Steve Jordan. Although Johnson had been supporting himself as a bus driver in St. Louis, the exposure and experience of the film helped him return to headlining.
He recorded his first solo album, Blue Hand Johnnie, that year. Having worked steadily in St. Louis, Johnnie now returned to performing all over the world. He performed with the Kentucky Headhunters on occasion and was featured in both the Dumas Walker and Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine videos. Eric Clapton hired him as a featured artist for his annual Royal Albert Hall blues shows. Keith Richards employed Johnnie in the Xpensive Winos. Johnson toured worldwide as a solo artist, and released records produced by Keith Richards, Jimmy Vivino, and Al Kooper. He later performed with Richards, Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and George Thorogood on Thorogood's 1995 live album Live: Let's Work Together. In 1996 and 1997, Johnson toured with Bob Weir's band, Ratdog, playing 67 shows. In 1997, Johnson, Raymond Cantrell, and Stevie Lee Dodge made up the St. Charles Blues Trio.
In 1998, Johnson told Doug Donnelly of Monroenews.com that "Johnny B. Goode" was a tribute to him. "I played no part in nothing of Johnny B. Goode," Johnson said. "On other songs, Chuck and I worked together, but not that one. We were playing one night, I think it was Chicago, and he played it. Afterward, he told me it was a tribute to me. He did it on his own. I didn't know nothing about it. It was never discussed."
A biography of Johnson, Father of Rock and Roll: The Story of Johnnie B. Goode Johnson, by Travis Fitzpatrick, was published in 1999. The book was entered into the annual Pulitzer Prize competition by Congressman John Conyers and garnered Johnson more recognition.
Johnson received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2000.
Johnson's final album, Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!, was recorded in St. Louis in late 2004, consisting of all original songs written with the producer, Jeff Alexander, a first for Johnson. The album was released the same week he died in April 2005 and contains the biographical Beach Weather and Lucky Four.
In 2005, he played piano on Styx's re-recording of "Blue Collar Man", entitled "Blue Collar Man @ 2120", for their album Big Bang Theory. It was recorded at Chess Studios, at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, on the 46th anniversary of the recording of "Johnnie B. Goode" at the same studio.
In November 2000, Johnson sued Berry, alleging he deserved co-composer credits (and royalties) for dozens of songs, including "No Particular Place to Go", "Sweet Little Sixteen", and "Roll Over Beethoven", which credit Berry alone. The case was eventually dismissed because too many years had passed since the songs in dispute were written.
In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category Sidemen, after a campaign by the businessman George Turek; Johnson's biographer, Travis Fitzpatrick; and the guitarist Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones.
Johnson was the subject of a Homespun Tapes piano instructional video, The Blues/Rock Piano of Johnnie Johnson: Sessions with a Keyboard Legend. Originally released in 1999 (a DVD was issued in 2005), the video is hosted by David Bennett Cohen, along with Johnson's band, featuring guitarist Jimmy Vivino.
The Johnnie Johnson Blues & Jazz Festival is held annually in Fairmont West Virginia, only a few blocks from where Johnson was born.
- 1959: Organ in HI-FI (Riviera Records - R0044/STR044), (Instrumental)
- 1987: Blue Hand Johnnie (Evidence Music), with Oliver Sain
- 1991: Johnnie B. Bad (Elektra), with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Bernard Fowler
- 1991: Rockin' Eighty-Eights (Modern Blues recordings), with Jimmy Vaughan and Clayton Love not to be confused with Jimmie Vaughan
- 1993: That'll Work (Elektra), with the Kentucky Headhunters and Jimmy Hall
- 1995: Johnnie Be Back (MusicMasters), with Buddy Guy, Al Kooper, John Sebastian and Max Weinberg
- 1997: Johnnie B. Live (Father of Rock and Roll Music), with Jimmy Vivino and Al Kooper
- 1999: Father of Rock and Roll (Father of Rock and Roll Music), CD accompanying the book Father of Rock and Roll: The Story of Johnnie B. Goode Johnson, featuring new recordings of Johnson and Berry songs
- 2005: Johnnie Be Eighty...And Still Bad! (Cousin Moe Music), produced by Jeff Alexander, with Rich McDonough (guitar), Gus Thornton (bass), Joe Pastor (drums), Larry Thurston (vocals) and Victor "Big Daddy" Johnson (vocals)
- 2015: Meet Me in Bluesland (Alligator), with the Kentucky Headhunters
- 1994 : "Sunday Blues" (with The Kentucky Headhunters)
- Stewart, Shirley L. (July 8, 2020). "Johnnie Johnson". e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia.
- Ratliff, Ben (April 14, 2005). "Johnnie Johnson, 80, Dies; Inspired 'Johnny B. Goode'". The New York Times.
- McDermott, Kevin. "Marine and bluesman Johnnie Johnson posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medal". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved November 29, 2016.
- Fricke, David (May 5, 2005). "Johnnie Johnson". Rolling Stone. p. 26.
- Zolten, Jerry (2003). "Movin' the Mountains: An Overview of Rhythm and Blues and Its Presence in Appalachia". Black Music Research Journal. 23 (1/2): 67–89. doi:10.2307/3593209. JSTOR 3593209.
- "Bob Weir & RatDog Band Members". RatDog.Org – Bob Weir and RatDog. Retrieved January 20, 2015.
- "STYX: Notes from the Band Archive 4-26-04". Styxtoury.com. Retrieved February 15, 2013.
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Johnnie Johnson". rockhall.com. Retrieved January 16, 2019.
- "Johnny B Good takes his revenge". The Guardian. March 4, 2001. Retrieved January 16, 2001.
- St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". stlouiswalkoffame.org. Archived from the original on February 2, 2013. Retrieved April 25, 2013.
- Edwards, David (February 24, 2010). "Riviera Album Discographies". Both Sides Now Publications. Archived from the original on April 5, 2010. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
- Allers, Hannahlee (April 11, 2015). "Kentucky Headhunters Announce New Album Featuring Legendary Blues Pianist". The Boot. Retrieved May 12, 2015.
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