The “Father of Rock & Roll Piano” -- Grammy nominee Johnnie Johnson -- has been performing for 67 of his 75 years. While Johnson’s legendary piano licks grace dozens of classic rock recordings from the ‘50’s, it took another 40 years for his voice to be etched in vinyl.
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“Before,” admits Johnnie, “I could play piano for a million people with no problem, but i was ‘strick’ with stage fright if I even opened my mouth to sing in front of three people. Keith Richards kept after me to sing, so when we co-write ‘Tanqueray’ for our first cd, I decided, ‘OK, I’ll sing’ – so he can see how bad I am. My plan backfired! To my surprise, everyone liked it! People started to ask me to sing more….”. That album was entitled “Johnny B. Bad”. It was produced by Kieth Richards, and Johnnie was backed up by fans such as NRBQ and Eric Clapton..
On Johnnie’s second cd, Johnnie B. Back, “produced by NBC Late Night guitarist Jimmy Vivino, Johnson sang on the half of dozen tracks he helped to choose. Accompanying the Johnnie Johnson Band (James Wormorth (drums), Mike Merritt (bass) and Vivino), are album guest Buddy Guy, Al Kooper, John Sebastian, Phoebe Snow, Max Weinburg and Steve Jordan. Says Johnnie, I thing I put more into this CD than the others…each CD I make brings me closer to being more comfortable in the studio, more comfortable singing, more better being me.”
Johnnie Johnson was born in 1924 in Fairmont, West Virginia, a country music-loving mining town near Charleston. “My father was a miner,” reminisces Johnson, “he loved working in a coal mine…” His first taste of ivory was at age five when his mother bought an upright piano. “as soon as the piano came in, I sat down and just started playing it. My mother cried ‘It’s a gift from God’ that I could just sit down and start playing,” laughs Johnnie. “From there on then, wherever I was, I aslways had me a piano and a band – though you’d never find me singing,” Johnnie is quick to add.
Over the years, Johnnie quickly progressed from “Chop Sticks” to learning songs from his mother’s Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters ‘78’s. Johnnie grew up during the Big Band Era, listening to late night radio shows and Glen Miller, Count Basie, and the Dorsey Brothers. This period’s influence is evident in the compositions Johnson wrote for Chuck Berry, the majority of which were written in keys typically found in big band arrangements.
After graduating high school in 1942, Johnnie moved to Detroit to work at the Ford Motor Company plant. A year later, he was drafted and served in the Marine’s special weapons crew in the South Pacific Marshall Islands. “Our job,” reflects Johnnie, “was to secure the islands after they were taken. I stayed for 31 long months, traveling island to island…even there I had a band, AND I played in our company’s band called The Barracudas, AND with USO bands that came through. I played behind Bob Hope, Betty Hutton, Joe Stafford, and lots of comedians. That’s when I decided music was for me.”
In 1946, Johnnie ended his tour of duty and returned to Detroit. “It was great, everyone was back on a happy scale again. It was at this time that I heard T-Bone Walker – a guitar player playin’ the blues. I was playing jazz at the time and this was my first real introduction to it. I got hooked!! I went to see him every night that I could…he really influenced my sound.”
After three years, Johnnie had played all the clubs he could play in Motor City. “A friend told me the scene in Chicago was much hotter…I arrived on a Tuesday and was playing on a Friday! I got hired right away and over the years got to sit in with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Memphis Slim, Etta James and the Moonglows…half the time, I wasn’t even on the payroll, but I didn’t care.
March 31, 1952 – the day before April Fools – Johnnie moved to St. Louis. “I had a brother living there and I got a job with him working for Penn Railroad. Compared to Chicago, or anywhere for that matter, there wasn’t much of a music scene in St. Louis: there was jazz and blues, but not much. There weren’t too many clubs, so my band played mostly parties.” That New Year’s Eve his saxophonist called in sick, and he hired an ‘unknown’ named Chuck Berry. “Chuck’s music raised all kinds of eyebrows that night because they weren’t used to seeing a black man playing hillbilly music. We became the hottest band on the local scene and two or three years later, Chuck took a tape of old hillbilly songs to Chicago’s Chess Records – it was an old fiddle tune called ‘Ida Red.’ I changed the music and re-arranged it, Chuck re-wrote the words, and the rest, as they say, was history. Leonard Chess asked me to come up to record it live. At that time, somone else already had a song out by the same name, so we had to change our version. We noticed a mascara box in the corner, so we changed the name to ‘Maybellene.’”
The Johnson/Berry union created an infectious groove that transformed popular music and influenced a generation of musicians. Their collaborations featured Johnson’s stylish, pulsing, blues-shaded mix of jazz and boogie-woogie, and Berry’s lyrics and R&B/hillbilly guitar interpretations of Johnson’s distinct sound. “Maybellene,” “Back In The U.S.A.,” “Little Queenie,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Oh Carol,” “School Days,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” and Berry’s tribute to Johnson, “Johnny B. Goode” – all feature Johnson’s fingerwork and music.
Johnson and Berry toured together for 18 years and continue to play together occasionally. Since the late 1980’s, Johnnie has been touring non-stop with his own group. Members of the Johnson “fan club” include Keith Richards, George Thorogood, NRBQ, Al Kooper, Buddy Guy, John Sebastian, and even actor Lou Gossett Jr., who requested Johnnie tutor him for his film role as Professor Longhair. Eric Clapton regularly invites Johnnie to join him onstage at his annual Royal Albert Hall concerts.
Johnnie Johnson was recognized for his pioneering contribution to Rock & Roll in the acclaimed 1988 film ‘rockumentary,’ “Hail Hail Rock & Roll.” Comments Keith Richards, “I realized how important he was on Chuck’s early records, how his influence affected Chuck, and how little credit he got for it at the time.” Richards was so impressed he invited Johnnie to play on his solo LP “Talk Is Cheap” – the Gold Record of which hangs proudly on Johnnie’s wall. When the Rolling Stones’ 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour steamed into St. Louis, Johnson received a personal invitation to perform with the band.
In 1993, Johnnie was teamed up with The Kentucky Headhunters to release the acclaimed CD, “That’ll Work.” In 1996 & ’97, Johnnie joined The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir’s new group “Rat Dog,” and toured often, including the summer’s Further Festival.
In January of 1998, Johnnie was asked by Paul Schaeffer to play piano at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony held in New York City. Later in the year, Johnnie recorded a live CD from The Bottom Line in New York City entitled “Johnnie B. Live,” with guests Al Kooper and Bernard Fowler.
Johnnie can also be seen as a featured artist on the PBS television special, “A Tribute to Muddy Waters,” taped at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., as well as appearing on the hit CD, “Blues Blues Blues,” with Jimmy Rogers and all-stars Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Mich Jagger and others.
Johnnie Johnson continues to tour actively, and is in demand from clubs, concerts & festivals around the world. It isn’t that Johnnie plays Rock’n’Roll…he is Rock’n’Roll.
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