Johnnie Johnson: 1925-2005

Johnnie Johnson and friend

In later years, St. Louis R&B pioneer Johnnie Johnson would bill himself as "The Father of Rock and Roll" and considering the fact that it was pianist Johnson who hired Chuck Berry for his first major bandstand gigs (saving him from a career either on the General Motors assembly line or as a hairdresser), he's got as much of a claim on the title as anybody. (I consider Sun Records receptionist Marion Keisker the Mother of Rock and Roll, for persuading Sam Phillips to listen to a certain singing truck driver.)

Johnson died this morning in a St. Louis hospital after a long illness, ticking off another name in the ever-shrinking pantheon of living legends. His pounding rhythms encouraged Berry's signature guitar riffs to soar, while his background in blues and jazz lent an air of sophistication to their collaboration, allowing Berry to create something entirely new out of influences like Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker and Merle Travis.

I was lucky enough to share a drink with Johnson when he visited Halifax, not long after the concert film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! reunited him with his protege and placed Johnny Johnson's aliterative name and stoic visage back in the minds of music lovers. I dimly recall him expressing his regrets over the souring of his relationship with Berry, and discussing with mixed feelings the Chess brothers who initially launched them into the musical spotlight. What I remember most vividly are his massive meathook hands, these impressive mitts that turned into the most delicate appendages imaginable when they danced over the keys.

Shaking those hands felt like touching musical immortality, like linking directly to Oh Carol and Brown Eyed Handsome Man, and making those songs dig even deeper than they did before. Somewhere tonight, I'll try and raise a glass of Tanqueray (his favourite) to the memory of the Father of Rock and Roll.

Though he was never a household name, Johnson and Berry’s long collaboration helped define early rock ’n’ roll. Johnson often composed the music on piano, then Berry converted it to guitar and wrote the lyrics. In fact, Berry’s Johnny B. Goode was a tribute to Johnson.

After he and Berry parted ways, Johnson performed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, among others. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 in the “sidemen” category.

“It was so much fun to play with Johnnie,” Diddley said. “The world has lost a great man and a great musician.”

Johnson was born in Fairmont, W.Va., and began playing piano at age four. He moved to Chicago after the Second World War, where he played jazz and blues in clubs. He moved to St. Louis in the early 1950s, forming his own R&B band, the Johnnie Johnson Trio.

When a band member became ill on New Year’s Eve 1952, Johnson hired Berry to fill in.

Johnson and Berry parted ways in the early 1970s, and in 2000, Johnson sued Berry, seeking a share of royalties and proper credit for what Johnson said were more than 50 songs the men composed together. A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2002, ruling that too many years had passed since the disputed songs were written.

The lawsuit contended that Berry took advantage of Johnson’s alcoholism, misleading him into believing that only Berry was entitled to own the copyrights “and reap the monetary benefits.”
-The Associated Press


Tom Sutpen said...

Well, this sucks.

What's interesting to me is, the more times you hear the recordings he did with Berry, the more you begin to focus on Johnson's piano and realize how crucial he was to the musical success of those performances. It wasn't all Berry's show.

I'll be breaking out some Chuck Berry this evening and peeling a well-schooled ear in remembrance.

Btw, Stephen, did Johnson say anything when you spoke to him about that reunion with Berry for the Taylor Hackford doc; whether it was easy, strained, recriminatory, etc?

swac said...

I don't think it was easy...because I think Berry may have lured him into it with suggestions that he would cut Johnson in for some songwriting royalties, but later reneged. I could tell Johnson was happy for the renewed exposure brought by the film (there was a fine album released afterwards bearing Johnson's name that includes some memorable Keith Richards contributions), but that he was still better about his relationship with Berry.