Johnnie Johnson RAB HOF Interview

Meet Johnnie,
A Big Part of Rock's Beginnings

When I was around four years old, my parents bought a piano. I imagine it was just for decoration in the house, because no one in the family was musical, not a one. But I sat down and started playing right off the bat, something simple like 'Chopsticks.' My mother cried, and said it was a gift from God." Johnnie Johnson's legions of admirers might well agree that his talent is heaven-sent - a swinging, soulful synthesis of jump-blues, mainstream jazz, and sensual balladry, with a touch of country. After considerable acclaim for his brilliant work with Chuck Berry - he played piano on all of Berry's classic hits - recent years have seen Johnnie Johnson emerge as a bandleader and headliner in his own right.

"I am getting quite a bit of recognition now," Johnson says with pleasure. "People will tell me 'I saw you in that movie, Hail Hail Rock and Roll,' or I saw you playing with Paul Shaffer, on David Letterman's show. That really takes me off my feet. I am very pleased with all of it. I wish that maybe I had gotten this break sooner, because I'm 66 and not getting any younger, but I am very pleased."

Perhaps the main impediment to Johnson's earlier success was his reluctance to tackle vocals. "I never tried to sing," he explains. "They twisted my arm, man, to get me to do it. I had microphone fright. I am very shy." Having conquered his fear, however, Johnson went on to master a laid-back, laconic delivery. For the most part his approach is dry, declamatory and charming, as heard here on "Stepped In What?" and "Tangueray." Even so, the self-effacing Johnson assesses his voice as "passable, anyway. But the more I sing, the more encouragement I get."

There are no such doubts, however - on Johnson's part, or anyone else's - regarding his keyboard chops. "When I first heard Chuck Berry's records," says Keith Richards, "way back when, the first thing I wanted to know is, Who's this guy singing 'Johnny B. Goode,' and the second thing was, 'Who is playing that goddam piano? Album jackets didn't give personnel listings, at the time. But Ian Stewart, the Stones' piano player, identified Johnnie for me around 1962. What gasses me about Johnnie's playing is that flow, man, and that mastery of whatever is going on, whether it's complementing chuck's guitar, or the whole band. And when I worked with Johnnie on 'Hail Hail, Rock and Roll,' I realized how important he was on Chuck's early records, how his influence subtly affected Chuck, and how little credit he got for it at the time. Johnnie's a late starter, but watch him bloom!"

"I consider myself a piano player, period," Johnson states. "I play rock, I play jazz, I play blues. I wouldn't say I'm just one thing, like just a blues player. I love playing standards like 'Green Dolphin Street,' and 'Love For Sale'; playing with a big band is my real hobby. My favorite pianists are Avery Parrish, who used to play with Erskine Hawkins' orchestra - he was featured on 'After Hours' - and Oscar Peterson. I would run through fire with gasoline on my shoulder to listen to that cat, man! Earl Hines, Count Basie and Errol Garner, too. I met Earl Hines once, and I just got weak in the legs and everything, meeting one of my heroes. You know, when I first heard him, I tried to copy his style. I went wild when I heard him, I just went wild. I tried to copy all those cats at first, before I got my own sound."

Johnnie Johnson acquired such urbane taste in the unlikely setting of Clarksdale, West Virginia, "about 120 miles from Pittsburgh, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. All we had there was hillbilly music, that's really all we would listen to. But a radio station in Pittsburgh had a late-night big-band show called 'Dawn Patrol,' and I'd listen to that. My parents had a few blues records, too - Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. My parents loved all types of music, and when my mother was shopping she might hear something she liked, and buy it.

"I taught myself to play from records, and I still play mostly by ear. I can red a little music now, but I never took a lesson in my life. In high school I started playing with a band called the Blue Rhythm Swingsters. Then in 1941 I left West Virginia and went to Detroit to work in a defense plant. I joined the Marine Corps in '43, and they put me in the Special Service Band. They usually carried around 23 or 24 pieces, all different sorts of musicians from all different places. Some of the cats had played with people like Erskine Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. We played USO shows, that type of thing. This is where I really got the feeling that I wanted to be a professional musician, so I stuck with it after I got out of the service.

"In '46 I went to Chicago, and played with a local band. I'd go hear people like Muddy Waters, and sit in sometimes, but I was never on their payroll. Then in '52 I went to St. Louis, intending only to make a short visit with my brother. But that short visit got extended, and I'm still here. I started working with Albert King, and did some recordings with him for the Bobbin label - one of them was 'Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.' I also hooked up with Chuck Berry during my first year here - actually I initially hired him. I had a day job at a steel mill, and I was leading my own group, the Johnnie Johnson Trio, working at a place called the Cosmopolitan Club, across the river in Illinois. We mostly played standards - 'Satin Doll,' 'Startust,' 'Sunny Side of the Street.' My saxophonist got sick right before a big New Year's Eve gig, so I hired Chuck. I had met him previous to that and we had hit it off well. He was just a local guy then, not one bit famous. He came over that night, and people loved this type of hillbilly thing that he did, because it was something new."

Berry also has vivid memories of that first gig together. "On December 30, 1953," Berry says in his autobiography, "a piano player named Johnnie Johnson phoned me for a gig on the eve of the year of was on New Year's Eve that my career took its first firm step...The music played most around St. Louis was country-western, which was usually called hillbilly music, and swing." [For decades, though, St. Louis has also nurtured a rich and varied blues scene.] "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of that country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some of the club-goers started whispering 'Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times, the began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it. If you ever want to see something that is far out, watch a crowd of colored folk, half high, wholeheartedly doing the hoedown, barefooted.

"Johnnie Johnson was reserved and jolly," Berry says - an apt description yet today - "and we didn't have any clash on stage when I would express myself and perform in excess of his performance. In the beginning, when I would get applause for a gesture, I'd look back at Johnnie and see him smiling in approval of what I'd spontaneously added to the song or the show...Johnnie and I became so tight in feeling each other's direction that whenever I played a riff with any pause in it, he would answer it with the same melodic pattern, and vice versa. We were especially entertaining at this time, as we knew many little quickies to each other's returns. I would slur my strings to make a passage that Johnnie could not produce with piano keys, but the answer would be so close that he would get a tremendous ovation." In a similar spirit of interplay, Johnson works well here with members of NRBQ, and special guests Keith Richards and Eric Clapton - all of whom are long-time admirers.

"Chuck and I kept working together," Johnson resumes. "In '55 we went up to Chicago to record for Chess Records. Chuck had one of his hillbilly tunes called 'Ida Red,' and the people at Chess liked it but they didn't like the name. There were some bottles of mascara and make-up over in the corner, and when Mr. Chess happened to look at them he changed the name of the song to 'Maybelline.' The dern thing turned out to be a big hit, and from then on it was history. I helped put some of Chuck's songs together, music-wise," Johnson remembers, "like the intro and the arrangement on 'Sweet Little Sixteen.' But Chuck did a lot of that, too, and of course he wrote all of his own lyrics.

"It was a big surprise when those songs started to take off and go national. I quit working at the steel mill. I was green to everything, and I know I was thrilled to hear myself on records and radio. Sometimes I got tired of being on the road. I was young then; I was never wild, but I did sit back and watch a lot of wild things going on, that is for sure. When I tour now, I play and then I go right back to the hotel and watch TV. In Europe I can't understand it but I watch anyway. But in the old days, a lot of time black people couldn't get no hotels or nothing. Sometimes the local black residents would let us stay with them, to make sure we had shelter for the night. Something else I remember, one time we were some place in Texas playing in a big old cow barn. We could look right at the livestock while we were playing. I never will forget that. It was pretty f unky back in those days, you better believe it.

"I stayed in Chuck's band for 28 years, from '55 to '73. I left because I was tired of traveling, and I especially didn't like flying. Most of the gigs involved that. I told him I would cool it for a while. I joined up with him again, but then he had some problems and he stopped touring for a while. I joined a group called the sounds of the City, and then I became the band-leader and changed the name to The Magnificent Five. We free-lanced around St Louis and about a 300-mile radius out of town, working Peoria and places like that. I still work with them occasionally. I also played with a fellow named Oliver Sain. He's a saxophonist, and a writer and arranger. I still do things with him when I have time. He's a beautiful person to work with. And I still work with Chuck occasionally, too, but I've been out on my own now since '78." Over the years Johnson has also played with such diverse notables as Ike Turner, Little Milton, and trumpeter Al Hirt.

"I'm glad that blues and rhythm & blues and old-time rock are coming back," Johnson says. "I love it. They never really died out completely, but they got very weak at one time. They're coming back strong now, and they will be around, I guess, for the rest of the time of the world. This rap thing is high now, but it is going to die out. I give it a year at the most. I saw this M.C. Hammer guy on TV the other night, for the first time, and I rolled on the floor. Them big-leg britches and that stuff he was doing, that nutted me up! I didn't believe it! They can have rap music. There ain't much in it, rapping and cussing and going on, and no melody either. I am not knocking it, because everyone's got their own type of music, and those that like rap probably wouldn't give a hoot about what I play. But rhythm & blues will always be accepted by the public.

"Everything seems to be coming into the light now. I've been well-received everywhere I played, since I've been out on my own. When I was a side man, with Chuck, the only thing people might say is 'Who's that playing piano?' But I was so shy, and I wouldn't sing, so all I could do was be a sideman. Now not too long ago, I was playing in Sicily, on a concert with Johnny Copeland, and you know he's a good performer, just like Chuck. Afterwards Copeland was joking and he said, 'Don't never put me on the same stage with Johnnie Johnson! Don't do it, not nowhere! He just stole my whole damn show.'"

By Ben Sandmel
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based drummer, journalist and folklore researcher.

recorded in NYC, features: Johnny, Al Andersom, Tom Ardolino, Eric Claption, Steve Ferguson, Benard Fowler, Steve Jordon, Michael Ray, Keith Richards, Joey Spampinato and Bernie Worrell.

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