Sideman Extroadinaire : Johnnie Johnson©2008JCMarion


Johnnie Johnson was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, in July of 1924. He began to tinker with the piano as a young boy. He kept his interest in the instrument until at the age of eight he began to be able to pick out tunes, and play along with some of the records that were around the house. He developed his talent enough that he was able to play in a band when he was a teenager. As an older teen he moved to Detroit to find work in a defense plant keeping up his musical talents by finding local gigs on weekends. In 1943 he joined the Marines during World War Two, and spending time playing in a military band he decided then that music was in his future. Out of the service and playing in the Detroit area, kept Johnson busy during the late forties. He had moved to Chicago for a few years continuing to get local gigs in neighborhood clubs. By 1952 he had his own small group called the Sir John Trio and he had relocated to the St. Louis area. One night he needed a replacement for sax player Al Bennett in his trio and that is how he got to work together with Chuck Berry. Berry fit right in with the trio and his magnetic personality took over as he soon ran the business end of the small group as well as the musical portion.

The trio worked together for about two years when Berry worked out a song called "Ida Red". A meeting with Leonard Chess set up the group's first session with Chess, and the song now called "Maybellene" (or "Maybelline") was recorded and released by the label and the rest is history. As soon as the record hit it big, Johnson left his defense plant work and became a full time musician. Though he could not read music and played strictly by ear, Johnson contributed so much to all the Chuck Berry Chess sides including all the familiar hits. Any of the big hits recorded by Chuck Berry during the Chess years have as an integral part, that rockin piano sound that so compliments the guitar and vocals of Berry. It is an inseparable part of the music and is a necessary ingredient in the classic sound.

Johnny Johnson remained an important part of the Chuck Berry sound for close to twenty years finally opting out and going his own way in 1973 for a variety of reasons. The constant traveling was a big part of Johnson's decision. He stayed based in St. Louis and became part of a musical combo called The Magnificent Five that played dates throughout the Midwest area. By the nineteen eighties Johnson had seemingly disappeared from the music scene. His re-discovery took part in the preparation for the motion picture "Hail Hail Rock And Roll" as Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones worked to set up a backing band for Chuck Berry who was being honored on his 60th birthday. Richards thought "who more appropriate for the band then Johnnie Johnson"? The search around St. Louis found Johnson mostly out of music working at a senior citizen assisted living facility. Johnson was on stage that night and that piano sound was back where it belonged.

That appearance in the film brought much attention to Johnnie Johnson as if to rectify allowing such a talent to drift back into obscurity. He is set up to record his first cd under his own name called "Blue Hand Johnnie" in 1987. The cd was remastered in 1993 by Evidence. "Johnnie B. Bad" which featured Keith Richards and Eric Clapton in supporting roles was another starring cd for Johnson that is available on Nonesuch from 1991 with twelve tracks including "Tanqueray". In 1993 Johnson recorded an album with the modern country group the Kentucky Headhunters called "That'll Work" for the Elektra label. It also has been remastered and re-released in 2006. In 1995 "Johnnie B. Back" was recorded with guest artists Phoebe Snow, Al Kooper, Buddy Guy, and others for Musicmasters with twelve tracks.

In 2001 Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman. He was presented by Keith Richards. Later that year Johnson initiates a multi count lawsuit against Chuck Berry for a share of royalties from songs that Johnson claimed was co-written by him and not by Berry alone. "Johnnie Be Eighty And Still Bad" with six extended tracks was the last recorded effort by Johnnie for Brooklyn's Cousin Moe in 2005. One last recording available is "Rockin Eighty Eights" for Modern Blues featuring four tunes by Johnson, and four each by Clayton Love and Jimmy Vaughn. Johnson plays three instrumentals and one with a vocal by Vernon Guy.

Johnnie Johnson passed away in April of 2005 at the age of eighty. It is nice that after so many years in virtual obscurity he got his due for his work of so many years behind the sound of the Chuck Berry parade of hits that so defined this country for so many years. A salute and a smile in memory of the sideman extroadinaire.

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