Johnnie B. Bad

Johnnie Johnson, July 8, 1924 – April 13, 2005

Johnnie Johnson at a free lunchtime concert at Metrotech in Downtown Brooklyn, July 5, 2001.

Johnnie Johnson died on Wednesday. Chuck Berry had the suits, the big red guitar, the looks, and those brilliant lyrics. But it was Johnnie Johnson who gave Chuck his first big break and whose piano riffs, transcribed onto the guitar, helped Chuck found rock and roll.

(Not to digress or anything, but as great a singer as Elvis Presley was, he was the pretender King of rock&roll. Chuck Berry was the one. Along with a few others (especially Buddy Holly), he first started fusing “hillbilly” music and R&B to make rock and roll. Elvis had some great records, but mostly with other people’s songs, and they do not compare to Chuck’s own songs: “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville…” )

Johnson was the inspiration for one of Chuck Berry’s greatest songs, “Johnny B. Goode,” and his piano drove almost all those great songs.

Later in life he sued Chuck for some royalties, saying he’d helped to write a lot of Chuck’s songs. It’s almost undoubtedly true, but the courts decided that forty years was too long to wait to make the claim. The saddest part was seeing two geniuses, neither of whom who had ever received half the recognition or even a tiny fraction of the financial reward they deserved for what they’d created, suing each other, while others continued to profit obscenely from their theft of the music. In a just world, every rock guitarist would be writing Chuck Berry a monthly royalty check, and Johnson would have gotten a fair share of a much larger pie. In any case, you can watch one of the great rock&roll movies, Hail Hail Rock and Roll, in which Chuck and Johnnie were reunited for the first time in years, and judge for yourself. Keith Richards, who was the driving force behind the reunion and the film, got Johnson a record deal in the 80s and they recorded an album together that actually got Johnnie on white-rock radio, singing “Tanqueray” with Richards. That laid-back voice and just-behind-the-beat piano right hand were just irresistable, and they still are. And reacting to his death yesterday, Chuck said, “We never lost our friendship.”

In the summer of 2003, I spent a week at the Augusta Heritage Festival in West Virginia, a musical orgy of lessons, jams, and concerts. Johnnie Johnson was teaching blues piano there, and I didn’t spend much time with him since I was in the guitar and harp classes. But he was quiet and gracious and when he showed up at a jam, whoever was sitting at the piano would hastily yield the keyboard. He moved slowly and took his time sitting down, but once he was settled and had the keyboard set up to his liking, there was no question who was in charge. And there was nothing like getting that solemn nod from him for a harp solo.

Long time coming
But I knew I would see a day
It was a long time coming
But I knew I would see a day
When you and I could sit down
And have a drink of Tanqueray

I don’t usually drink gin, but I think toasting him with a shot would be in order. The photos are mine, and were scanned by .

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