Johnnie Johnson: 1924 to 2005
Late December 1953, Johnnie Johnson’s saxophone player is sick and can’t make the biggest money gig of the year: New Year’s Eve at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Johnson knows this kid, Chuck Berry, heard him play in the same buckets of blood where his band, the Sir John Trio, was making a name as one of the hottest rhythm & blues bands in town. Johnson calls up the young guitar picker, and history answers.
On April 13, 2005, Johnnie Johnson died at his St. Louis home at age 80, from complications of pneumonia and a kidney ailment. News reports will tell you he played piano with Chuck Berry, that he was there at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, that he laid claim to those first wild, brilliant children — “Maybelline”, “Memphis”, “Nadine”, “Little Queenie” — but that his claim came too late for justice, financial or historical. The same reports will tell you that his career was revived in 1986, when Keith Richards pulled Johnson out of retirement — at the time, he was driving a bus in St. Louis — to play piano in the movie Hail Hail Rock & Roll. In 2001, Johnson was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the “Sidemen” category.
What no report can tell you is what it’s like to live most of your life in the shadow of a titan like Chuck Berry. Travis Fitzpatrick called his biography of Johnnie Johnson Father Of Rock & Roll. Johnson never demanded the title; he was gracious and humble, articulate and well-versed in the history of blues and R&B. He was a player’s player, someone who, even his late years, would appear at any given St. Louis nightclub just to gig with old friends. For much of his career, he battled stage fright and alcoholism, but when called to play, he answered with some of the most rhythmic, melodic boogie-woogie in history.
In December 2000, Johnson filed a multimillion-dollar suit against Berry for royalties he felt he was owed for collaborating on some of the greatest songs ever written. In 2002, the suit was dismissed, the judge ruling that the statute of limitations on copyright infringement had expired.
Still, there’s no doubt that Johnson’s pulsing left-hand bass lines and liberated right-hand melodies helped shaped Berry’s style, and thus helped define the language of rock ‘n’ roll. Bruce Springsteen once said Berry used “strange keys for a guitar player,” though they were the essential keys and notes of a musician like Johnson. Without Johnson, Berry’s original poetry never would have swung so hard. We owe Johnson all the joy and pleasure of rock ‘n’ roll; all we can offer now is respect, and thanks.