Johnnie Clyde Johnson (July 8, 1924 – April 13, 2005) was an American pianist who played jazz, blues and rock and roll. His work with Chuck Berry led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for breaking racial barriers in the military, as he was a Montford Point Marine - where the African-American unit endured racism and inspired social change while integrating the previously all-white Marine Corps during World War II.
Johnson was born in Fairmont, West Virginia. He began playing the piano in 1928. He joined the United States Marine Corps during World War II and became a member of Bobby Troup's all-serviceman jazz orchestra, the Barracudas. After his service, he moved to Detroit, Illinois and then Chicago, where he sat in with many notable artists, including Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
He moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1952 and immediately assembled a jazz and blues group, the Sir John Trio, with the drummer Ebby Hardy and the saxophonist Alvin Bennett. The three had a regular engagement at the Cosmopolitan Club, in East St. Louis. On New Year's Eve 1952, Bennett had a stroke and could not perform. Johnson, searching for a last-minute replacement, called a young man named Chuck Berry, the only musician Johnson knew who, because of his inexperience, would likely not be playing on New Year's Eve. Although then a limited guitarist, Berry added vocals and showmanship to the group. Bennett was not able to play after his stroke, so Johnson hired Berry as a permanent member of the trio.
Berry took one of their tunes, a reworking of Bob Wills's version of "Ida Red", to Chess Records in 1955. The Chess brothers liked the song, and soon the trio were in Chicago recording "Maybellene" and "Wee Wee Hours" – a song Johnson had been playing as an instrumental for years, for which Berry quickly wrote some lyrics. By the time the trio left Chicago, Berry had been signed as a solo act, and Johnson and Hardy became part of Berry's band. Said Johnson, "I figured we could get better jobs with Chuck running the band. He had a car and rubber wheels beat rubber heels any day."
Over the next 20 years, the two collaborated on arrangements for many of Berry's songs, including "School Days", "Carol", and "Nadine". The song "Johnny B. Goode" was reportedly a tribute to Johnson, with the title referring to Johnson's behavior when he was drinking. The pianist on the "Johnny B. Goode" session was Lafayette Leake, one of the two main session pianists for Chess (the other being Otis Spann). Leake also played on "Oh Baby Doll", "Rock & Roll Music", "Reelin' and Rockin'", and "Sweet Little Sixteen".
Berry and Johnson played and toured together until 1973. Although never on his payroll after 1973, Johnson played occasionally with Berry until Johnson's death in 2005.
Johnson was known to have a serious drinking problem. In Berry's autobiography, he wrote that he had declared there would be no drinking in the car while the band was on the road. Johnson and his bandmates complied with the request by putting their heads out the window. Johnson denied the story but said he did drink on the road. Johnson quit drinking in 1991, after nearly suffering a stroke on stage with Eric Clapton.
Johnson received little recognition until the Chuck Berry concert documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was released in 1987. That attention helped Johnson return to music; he had been supporting himself as a bus driver in St. Louis. He recorded his first solo album, Blue Hand Johnnie, that year. He later performed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and George Thorogood on Thorogood's 1995 live album Live: Let's Work Together. In 1996 and 1997, Johnson toured with Bob Weir's band, Ratdog, playing 67 shows. In 1997, Johnson, Raymond Cantrell, and Stevie Lee Dodge made up the St. Charles Blues Trio.
In 1998, Johnson told Doug Donnelly of Monroenews.com that "Johnny B. Goode" was a tribute to him. "I played no part in nothing of Johnny B. Goode," Johnson said. "On other songs, Chuck and I worked together, but not that one. We were playing one night, I think it was Chicago, and he played it. Afterward, he told me it was a tribute to me. He did it on his own. I didn't know nothing about it. It was never discussed."
A biography of Johnson, Father of Rock and Roll: The Story of Johnnie B. Goode Johnson, by Travis Fitzpatrick, was published in 1999. The book was entered into the annual Pulitzer Prize competition by Congressman John Conyers and garnered Johnson more recognition.
Johnson received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 2000.
Johnson's his final album, Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!, was recorded in St. Louis in late 2004, consisting of all original songs (written with the producer, Jeff Alexander), a first for Johnson. The album was released the same week he died, in April 2005.
In 2005, he played piano on Styx's re-recording of "Blue Collar Man", entitled "Blue Collar Man @ 2120", for their album Big Bang Theory. It was recorded at Chess Studios, at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, on the 46th anniversary of the recording of "Johnnie B. Goode" at the same studio.
Johnson died From Pneumonia and Kidney ailment in St. Louis on April 13, 2005. He was interred in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
In November 2000, Johnson sued Berry, alleging he deserved co-composer credits (and royalties) for dozens of songs, including "No Particular Place to Go", "Sweet Little Sixteen", and "Roll Over Beethoven", which credit Berry alone. The case was dismissed in less than a year because too many years had passed since the songs in dispute were written.
In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category Sidemen, after a campaign by the businessman George Turek; Johnson's biographer, Travis Fitzpatrick; and the guitarist Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones.
Johnson has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
His last band still performs as the Johnnie Johnson Band.
Johnson was the subject of a Homespun Tapes piano instructional video, The Blues/Rock Piano of Johnnie Johnson: Sessions with a Keyboard Legend. Originally released in 1999 (a DVD was issued in 2005), the video is hosted by David Bennett Cohen, along with Johnson's band, featuring the guitarist Jimmy Vivino.
The Johnnie Johnson Blues & Jazz Festival is held annually in Fairmont West Virginia, only a few blocks from where Johnson was born.
Nov 1, 2005