Born on July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, WV; died on April 13, 2005; married three times; children: ten.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame established a new category for sidemen in 2001, pianist Johnnie Johnson was a natural pick. As the longtime piano player in the band of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, Johnson did a great deal to shape the sound of the new genre. Johnson, in fact, gave Berry his start in the music business. For many years Johnson, like many other rhythm-and-blues and rock instrumentalists, was an almost anonymous figure as far as the general public was concerned, but a retrospective look back at Berry's career began to cast a new light on his talents, and eventually brought fame and an independent career to the man with "the baddest right hand in the land."

Johnnie Clyde Johnson was born on July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, West Virginia. His father was a coal miner. When he was four, his parents bought a piano. Johnson started playing it right after it was delivered to the family's home, and he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post that his mother "cried out that it was a gift from God." On the household record player, too, Johnson gravitated toward piano music; self-taught, he honed his skills by trying to imitate great virtuoso players like jazzman Art Tatum and boogie woogie master Meade "Lux" Lewis. He also tuned in to the "Dawn Patrol" program on a Pittsburgh radio station, and he sometimes said he learned rhythm by listening as trains passed by his mountain home. By the time he was nine, he was playing on the radio himself.

Worked on Tank Assembly Line

Johnson started a band, the Blue Rhythm Swingsters, when he was 13. As World War II broke out, he was drawn north by the promise of factory work, and did a stint in Detroit, building tanks on a Ford assembly line. In 1943, at a time when there were very few African Americans in the United States Marine Corps, Johnson enlisted and served with the Marines in the South Pacific. That gave him the chance to play music with the Special Service Band that accompanied jazz and swing musicians on tour to entertain the troops. As he worked with sidemen from the Count Basie and Lionel Hampton big bands, he began to think about a career in music for himself.

After the war Johnson made his way to Chicago, taking a factory job but using evenings to try to break into the city's growing blues scene. On records he occasionally backed guitarist Albert King. A job at American Steel took him to St. Louis in 1952, a city with a flourishing music scene of its own. He formed a group variously called Sir John's Trio or the Johnnie Johnson Trio, playing standards and swing tunes. On New Year's Eve of 1952, one of Johnson's regular musicians called in sick for a gig at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois, and Johnson hired guitarist Chuck Berry, who at the time had only six months' experience, as a replacement. Berry was paid four dollars. The band tried out a few of the substitute musician's originals---upbeat blues numbers with a storytelling bent borrowed from country music---and they went over well with the crowd.

The club manager invited Johnson's band back, and soon Berry emerged as the group's frontman. After Berry signed with Chicago's Chess label, Johnson stayed on for the long ride in the spotlight---although he hated airplane rides and kept his steel mill job for a time. Berry complained of Johnson's chronic lateness to gigs, a problem that intensified as his alcohol consumption grew. But the two musicians worked closely together for more than 20 years. Johnson's style, according to St. Louis bluesman Henry Townsend, was malleable. "If you wanted jazz, he gave you jazz," he told Kevin C. Johnson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "If you wanted R&B, he gave you R&B. Or dance or whatever. And he was no slouch at whatever he was doing."

Featured on Berry Hits

That made him the ideal keyboardist for the music that was coming to be called rock and roll. Johnson and bassist Willie Dixon laid down solid rhythms to back up Berry's distinctive guitar style, providing the beat for dance hits like "Sweet Little Sixteen." And he emerged into the foreground on many songs; on "Rock and Roll Music" he applied a magical layer of boogie woogie piano that helped shape one of the new style's first true classics.

Many of Berry's songs, in fact, may have had strong compositional input from Johnson. "You can tell how much Johnnie's blues stylings had do with the music for Chuck's tunes by the fact that a lot of those characteristic Chuck Berry guitar riffs and compositions are in keys familiar to Johnnie and other pianists"---keys such as F, B flat, and E flat---"but [are] seldom used by guitarists," Johnson admirer Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. In 2000 Johnson, after years of urging on the part of his friends, sued Berry for co-writing credit on 57 songs, but the suit was thrown out after a judge ruled that too much time had elapsed since the alleged events.

One of Berry's most famous songs may have been written as a tribute to Johnson. The pianist often claimed that he was the original "Johnny B. Goode," saying once that the title originated as a punning way for Berry to tell him to mend his chronic late-arriving ways. The song, however, refers to a guitarist, not a pianist, and Berry was inconsistent in his own comments on the matter. Johnson remained with Berry's band until 1973, finally returning to St. Louis. He held a job driving a bus for some years, but alcohol eventually took away his options and left him living in a downtown flophouse. Berry's own autobiography spoke bitterly about Johnson's hard-drinking ways, and Johnson didn't argue with Berry's characterizations. "It didn't hurt, because it was true," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I was a heavy drinker, and it did interfere with my playing. Reading things like that ... brought me out of it."

Film Highlighted Role

Another good break was a set of 1986 concerts in which Johnson briefly rejoined Berry. The concerts were filmed by director Taylor Hackford, and parts of them were included in the widely praised documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (1987). The film seemed to focus the attention of the musical world on Johnson's contributions. After his third wife, Frances, succeeded in convincing him to give up drinking, Johnson returned to top form and began to find new recording opportunities, mostly with the 1960s and 1970s rock musicians who had, wittingly or unwittingly, learned so much from him in the first place. He worked with Keith Richards's band the X-Pensive Winos and also recorded with such blues-rock stalwarts as Eric Clapton and George Thorogood. In 1989 and 1990 he toured with the Rolling Stones.

Johnson's own career as a frontman began with the 1987 Evidence Records release Blue Hand Johnnie, and his catalog grew to include a pair of releases on the major Elektra label, Johnnie B. Bad (1992) and That'll Work (1993). The latter disc was an innovative collaboration between Johnson and the country band the Kentucky Headhunters. In his hometown of St. Louis, Johnson had become a legend and an inspiration to many younger musicians. The city declared a Johnnie Johnson Week in 1999, and despite serious illnesses he kept giving concerts almost until his death on April 13, 2005. "I don't feel any animosity coming up as slow as I did, " he told Johnson, as he reflected on his late-in-life renown. "I'm making it now, and I didn't have to wait until I was deceased to get some of the recognition I was due years ago." In addition to his 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Johnson gave himself some recognition by registering a certificate with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in which he declared himself the father of rock 'n' roll.

by James M. Manheim

Johnnie Johnson's Career

Formed Blue Rhythm Swingsters at age 13; performed in Chicago clubs and sometimes backed guitarist Albert King, 1946-52; moved to St. Louis, 1952; performed with Chuck Berry, 1952-73; worked as bus driver, 1970s; performed with Berry, 1986; featured in film Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, 1987; released solo debut, Blue Hand Johnnie, 1987; recorded for Elektra label, 1990s.

Johnnie Johnson's Awards

Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading