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Johnnie Johnson 4/2005

Johnny JohnsonApril 13, 2005 – Johnnie Johnson (Johnny B Goode) was born July 8th 1924 in Fairmont, West Virginia. He began playing the piano in 1928.
While serving in the US Marine Corps during WW II, he was a member of Bobby Troup’s all serviceman jazz orchestra, The Barracudas. After his return, he moved to Detroit 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 put together 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. When Bennett was not able to play after his stroke, 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 twenty years, the two collaborated in the arrangements of many of Berry’s songs including “School Days”, “Carol”, and “Nadine”. The song “Johnny B. Goode” was a tribute to Johnnie, with the title reflecting his usual behavior when he was drinking.

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. In 1998, Johnson told Doug Donnelly of 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.”

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; as 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.

Although never on his payroll after 1973, Johnnie played occasionally with Berry until Johnson’s death. In 1999, Johnnie’s biography was released, Father of Rock and Roll: The Story of Johnnie B. Goode Johnson (?)  He died on 13 April 2005 at the age of 80. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Chuck Berry’s band.

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