Johnnie Johnson Sues Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry hit with suit by former sideman

December 1, 2000 12:00 AM ET

Johnnie Johnson, one of Chuck Berry's longtime sidemen and the man who inspired Berry's classic "Johnnie B. Goode," filed suit against Berry in a St. Louis Federal District Court on Nov. 29.

The multi-count suit alleges that Johnson and Berry were equal collaborators on early rock classics like "Roll Over Beethoven," "No Particular Place to Go" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," to name a few. Johnson claims that Berry registered the copyrights to the songs in his name alone, and therefore was the sole recipient of royalties from those songs. Johnson's suit also seeks public recognition for his songwriting role on the fifty songs he claims to have written with Berry. Publicists for Johnson say that Berry was contacted before the suit was filed in an effort to avoid litigation, but that Berry refused to discuss the matter. The suit is for unspecified damages.

It was Chuck Berry who joined Johnnie Johnson's group, the Sir John Trio, in 1953. Shortly after, Berry took over as the group's songwriter and frontman/guitar player. Johnson's celebrated piano playing has been credited as the essential component in Berry's classic tunes, many of which Johnson arranged. But after their long partnership Johnson remained largely unknown until the 1987 release of the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Johnson's career was further rejuvenated when the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards rediscovered him and enlisted Johnson to play piano on his first solo album, 1998's Talk is Cheap. Richards in turn appeared on Johnson's 1992 album, Johnnie B. Bad.

This past September Johnson was recognized by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation with a Pioneer Award.

Johnson once said of his songwriting ability, "I can hear something and keep it in my mind until such point as I can get to a piano, and then I'll play it . . . that is a gift, the ability to do that." Ironically, this "gift" is the reason Johnson's spokesperson claims he never filed suit earlier. "He's a savant, he doesn't even know how to write music, he retains it in his head," publicist Julie Doppelt said. "And aside from having no sense of what the music business was [at the time], he would compose the music in his head and not realize that he composed the songs. And Chuck would take advantage of this and register the copyright in his name. For many years [Johnson] was a serious alcoholic and it's taken him a long time to realize that these contributions still constitute songwriting." Doppelt added that Johnson has been sober for twelve years.

Berry's longtime agent Dick Alen calls the timing of the lawsuit into question. The suit was filed just three days before Berry was to be honored as one of the 2000 Kennedy Center Honorees. Berry joins an impressive list of artists like Placido Domingo and Mikhail Baryshnikov who will be honored at the Kennedy Center's Opera House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3. President Bill Clinton and Senator-elect Hillary Clinton will attend the performance.

Alen said that Berry is "disappointed that his friend Johnnie would press a lawsuit. It's forty-five years after the songs were written. Chuck has been friendly with Johnnie since the early days. He just sent a letter to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in support of Johnson's admittance]. It just sounds like the suit was meant as an embarrassment for Chuck." Alen deferred further comment about the actual suit to the lawyers but added that until the lawsuit, Johnson had never expressed disappointment regarding his treatment from Berry.

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