“It’s a sad day,” says Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, mourning his idol and good friend Johnnie Johnson. “I’ve been playing Chuck Berry records all day, listening to Johnnie.”
Johnson died on Wednesday at his home in St. Louis, at the age of eighty, after recent bouts with pneumonia and a kidney ailment. With his death, rock & roll lost a vital link to its roots in the Chicago boogie-woogie of Meade Lux Lewis and the jumping-piano jazz of Earl Hines and Count Basie. Born on July 8th, 1924, in Fairmont, Virginia, Johnson was the son of a coal miner and entirely self-taught on the piano. By the early Fifties, he was in St. Louis, leading his own combo. But on New Year’s Eve 1952, Johnson hired a struggling, local guitarist, Chuck Berry, to sit in for another member of the band. Johnson quickly ceded the limelight to Berry’s guitar and songs, and both of their lives were changed forever.
Johnson went on to become the greatest sideman in rock & roll, at the very moment the music was being born. He played on most of Berry’s biggest and best records of the Fifties and early Sixties, including “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Little Queenie” and “Nadine (Is It You?).” Johnson played with Berry, on and off, into the Seventies, until personal tensions, compounded by Johnson’s drinking, caused Johnson to retire back to St. Louis. He was driving a van for the elderly when Keith Richards brought him out of retirement to play at the 1986 shows filmed for the Chuck Berry concert movie, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Richards and Johnson quickly became collaborators and more, a relationship that lasted until Johnson’s death. The day after Johnson’s passing, Richards took a break from spinning those Berry records to talk about Johnson and his rock & roll legacy.
Do you recall the first time you heard Johnnie Johnson — when you realized who he was and what he was playing on those Chuck Berry records?
That’s a good question. I talked to Johnnie about that. It took me a couple of years to track down the band members’ names, to know the name “Johnnie Johnson.” At first, it was just, “What a great band!” They didn’t give credit then. And especially knowing Chuck, you’d never get a credit [laughs].
As a guitarist, what attracted you to Johnnie as a piano player?
Johnnie had amazing simpatico. He had a way of slipping into a song, an innate feel for complementing the guitar. It’s the kind of thing I hear when I listen to Muddy Waters with Otis Spann or Pinetop Perkins. Back then, I was also listening to Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr, Big Maceo with Tampa Red. I always thought piano and guitar were a very interesting combination.
Johnnie was a jazzman, too. In fact, most of the best blues piano players were basically jazzmen. You should have heard Johnnie talk about Art Tatum.
But Johnnie came out of jazz, to rock & roll, with a natural energy. He never sounded too smart or clever for the music.
“Natural” is the word. There was also a great sense of humor in his playing. It really fit, because that was what rock & roll was all about. It’s a humorous music — “Too Much Monkey Business.” There were a lot of jokes going on.
I was listening to “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and marveling at the power in Johnnie’s playing, which was not always immediately evident on the records because of the way he was mixed back, behind Berry’s guitar.
It was that left hand. That left hand was a power station. And the right hand — listen to “Wee Wee Hours.” Wow! You knew you were in the wee, wee hours.
It was very fortuitous that I got to do the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll movie with him. I knew Johnnie and Chuck hadn’t been together for years and years, and I didn’t honestly know if Johnnie was still playing. The most surprising thing was Chuck said, “Yeah, he’s in town . . . I’ll give him a call.” That, for me, was the crown on the taping. And it was such a beautiful thing, the way he slipped in and, through that movie, had a whole new career.
He looked like such a gentle, unassuming man. It was hard to imagine the brilliance coming out of those hands.
He was a real gent, absolutely. He was such a sweet, warm guy — almost like a big baby at times. But inside, there was a very strong guy, and it came out in the music. I was fascinated by those huge hands, doing such incredibly precise, delicate work. I always compared them to a bunch of overripe bananas. But he could do amazing things with those bananas.
You produced two tracks on his 1991 album, Johnnie B. Bad, which was the first album he’d ever made under his own name.
One of the tracks I did was “Tanqueray.” That was one of his favorite tipples, before he had to give it up. He was an amazing guy to play with: You could close your eyes, listen to him, and you were back in Chicago, at the Chess studios.
One of his last live performances was with the Stones, in Houston in 2003, on the Forty Licks tour. He came out and played “Honky Tonk Women” with you. Was he still in good form?
He seemed in pretty good shape. He’d slowed down a bit, but not playing-wise. To me, he seemed his beaming, old, jolly self.
Did Johnnie ever talk to you about his feelings over the songwriting credits for those Berry hits? [In 2000, Johnson sued Berry for credits and royalties on more than fifty Berry songs, but a federal judge dismissed the case, saying too much time had passed since the songs were written and recorded.]
In a way, I’m a bit responsible. I said to Johnnie, “These songs should really say Berry/Johnson.” It was obvious after talking to him and watching him play. But Chuck being Chuck, you’d be lucky to get a quarter. Or you’d end up paying him.
But in the end, with the way Johnnie’s career took off again after the Chuck Berry movie, he got his due.
To me, that was the joy of working with him — to see him get his own record contract, tour the world and work with loads of other people, who got to dig him. Because otherwise, he would have just been Chuck Berry’s sideman.
Actually, it was Johnnie’s band to start with. Chuck superimposed himself on top. And Johnnie, being such an easy-going guy, was like, “Yeah, he’s the frontman now.” He’d take it like that.
In a way, Johnnie reminded me a lot of [Stones pianist] Ian Stewart. It was Ian who pointed Johnnie out to me, because he was a Johnnie Johnson freak. So it all comes around.