Johnnie Johnson is one of the great unsung architects of rock'n'roll music. His flawless melding of fluid jazz with barrelhouse boogie-woogie and blues set a compelling countergroove to Chuck Berry's hopped-up country shuffles. The resultant string of hits not only sound fresh and jivey today, they also comprise the one body of work we can all point to with authority and say "THIS is rock'n'roll music."
History has cast the affable pianist as a mere sideman, but Johnson's role with Chuck Berry was actually more similar to Dave Bartholomew's with Fats Domino or Scotty Moore's with Elvis Presley. Johnson helped shape and refine Berry's sound, supplying music and head arrangements for the duckwalking guitarist's classic tongue-in-cheek teen anthems. Though he never received proper credit or royalty checks for his contributions, Johnson's impact on the first generation of rockers was every bit as profound as Berry's because he was truly the man behind the man.
When Berry was sent to jail at the peak of his early success, Johnson went to work for another guitar legend, Albert King, serving in the same uncredited role for the bad-ass bluesman as he had for the rocker. By working with two such important figures in American music, you'd figure the pianist would be far better known than he is, but a great many factors have keep him in the shadows.
Perhaps the reason we know so little about Johnson's contributions is due to the fact that he has never engaged in the unseemly boasting of many of his contemporaries. Though his playing provides plenty of excitement and release for his listeners, the man himself is stoic and carries himself with great dignity. There's also the matter of location. Refusing to leave the St. Louis area (not exactly the hub of the entertainment industry), Johnson juggled full time jobs, weekend gigs, occasional tours, and studio dates all while nearly drinking himself to death during a 40 year battle with alcoholism.
Chuck Berry's resurrection in the 1986 film, Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll, was the beginning of Johnson's rebirth as well. Such admirers as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and George Throrogood clamored for his services, wanting Johnson to bring the same Chess Records magic to their recordings as he had Berry's.
Finally off booze for good during the late 80s, Johnson emerged as a solo artist, cutting many fine albums for a variety of labels. Whether recording with such major stars as Clapton, Richards, the Kentucky Headhunters, Buddy Guy or just jamming with his own little combo, he remains a vital creative force who plays with awe-inspiring skill and passion. Yet his work is still known by a relative few.
Some overdue recognition comes in the form of a new biography titled Father of Rock & Roll - The Story Of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson.
Travis Fitzpatrick has managed to distill Johnson's life and times into a very readable, occasionally controversial piece of living history. In addition to supplying an annotated discography, the 23-year old author also produced a CD of freshly recorded career highlights which is included in the book.
We had a chance to talk to both Johnson and Fitzpatrick by phone on September 14, 1999. Naturally we spoke about the book, side projects, Johnson's life and times, and his association with Chuck Berry.
(At this point, Johnson puts down the phone and begins rehearsal. As I speak with author Travis Fitzpatrick, I can hear the band playing Chuck Berry numbers and blues jams in the background. Johnson is hammering the piano with power and energy that few 20 year olds can match. It is utterly cool.)RHOF: So Travis, tell us what led you to write Father Of Rock & Roll - The Story Of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson.
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