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© 1999, Ken Burke and The Rockabilly Hall of Fame - Posted Sept. 30, 1999

Father Of Rock & Roll:
The Johnnie Johnson / Travis Fitzpatrick Interview

by Ken Burke

              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.




RHOF: One of the things which most impressed me while reading your book was learning that you first started playing piano at age five. When you were that little, did you have the ability to reproduce any type of music you heard?
JJ:
Actually no, at that age I didn't even know what a piano was. My parents bought a piano and put it in the home. To me it was a great big toy and I went over and went to banging on it (chuckles) running everybody out the house. Finally I started hitting on keys and things that made a sound that I liked, and I just kept developing that sound until I just started playing. Then my parents had some records at that time of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and all that. And I found out that I could play on the piano what they were singing. Y'know I play by ear, and I could hear what they were playing and I could get on the piano and follow them. That's the way I developed my playing until I got up where I actually knew some of what I was doing.

RHOF: When did you move into playing what we call rhythm or boogie music? Did that just come naturally from listening to those records?
JJ:
Yeah. After I got in high school, we formed a little band called the Blue Rhythm Swingsters. (chuckles) We were all amateurs and whatever. But I went into the Marine Corps in 1943, and after finishing basic training I got into a group there. They had band members there from Glenn Miller, Count Basie -- you know when they draft you into the service, whatever position you have in the service you all get mixed up together. So, after I got into the South Pacific we formed this Big Band called The Barracudas which was about a 23-piece jazz band, and I was just fortunate enough to be one of the keyboard players in there. That's when I kinda made up my mind that I wanted to be a professional musician. Then I moved to Detroit, after getting out of the service, and I heard this artist T-Bone Walker. That blues, I could remember what I heard, and I liked to play the blues. So I got into the blues field. Finally I ended up going to St. Louis, met Chuck Berry, and I hired him one night because I was short a musician. And that's when history actually started.

RHOF: When was the first time you actually heard the phrase "rock'n'roll?"
JJ:
The first time I heard that we were playing at the Paramount Theater in New York. That was our first gig on a tour with this Alan Freed Show. While we were playing, the kid you know they were having a fit. Alan Freed said "Boy, look at 'em rockin' and rollin'!" And right in the middle of his statement he said "Hey! Why don't we call this music rock'n'roll music, because this is what the kids are doing today. This will probably continue on and on." So that was the first birth of the title to rock'n'roll music, right there at the Paramount Theater in New York.

RHOF: Do you feel that early rock'n'roll was just a goosed-up version of the Blues or stripped down version of Swing?
JJ:
I think it's a little bit of both. Y'know people like Fats Domino and all them, or you could even go back as far as Roosevelt Sykes and all them, they were playing that type of music. Not as much as now, but it didn't have the title. It was just some rhythm and blues stuff or whatever. But rock'n'roll has been played a long time before it even got the title "rock'n'roll." As I say, those kids in Brooklyn, New York I think they kinda captured the action of it just as the music was becoming rock'n'roll music. Then they come out with Rockabilly and all this type of stuff. So, I would pinpoint New York as the starting place for the name of rock'n'roll.

RHOF: Tell us about the changes your band made when Chuck Berry joined The Johnnie Johnson Trio.
JJ:
Well, back in that time, I had only three pieces. We were playing standard tunes like "Stardust" and "Moonglow," and all this kind of stuff. It wasn't until that night that Chuck came in and he played this hillbilly song called "Ida Red," which later became "Maybellene," and it took such an effect on the people! They started dancing -- it went over big in other words. That's when Chuck took it to Chicago and we made a recording of "Maybellene" out of it and as I say, that's when history started with us as a rock'n'roll group.

RHOF: When I hear that song today, I don't think of it as a hillbilly record, I think of it as the perfect example of rock'n'roll music. Were you and Chuck consciously mixing blues with country music when you recorded?
JJ:
Well, I can best answer that by saying I played what I felt. You see, I was born and raised in West Virginia and I come up around country and western music, hillbilly music, whatever. So it was no problem for me to follow behind what Chuck was playing and as you know, he copies a lot of my bass style on his guitar because most of his songs are not what guitar players call in guitar player's keys. They're in major keys which are naturally piano keys. So with the change over of what we were both doing, we became partners in this. That's how we worked out all the tunes that's he's got practically, except "Johnnie B. Goode." I had nothing to do with that, that was sort of a tribute to me, I understand.

RHOF: How did you work the songs out? Did you teach Chuck some of your licks or did he just pick them up over time?
JJ:
We would do it together. We would sit down and Chuck would have a lot of lyrics and whatever, and I would go to the studio or his house, or he would come to my house an what-not and we would get together and put music to these lyrics as best we could. Our biggest problem was getting introductions to the lyrics that he had. But after the introduction everything just kept coming because it was on a shuffle kick and whatever, and we didn't have too much trouble getting music behind his lyrics. Because, as you know, most of Chuck's songs are fast, and you know, shuffle songs.

RHOF: You mention in the book Father Of Rock & Roll: The Story Of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson, that Chuck liked Nat King Cole a lot. Did he ever say to you "Well, I think I'll do a Nat Cole type song right now?"
JJ:
Well we both liked Nat King Cole's music. Chuck used to say "I'm not a singer, but I would love to do something by Nat King Cole." Well, being a piano player, I had played some of Nat King Cole's stuff in the past with different groups. So we decided to try out a couple and I think Chuck did put out two or three songs that were by Nat King Cole, but it wasn't too many of them because Chuck had this other type of music branded in his mind and that's what he played best. So, we made him one or two things of Cole's, then he went back to his original stuff.

RHOF: John, didn't "Havana Moon" come from you trying to teach Chuck a Nat King Cole song?
JJ:
Yeah, that's right.

RHOF: What can you tell us about the nature of the chemistry between Chuck Berry and the Johnnie Johnson Trio? You guys just seemed to make it all fit together so easily.
JJ:
I guess it's because we always knew what the other one was going to do at all times, and it was our own style of music. There was nobody else playing what we were playing, so it wasn't hard for us to encounter each other with this type of music. That's why we did as well as we did.

RHOF: Do you remember Leonard Chess coming into the studio or doing some of his legendary studio tricks like beating on a phone book or banging on sewer pipe?
JJ:
While we were recording one song, I forget exactly which one it was, Leonard came through the studio and just took his hand and run up and down the piano while I was playing. I was doing a piano solo as I remember, and that's the only time it happened on that one record. Chess would always suggest something because the owner of a recording company, he knows about what the public wants because he had quite a few artists he was recording at the time. We were new at this and he was just trying to help us put out some material that the people would buy. that's what they were out for, the money. So, he did that on the piano at one time and so that gave me ideas as the kind of background he wanted behind the stuff Chuck was playing.

RHOF: Wasn't that song "Sweet Little Sixteen?"
JJ:
That was it! "Sweet Little Sixteen."

RHOF: What can you tell us about Leonard Chess? Was he a good man to work with?
JJ:
I enjoyed working with him. Leonard was a person who wasn't going to let anything go out of that studio that he thought wouldn't sell, and he was going to make you stay there. If you wanted to record for Chess, you were going to stay there until you got it like he thought it should be to sell on market. Phil Chess was just the opposite. Naturally he would want things to be just right, but Phil had more sympathy for you. (chuckles) Leonard didn't have no sympathy. You either did it right or you didn't do it at all. We went to see Phil about a couple of years ago down in Arizona and he hadn't changed a bit, he was still the same Phil Chess and what-not. He brought back some memories of things that I did that I had forgotten about just like Travis. Travis dug up things that I had forgot even happened. So actually, reading this book to me is like reading something I never knew before. (laughs)

RHOF: Is Phil Chess still with us?
JJ:
Oh yeah, he's still living, he's out in Phoenix, Arizona. I think Travis could track him down for you.

RHOF: One of the points the book touches on is how you would help Chuck Berry make up his greatest songs and then not received proper credit. Did Chuck ever at least say "Thanks for helping me write that?"
JJ:
No, the song was did and he was off to market with it. There wasn't no thank you or whatever. We just did it together as a team, and that was the end of that.

RHOF: You were probably due some money for your contributions to his music, were you unhappy that you didn't received proper credit or royalties?
JJ:
Well, early on I didn't know too much about this and I figured that I'd get what was coming to me sooner or later. It didn't really bother me because I just loved playing. Naturally, I was trying to make a partial living out of it anyway. But, just to be out, go different places, meet different peoples and play my music, that was all I was concerned about. Sidemen got paid when we made the recording, and not knowing much about the business, I figured that was the end of it. The bandleader, or whatever, he didn't get paid when we made the record, only the the sidemen. But after that, everything else went to the leader, so I was satisfied with that.



RHOF: I've spoken with other sidemen who would like their contributions recognized with a Gold Record. Would you like to receive a Gold Record for your work with Chuck Berry?
JJ:
I think it's too late to even think about that now. I have some Gold Records from people that I've worked with. I've got one from Keith Richards, one from Eric Clapton, these are records that I participated in playing on, but they're not my records. Still, they sent a Gold Record off of what I did on their record. I've got about 2 or 3 Gold Records at my house now from other artists that I've worked with. So that's satisfaction enough to me.

RHOF: A fine writer/musician Gary Pig Gold wants to know if Chuck's taking over your trio was gradual or just came all at once. Was it a hostile takeover?
JJ:
No, it was agreeable with he and I. Chuck had more ways of getting around to get jobs and things, because I didn't have a car or nothin'. And after he made the recording, the company was naturally going to send him out. So Ebby and I, we traveled with him. That's one reason it became the Chuck Berry Trio. So it wasn't something that was an underhand deal, it was something that was agreeable between Chuck and I.

RHOF: What were some of the more memorable gigs you guys played during that first hot run of hit records?
JJ:
The first thing I remember doing with him after the record came out -- we were on local TV, KMOX in St. Louis. Then Chuck got on Bandstand. I never was on Bandstand with him, but he did Bandstand quite a few times. Then we went on TV again in L.A. and close as I can remember, we were on TV quite a bit. The biggest thing I ever did with Chuck was when I played the President's Inauguration Ball. [The 1997 Clinton Inaugural.]

RHOF: When did you first see Chuck Berry do the duckwalk?
JJ:
Oh, the first time I saw him do that was in a club he was playing in East St. Louis. I saw him do that and also that pantomime thing of his, we called it "The Buggy Ride." That was back in 1953.

RHOF: Wasn't Chuck doing the duckwalk before he even started with you, John?
JJ:
Oh definitely so, yeah.

RHOF: Chuck has always told the story that the reason he started the duckwalk was because the suit you guys wore at the Brooklyn Paramount were wrinkled and he was trying to hide the wrinkles.
JJ:
No, that's a bunch of stuff. Actually, the duckwalk come from Chuck when he was very young. He was playing with a ball in his kitchen and the ball went up under the kitchen table while his family was eating, and he had to duckwalk out from under the table with this ball, and his parents and everybody started laughing at him. Then he said he would try that onstage to see if he could get a laugh out of the audience. And he did this and he got a big reception and that's how the duckwalk was created, just from that one instance. It wasn't because he was trying to hide no wrinkles, that's bull.

RHOF: The book mentions that Chuck had taken his first demo to Vee Jay and was turned down. Did Chuck have a great deal of difficulty getting on a label with the sound you created together?
JJ:
I really couldn't answer that one. I know he took it to two or three different recording places and they didn't go for that sound. I guess it was because it was a black guy playing this kind of music. They figured it wouldn't go over. Leonard Chess took a gamble on it and it paid off. Then everybody else wanted him to record for them then, but he was with Chess by then.

RHOF: Do you think the group's sound would have been different if you had been signed by Vee Jay and recorded for Calvin Carter?
JJ:
It probably would have sounded different than what Chess had it to sound, but I don't think it would've sold like it did when they put it out the way Leonard Chess wanted it. I think it would've been in a different category and sound altogether.

RHOF: Did you get to meet any of the other greats of 50s rock'n'roll while you were on tour?
JJ:
Well, I met Little Richard. I saw Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, him and Sammy Davis jr. were together, but I never got a chance to talk with him or anything. But a lot of the other guys who also recorded for Chess like Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Howlin' Wolf -- I got to meet all of them.

RHOF: Didn't you share a plane with Buddy Holly too?
JJ:
We were on a plane together, yeah. But I never played no music with him.

RHOF: These days we read that Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis used to get into some heated confrontations, some say it was quite violent. Can you tell us much about that?

JJ:
No, the only thing I knew was that they were competitive about who would close the show out when both of them were on the same show. I don't know nothin' about any fight they had between each other.

RHOF: As far as you know, did Jerry Lee ever set a piano on fire at the Brooklyn Paramount?
JJ:
I heard that happened, but I never witnessed nothin' like that or even saw it in the news. It was a rumor I heard that he had set a piano on fire in one place, and in a couple places he turned a piano over and all that. But to me that was just hearsay, I had no proof of it happening.

RHOF: Let's move on to the next phase of your career. From your perspective, were Albert King and Chuck Berry have the same type of personality?
JJ:
No, it was altogether different. Because Albert was in a different category of music and he handled different types of music differently. With Albert being uneducated as he was, it was hard to get anything through to him. Everything had to go his way or no way, which made him a hard person to get along with because you couldn't communicate with him through words and the only way he could get your attention was to be extraordinary mean or something like that.

RHOF: Did Albert like to get out and just jam more than Chuck did?
JJ:
Yeah, he did. When we first started out with Chuck we had 101 one-nighters. When I played with with Albert and we'd have maybe two or three nights out of a week until he got kind of famous and we went on the road. I never did no long touring with Albert because after that, I went back with Chuck again.

RHOF: I know we're not always happy with how people like Albert King or Chuck Berry act, but do you think ruthless behavior is necessary to make it in show-business?
JJ:
No, I don't, really. I think it turns some people against you. When they see how an artist acts towards his men it can turn a lot of people's minds against what they were thinking before they saw these things happen. Like when Chuck stayed in the news all the time, which was mostly bad news, this turned a whole lot of his fans against him. Same thing with Albert, but Albert's people who go against him on account of how he would act on a bandstand with promoters, not so much with his musicians, but the people who would have something to do with the hiring of his band. Like, the soundmen, they couldn't never do nothin' to satisfaction. The promoters, they wouldn't have things like they wanted 'em, and like that. That was the way Albert could be and we had to put up with what Albert went through.

RHOF: Did you write or make-up songs with Albert King the same way you did with Chuck Berry?
JJ:
Well, I was on some of his records and I provided some of the background for some of his blues he was singing, yeah. I helped him a lot in that.

RHOF: Was that Albert's happiest time, when he was creating and singing?
JJ:
I would say yeah.

RHOF: When Chuck Berry got out of jail and you resumed your collaboration, did he speak much about his times in prison?
JJ:
No, he didn't have to talk about it because it was in the paper all the time, everybody knew about it. So, he didn't have to talk about it. I understood that he wrote this song "Memphis" while he was in there and Johnny Rivers put it out for him because Johnny was out here in the world. That's what I heard -- it didn't come from Chuck but a lot of people who knew Johnny Rivers, I guess he told 'em this. But Chuck never denied it because I think I encountered him about that once. I don't remember just what he said about it, but it was Chuck's song but Johnny Rivers put it out and I think he got credit for it.

RHOF: Did Chuck feel like he was being persecuted by the law or did he just feel like "Oh well, they caught me"?
JJ:
I guess it was just they caught him and he had to deal with it. He knew everything that they caught him for he was guilty of it.

RHOF: Is your bond with Chuck Berry more or less a silent one?
JJ:
Yeah. We did that quite a bit on quite a few songs. After we learn a song, then Chuck could start playing something and I wouldn't have to ask him what key it was in, because I would know what key it was in and actually know what he was going to do next. So, we could communicate good without saying a word to each other.

RHOF: Tell us something about playing with Eric Burdon and The Animals.
JJ:
We were recording at the Chess Recording company one morning when they come through and they asked Leonard Chess would it be all right if I sat in on one of their songs or something. That's the only thing I did with them.

RHOF: Were they good guys?
JJ:
To me they were great, because as I say I was just getting out there and I was excited to play with anything. (laughs) They could've put some dogs up there and playing behind them would've been exciting.

RHOF: Do you regret not taking the Chess Brothers up on their offer to cut an LP?
JJ:
I don't regret it because at that time I don't think I could've handed it. It would've been a mistake for them to waste some money on trying to do something with me, because I just wasn't ready, that's all. So, no I don't regret it at all. I'm getting my day in court now. And actually, had I done it back then, maybe I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity now because I would've been such a failure back at that time and nobody else would want to take a chance on it. The older you get the more you progress. Back in that time, I don't think I could've held down my job being an artist and traveling all over the place. One thing, I didn't know that many songs, I was playing all standards. I played nothing originally all my own. So, I think this is the best time for me.

RHOF: Tell us a little about the difference between playing with Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
JJ:
Little Richard has his own style and Chuck's got his own style, I was just fortunate enough that I could follow each one of them. But I got more kick out of playing with Little Richard because he had more of a band, he had horn and everything when he first started out and we just had a trio -- drums, sax and piano.

RHOF: When you jam with someone like Keith Richards, is the same feeling there that you get with Chuck Berry?
JJ:
With Keith it's fine, yeah. Keith's playing the same type of music but he plays with more of a drive to it than what Chuck had.

RHOF: Is he a better all-round musician?
JJ:
Well, I'd say it's about a 50 - 50 thing. Chuck has some songs that he put a lot behind, but Keith's songs, it was no problem following him at all. That's why Keith called me to do this record of his Talk Is Cheap, because I could follow what he was doing and we had no problem with it.

RHOF: Did Keith ask you a lot of questions about the Chess days?
JJ:
No, he didn't ask too many questions about nothin' except what we were doing.

RHOF: Did you enjoy working with him on Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll?
JJ:
Oh yeah, I enjoyed working with all of 'em, very much so.

RHOF: There's this really horrible chapter in your book where you're hemorrhaging onstage playing for Eric Clapton. I winced as I read it. How did you manage to keep playing while your nose was bleeding that profusely?
JJ:
Well, just determination, that's all. I wasn't about to stop and mess up the arrangement we already had, and the stagehand was bringing me towels and things out to kinda help me along so that's why I was able to finish out the complete show while my nose was still bleeding.

RHOF: Did the other artists notice what was happening with you?
JJ:
Oh yeah, everybody seen it, the audience, the people on the bandstand and everywhere else because the piano keys looked crimson, they was so red.

RHOF: The upshot of that experience is that you're no longer drinking, right?
JJ:
I haven't had a drink since 1989.

RHOF: I'm so glad to hear that. When you're working with a lot of these superstar guitarists like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and George Thorogood is there a lot of extra rehearsal involved?
JJ:
Somewhat. Usually we'd sit down and talk about the basic things we were going to play or whatever, and find out if each one of us knows the song and what key it's in. So actually, a lot of rehearsal is not required. I'm not patting myself on the back, but I don't have no problems following anything in their line of music.

RHOF: Is it easier to establish a musical relationship with great blues artists like Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker?
JJ:
Very much so, John Lee Hooker and all of 'em -- as long as you're in the blues field, you won't have any problem with me not playing with you. Now when I went out with the Grateful Dead, well with Ratdog. They were playing Jerry Garcia's music, now I had a problem with that because I couldn't actually play that kind of music. So they changed the program a little bit and had me play records that I made as part of the show, and when the started back with the Grateful Dead Music, Bruce Hornsby would come on piano and that went pretty well too. That's about the only time I was stuck trying to follow a group, and I had rehearsal on that for three weeks before we went out, but I just couldn't capture that music. I did learn one or two songs, but it wasn't enough to stay up in the bandstand the whole program they were doing.

RHOF: They play in those weird keys. JJ: Yeah, them keys is out of sight! RHOF: Did you enjoy working with the Kentucky Headhunters on That'll Work?
JJ:
Oh they're good too! I never worked with anybody that I wasn't satisfied with. The Headhunters, George Thorogood, Keith Richards, or Eric Clapton -- all of 'em I had fun doing, because , as I say I love to play music. A couple of the Headhunters came up for the birthday week It was just the brothers Richard and Fred. Richard is the guitar player and Fred was the drummer. they surprised Johnnie at his birthday. RHOF: Did they jam?
JJ:
Oh yeah, it was pretty cool. They came up and did "Johnnie B. Goode."

RHOF: Did you tour much with the Kentucky Headhunters?
JJ:
I never toured with them but I have played with 'em. I went to different cities where they playing but it wasn't a tour. They asked me to come and saw that I got there and did this one night with them here and there, but I never toured with 'em, no.

RHOF: Did you enjoy recording the CD that's inside the book jacket?
JJ:
Oh yeah, that was done here in Texas, I really enjoyed that.

RHOF: Is Travis a good producer?
JJ:
Travis is one of the best! He's god sent to me. He's let millions of people know what I stood for. I've run across quite a few people since the book has come out in different places that I've played, and they tell me once they started reading the book, they couldn't put it down. I went through that with quite a few people so I'm really proud that I had a writer like him to do this, and he's going to be real famous one of these days. As I said earlier this morning, one of these days I'll be working for him.

RHOF: These days, what type of piano do you prefer playing?
JJ:
Any piano that's got 88 keys! No special kind.

RHOF: Does it bother you to play something like a digital piano?
JJ:
No, really, because most of them I play on are 440's and they're in tune perfectly. I have no problem with them.

RHOF: Tell us about your instructional video. Do you demonstrate your old licks from your days at Chess on that?
JJ:
Oh yeah.

RHOF: Was that video fun to make?
JJ:
Oh yeah, very much fun. Interesting too. After they sent me my tape of it, I played it at home and it was very interesting to me. I had quite a few youngsters tell me they were glad that I put something out like that and it would enlighten them on some of the things that I was doing on piano. Yeah, it was fun making that instructional tape.

RHOF: Tell us about having the name "Father Of Rock & Roll" patented. How did that come about?
JJ:
Well that's a subject that's been floating around out there since almost the beginning of the rock'n'roll era and nobody ever claimed that. So my friend here in Houston, Texas [George Turek] had it patented and it's all in Congress. I'm the actual "Father Of Rock'n'Roll" now.

RHOF: Before you head off to rehearsal, what would you like to say to all those Johnnie Johnson fans out there?
JJ:
Don't ever give up the ship, just fight on!



(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.
Travis:
I've always been a big classic rock fan anyway and even when I was 9 - 10 years old. When my friends would get into whatever was happening in the early 80s, I was still back in the 50s more or less. Which is funny now because I've got a lot of friends who are are getting into this 50s and 60s music like it's new stuff, and me, I'm almost tired of it because I've been listening to it for so long. So, I knew him as Johnny with a "y"" Johnson, as it says on the box set, and I knew he played with Chuck Berry a little bit. So I was really excited when my mom and my step-father got married and they hired Johnnie to play at the wedding during the reception. This was at a time when Johnnie wasn't doing that great. So, I knew who he was and it was exciting to me. Through the wedding, he became friends with the family, and he would come down to visit us and we would go up to his gigs or whatever and visit him. We kinda became friends and being interested in that kind of music I would talk to him for hours, and as you can probably tell, he's real quiet and doesn't speak much. He's real humble. So, it was really hard for a while -- it took some time for his story to start coming out. Anyway, I started talking to him and getting into the story and I've always loved to write, it's what I've always wanted to do anyway. I was majoring in English at the University Of Texas. One day I started to realize that there's this great story here that no one had even seemed to be interested in. Even after Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll came out, after I watched that a few times it was like "Man, how come nobody wanted to do anything about this?" I mean, yeah at first he says "I didn't write the music, I would just be there when he was." Then he would describe how he wrote the music. Of course, I explain in the book how he didn't think he was writing music, he called it just "making up music." So, I just woke up one day and said "I want to do this! And if I don't do this now, I'll regret it forever." Here was this opportunity, yeah I was young, but I knew if I didn't find out if I could do it, then I was going to regret it. So, I called him up and asked him and he said "Sure, go right ahead." That's how we got started on it and it took four years.

RHOF: Was the research for this book difficult?
Travis:
Obviously, I've only done this one book, and I don't know what it would be like if I did another book, but I know this one was such a labor of love. I enjoyed it. (laughs) It actually interfered with my school work a lot. I'd go to the library to do research for an English paper or something and I'd find myself going through all these old music books looking for Johnnie's name in the index. I found some real cool stuff actually in the school library. I men, I just enjoyed doing the research for this particular book, and I never really felt like it was a whole lot of work, because it was neat to find out all this new stuff . I'd say "Well, OK...Little Richard says this." and I'd be able to call up and say "Do you remember this? Is this true?" I enjoyed doing this. I certainly don't enjoy doing research for school (laughs), but if I do another book along this line, I don't know if I'd enjoy it as much. This was one of those personal things where I was really involved with it on a personal level.

RHOF: Are there other books in your future where you think you'll have that type of personal commitment?
Travis:
I hope so. After this came out, people came up to me and said "This is a great story, you oughta think about this one." I've had other people say to me "You ought to write a book on some business tycoon." (laughs) I don't have any interest in that, y'know? I love music. I love sports, I could do sports. But I don't feel that I could give an honest and full effort unless I supported it. Y'know, that old thing where they say "You have to believe in what you're selling?" Like, I don't think I could write a book about Chuck Berry and make him out to be a saint right now.

RHOF: Were you able to interview Chuck for the book?
Travis:
(deep sigh) I tried several times. Actually, the first time I met him he was friendly to me to a point. We were at the Long Beach Blues Festival and I had never really sat and talked to him. He and Johnnie were sitting there talking and Johnnie saw me walking and said "Hey Travis, come over here and meet Chuck." I said "Hey, I've always admired your music." He's like "Yeah, it's nice to meet you." and everything. It seemed like he was going to be receptive and then Johnnie said "Yeah, this is the fella that's writing a book on me." As soon as he said that Chuck said "Oh, I didn't know that." And then he literally turned his back on me. From then on, I might as well not even existed. We'd be at these places, like that award Johnnie got in St. Louis for the Walk Of Fame. Me and Johnnie and Johnnie's wife were sitting at the table, and Chuck came over and hugged Frances, talks to Johnnie "Hey Johnnie!" I might as well not have even been there. I know he recognizes me because I've been around, and out of the corner of my eye I've caught him staring at me, but he never acknowledges me.

RHOF: How did you get permission to quote from his book as much as you did?
Travis:
Well, it's public.

RHOF: So your legal people would've caught that had there been a problem?
Travis:
Yeah. We tried to get the attorneys to be real careful. Much to my dismay, there's some times where I had to change the language, especially when I was talking about Chuck's legal stuff, that I didn't like the way it ended up sounding. Like saying "allegedly" about 300 billion times. They said "You've got to be careful about stuff like that." I'm glad he wrote a book, because I didn't have to do anything, he would just say these things himself.

RHOF: As a fan, I wasn't really satisfied with Chuck's autobiography, were you?
Travis:
Uh-uh.

RHOF: I thought he obfuscated a lot of issues with fancy language and in some instances didn't even make the point he was going after.
Travis:
Yeah, it was weird. It jumped around a lot and you never knew what part of history you were in. He has this whole thing about the being against the press "Because all they want to talk about is my extramarital affairs." But that's all his book is about. Another thing that kind of supported the whole Johnnie thing was that he never talked about the musical development of his songs at all. I've also had different accounts like "Oh, Chuck started in '48 under a different name." But in his book he says he had only been a professional for six months, that's something that Johnnie kind of verified too. It's like he would lie, but sometimes the lie wouldn't be in his favor and would, in fact, kind of hurt his story.

RHOF: One of the things I enjoyed most about your book was the corrections of certain discrepancies in Chuck Berry's discography. Is there going to be an official reworking of the discography?
Travis:
You mean going back through the old Chuck Berry stuff and correcting who played on 'em?

RHOF: Yes.
Travis:
Well, Chess has kind of clammed up about it. It's real hard to talk to 'em now. I think they'd have a hard time with me coming in and doing that. Although they admitted there were mistakes in it, to have me come in and say "OK, we need to change this and we need to change that." I don't think they'd like that.

RHOF: Even as low in the mix as some of Johnnie's piano work is, would you know his playing when you heard it?
Travis:
Sure. I can always tell his playing. I went to this movie Kiss The Girls with Morgan Freeman. I was in the theater and there was a part in there where she's in the kitchen and the John Lee Hooker song that Johnnie plays on , comes on "I Want To Hug You." It came on for like a second in the background. I was like "That's Johnnie!" So, I can listen to a lot of those songs and tell it's him. When I listen to some of those original Berry records I can say "That's Johnnie for sure!" I can tell that Lafayette Leake came in on some stuff, especially "Johnnie B. Goode." I can tell that's not Johnnie. Then, like he was saying, there's this whole thing where Leonard Chess would come in during his solo and run his hand up and down the keys, which Johnnie never does. So, that kind of made it more difficult, plus Lafayette Leake was a very good mimic.

RHOF: Is Lafayette Leake still with us?
Travis:
No, he's dead, but I'm 100% sure that was Lafayette Leake on "Johnnie B. Goode."

RHOF: Were there any people you regret not talking to in connection with Johnnie Johnson?
Travis:
The main person I really regret not talking to is Jimmy Rogers. I just procrastinated and lost out on it. [Rogers passed away.] He was around there, and though he doesn't really remember it, he played on one of his songs, but that doesn't mean it wasn't true.

RHOF: What are some of the big finds you made while researching Johnnie's life story?
Travis:
Well, Johnnie sometimes didn't realize that some things were that important, y'know? He would just say things in passing and the number one biggest thing was finding out how much he had to do with the music. Then the second thing was also finding out how much he had to do with Albert King's music.

RHOF: I didn't know about that connection at all until I read your book.
Travis:
I had no idea until I talked to Johnnie. Them I started talking to some of the band members who have played with Albert and Johnnie and they said "Yeah, Johnnie basically invented that sound that Johnnie took to Stax."

RHOF: Which means that Johnnie Johnson was a major influence on two major musical revolutions.
Travis:
Yeah and Johnnie would say things in passing like "Yeah, I've been playing Wee Wee Hours for a long time now. We needed another song, so Chuck put some words to it." He'd say that after I had already started writing that section, and I didn't know any better. With him, you have to really ask the questions, because it doesn't occur to him to bring it up. I happened to say "You know Johnnie, Johnnie's Boogie sounds very similar to [Chuck Berry's] School Days." Because I remember him telling me that he started playing that a long time ago, and he says "Yeah. In fact we used the same introduction for School Days that we used on Johnnie's Boogie." Or he'd solve problems for me, like when I was trying to figure out who was playing on what, and I said "That sounds like Johnnie, but what's this running his hands up and down the keys?" Before I even had a chance to ask him he brought up in passing how Leonard Chess would hit the phone book with a stick and "Sometimes he'd come in while I was playing a solo and run his hands up and down the keys." So, that answered the question for me. It was very enlightening.

RHOF: Were there huge blocks of time in his career where Johnnie never played any of Chuck's songs?
Travis:
Oh yeah.

RHOF: Was he really sick and tired of rock'n'roll?
Travis:
Yeah, he is. Even today. He'll play 'em and he'll get in to them. Once he starts playing he's fine. I think if you gave Johnnie a choice, for example, we did some recording down here and said "Johnnie, we'll get you a really good band and you can play whatever you want to play." He chose all jazz and blues. I don't think he wants to play rock'n'roll, but he will.

RHOF: That's a little sad to hear because there's not that many people like him left.
Travis:
There's also that thing about what's challenging to him. Everybody needs challenges in their life. I've heard him and Pinetop Perkins play together and there's no comparison between the two, Johnnie's obviously the best blues pianist in the world right now, and he's still the best rock pianist, but his jazz hero is Oscar Peterson. He says "Oh Oscar Peterson, I can't touch Oscar Peterson." So his challenge in life is to play jazz. He's trying to be a better jazz pianist, I think that's his focus. Everything else is easy and he doesn't have to put as much effort in to it.

RHOF: What label commitment does he have right now? Is he with anybody?
Travis:
He's going to be doing a tribute album with Atlantic, with the same people who did the Jimmy Rogers album. John Koenig's going to produce it, Ahmet Ertegun of course is going to executive produce, and they're trying to get some of the same people who played on Johnnie B. Bad. Keith, Eric Clapton, some of the other people, and maybe some members of the younger crowd. We made some suggestions to them but whether they listen or not is their prerogative.

RHOF: Are you part of Johnnie's consulting team more or less?
Travis:
Yeah. I think they kind of trust me because I've become sort of an expert on Johnnie's music, and so people ask me questions about "What songs do you think he should play?" or "who do you think would fit with the song?" You know "What key is this in?" So, I try to help and all want is to further his career help him get his "little house with a garage," that's all he wants.

RHOF: What was it like being his producer?
Travis:
Not much work. (laughs) He was so easy-going. I picked out these songs that I wanted him to do that I thought would cover the scope of his career. It was like "Johnnie, could you play this song?" "Sure, no problem." He'd bang it out in a couple of tries and that's be it. Not much overdubbing at all.

RHOF: Do you plan to do more producing in the future. Maybe something else with Johnnie?
Travis:
I don't know. For one thing, as far as writing, I think it helped me because most people have an ego and want to talk about themselves, so if I did another book I feel it might not take as long because I could sit there and get someone to just talk about themselves for hours. But as far as producing goes, I know most artists are much more difficult, and I don't know if I know enough or if I have enough of a handle on that kind of stuff to deal with people who aren't so compliant. (laughs)

RHOF: Is Johnnie surprised by the continued interest in his early music?
Travis:
Yeah, I think so. His style of music is really blues and jazz. That's what he loves and that's what guys in his little group, guys from the old school, that's what they're into. I think he's kind of bemused by the whole rock'n'roll thing, y'know? But he loves it, in fact he's playing it right now. They're playing "Roll Over Beethoven." He loves to play and he's always trying to become a better pianist. But he likes the feel of rock'n'roll, he smiles when he plays it.

RHOF: Is there a stockpile of unreleased Johnnie Johnson recordings from the last 15 years somewhere?
Travis:
Probably. We only know of the ones we've done. I don't know about all these other records that he's made. Because the way Johnnie does it, he just sits down and starts playing, and a lot of times they'll record what he's doing when he's just messing around and starting jams and things. So they're could be more.

RHOF: How has the struggle been going with getting Johnnie some recognition from the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame?
Travis:
We went up and met with them last month and they said "If it doesn't happen this year, it will definitely happen next year, and that it's looking good for this year that he'll get in." They're having a Johnnie Johnson Day at the Hall Of Fame in October. He's going to get up there, he's going to sign books, and give a clinic - a little free concert. They're going to be selling the book in their gift shop. And, they said they would let us know by October if he was going to get in or not, so it would be funny to me if they wouldn't put him in the Hall Of Fame but still sell a book called Father Of Rock & Roll in their bookstore, you know what I mean?

RHOF: How is the book doing?
Travis:
It's doing pretty well. It's doing even better than I thought it would. The whole thing now is, he gets more recognition the better the book does. It's funny the way people talk about it now. It's like "Oh yeah, we knew that all the time." My step-father George, he kind of went off on his thing about doing the Hall Of Fame, and he was doing an interview on the radio the other day, and before they even started talking to him they said "As we all know, Johnnie Johnson wrote the music for most of Chuck Berry's hits." So they're acting like "Yeah, it's something everybody knew." Like it's common knowledge, which I guess was the goal of writing the book.

RHOF: Has Chuck Berry in anyway acknowledged the claims in your book?
Travis:
Well, they had an interesting thing happen at the National Governor's Meeting on August 6. It was really bizarre. This, of course, was after the book was out. Chuck and Johnnie were playing on the same bill and Johnnie had gotten a standing ovation from the Governor's and Chuck's performance was kind of falling a little bit flat. So, he kicked his piano player off stage and brought Johnnie on in front of the most powerful people in the country and started shouting "I need him! I need him!" Call him "the genius." Calls him his partner and makes a huge fuss over him in front of all these people, making it very obvious how much he needs him.

RHOF: Tell us about the final meeting you describe in the book between Chuck and Johnnie. The "I got a song named after you Jack" statement.
Travis:
It shocked me when he did that, of course, because that was another one of those situations where Chuck hadn't said a word to me the whole time. Then here's his friend Johnnie and he gives him a standing ovation when Johnnie gives his little speech, but then afterwards when we were all back there eating at the buffet, Chuck was off on his own. He didn't sit at the table. Then to have him turn around and say "I've got a career named after you." I just thought it was poignant.

RHOF: And it was quotable as hell.
Travis:
Yeah! (laughs) When I heard that I said "I'd better write that down quick."

RHOF: As far as you can tell, does Johnnie actually like Chuck, or do they just get together because they have good chemistry?
Travis:
There's something between them and I don't ople to realize that history is the victor's fiction and there's always two side to it. There's always two sides to every story and a lot of people who were bypassed and looked over made astounding and vast contributions to music. I'm sure that there are more Johnnie's out there, but I'm glad that I stumbled upon Johnnie because I think he's particularly important. When it comes to rock'n'roll -- well, I think there's a lot of people who served the same purpose that he did in blues but rock'n'roll is such a new music and to be able to trace it back to Chuck Berry and then to say "OK, what did Johnnie have to do with Chuck Berry?" I think it makes it more important.


  • Once again we offer our heartfelt gratitude to Alexandra Greenberg at Hoopla Media & Public Relations for setting up the preceding interview and helping us track down much appreciated photos. My personal thanks goes out to Bob Timmers for giving me this opportunity to speak with a legend.

  • Fans can purchase all of the piano master's available recordings as well as the book Father Of Rock & Roll - The Story Of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson by Travis Fitzpatrick through Johnson's website at : www.johnnie.com.

  • Want to learn to play like Johnnie Johnson? You can get his instructional tape The Blues Rock Piano Of Johnnie Johnson: Sessions With A Keyboard Legend through Homespun Tapes LTD at: http://www.homespun.com. Tell 'em the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame sent ya!

  • Johnnie's booking is done through: TCI (Talent Consultants), 1560 Broadway, Ste 1308, NY, NY 10036 - ph:212.730.2701 - fax:212.730.2706


  • Ken Burke can be reached at: DrIguana1@aol.com




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