Blues Music Now! feature

For piano player Johnnie Johnson, life begins at 75

by Jeff Stevens

Johnnie Johnson

It took awhile — nearly half a century — but Johnnie Johnson’s career is taking off.

The longtime piano player behind the Chuck Berry sound, Johnson has toiled in obscurity for years. Now, 45 years after “Maybellene” was released, the piano player is finally getting the recognition that eluded him.

“I’m having a whole lot of fun at 75,” Johnson said. “Life starts at 75 ... that’s for sure.”

For most of the 1990s, Johnson has pursued his career as a solo artist, recording a handful of well-received albums and performing live across the world. However, the 1999 release of his biography, “Father of Rock & Roll: The Story of Johnnie ‘B. Goode’ Johnson,” seems to have pushed Johnson’s career into overdrive.

Atlantic Records is planning to record a Johnnie Johnson tribute album, similar to the record released last year by Jimmy Rogers, “Blues Blues Blues.” The Rogers’ CD featured a stellar lineup of guest artists, including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Although the roster for Johnson’s tribute hasn’t been finalized, some of the names that are being mentioned include Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Tina Turner, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin and members of the Rolling Stones.

“Those are some heavyweights,” Johnson said.

Travis Fitzpatrick, the author of the Johnson biography, said the tribute record should introduce Johnson to a wider audience when its released.

“When that comes out, that will shoot him out there to a different level,” Fitzpatrick said. “When you’ve got those names on there, people will buy it just because Garth Brooks played on it. That will help to spread his name around.”

Johnson’s name was spread to the members of the U.S. House of Representatives when he received a congressional citation from the Congressional Black Caucus in September 1999.

In the resolution, Rep. John Conyers Jr. called Johnson “one of the most influential musicians in American history.”

Another honor, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recently eluded Johnson, despite the efforts of Fitzpatrick and others, including his father-in-law, George Turek, who have been campaigning for the inclusion of Johnson in the Hall in a new category, “sideman.”

Late in 1999, the Hall agreed to create the category, which didn’t exist before. However, Johnson was not among the first musicians to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2000. Instead, the first members to enter the Hall in the sideman category are saxophonist King Curtis, bass player James Jamerson, drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, and guitarist Scotty Moore.

Johnson wasn’t named, despite an impressive list of supporters, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Dick Clark, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, Etta James, Bob Weir and Rod Stewart. All of them signed a letter of nomination in 1996 to the Hall on behalf of Johnson.

“Johnnie has touched each one of us; his music has influenced each of us in profound ways,” the letter stated.

Even Chuck Berry has thrown his support behind Johnson’s inclusion into the Hall. In a letter to Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records CEO and co-chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, Berry wrote that he was in “full support” of Johnson’s nomination.

“Johnnie and I have been friends and musical collaborators for over 40 years,” Berry wrote. “His induction would round out the list of those musicians who made significant contributions during rock and roll’s infancy.”

Fitzpatrick said the people behind Johnson’s nomination were “hurt” by the committee’s decision.

“What I don’t understand is how they could put James Jamerson and Hal Blaine in before Johnnie,” Fitzpatrick said. “Both these men were session men in the 1960s. That would be like putting the Beatles in the first class of inductees.” He noted that Chuck Berry, as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, was in the first group of inductees.

Fitzpatrick added: “Poor Johnnie thinks he has to ‘try harder.’”

Johnnie Johnson

Ironically, the Hall of Fame honored Johnson with a three-day celebration in late November 1999, culminating with a performance by Johnson and his band on Dec. 1, just a few days before the foundation announced its inductees for 2000.

The author, along with most of Johnson’s supporters, is passionate about getting the piano player his due. Except for a twist of fate, their first meeting almost never took place. Johnson was hired to play piano at the wedding reception of Fitzpatrick’s mother, Linda, and her fiance, George Turek, after another band canceled.

“It was a really big wedding. They had 1,000 people show up,” Fitzpatrick said. “Still, it wasn’t what he should have been playing.”

After the 1993 wedding, Johnson remained friends with Fitzpatrick’s family. As Fitzpatrick, an English major at the University of Texas, learned more about Johnson’s life, he decided to ask the musician if he would allow him to write his biography. Johnson agreed.

“I knew it would be a big undertaking, but I felt that if I didn’t do it, nobody would,” said Fitzpatrick, who was just 19 years old at the time.

Starting in 1995, Fitzpatrick spent nearly five years interviewing Johnson and the many other sources in the book that rounded out the piano player’s life. The 413-page book was published in the summer of 1999.

The author said the reaction to the book has been positive. “I haven’t really had any negative comments yet, which I expected it to get at least a few.”

The book earned the first-time author a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in the category of distinguished biography by an American author.

The book includes a compact disc of songs recorded by Johnson for especially for the publication. The new recordings include songs he made with Berry, including “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” and other songs that have special meaning for Johnson, including “Tanqueray,” his first recorded vocals.

“I think it’s kind of crazy to write about music in a book like that and not have the music there for someone to listen to,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like a children’s book with no pictures.”

Johnson’s recent successes, which include a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and invitations to play at both of President Clinton’s inaugurations, might never have happened if the musician hadn’t kicked his addiction to alcohol.

“He stopped drinking in the ‘ 90s after he almost died at The Royal Albert Hall,” Fitzpatrick said.

Johnson had been invited by Eric Clapton to play at the famed London venue in 1990. During the show, Johnson began to hemorrhage. “They eventually got it stopped ... but when he flew back to St. Louis, it started again,” Fitzpatrick said. “They took him to the emergency room and said, ‘ Look, you’re killing yourself ... you almost had a stroke.”

Johnson managed to stop drinking, a habit he had since he was 17, and his life began to improve, including his marriage to his current wife. Fitzpatrick said: “He’ll say it himself. ‘ When I stopped drinking, my playing got better and my head was clear.’”

During his comeback during the 1990s, Johnson has been in high demand with his fellow musicians. In addition to Clapton, Johnson has played with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby to name a few. He played with Bob Weir’s band, Ratdog, during the Further Festival.

With his own band, he’s toured heavily in the United States and overseas in countries such as Australia and Portugal.

“Johnnie is making a big name for himself in blues right now,” said Fitzpatrick, who added that Johnson’s personality has played a large role in his popularity along with his prowess on the keyboards.

“He really won himself a lot of fans, just by his demeanor as much as anything,” Fitzpatrick said. “People like him. He’s really respected by his fellow musicians, both for his playing, obviously, but also for his humble demeanor.

“He’s really a nice guy ... and as you probably know, it’s not always found in the music world,” he added.

Editor's note: Thanks to HoopLA Media and Public Relations for setting up the interviews with Johnson and Fitzpatrick and for providing press materials. Also, thanks to SPIKE the Percussionist for photos.

Follow this link to visit Johnnie Johnson's official Web site.

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