Born: Jul 8, 1924 in Fairmont, WV
Died: April 13, 2005
Styles: Piano Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B
Legendary piano player Johnnie Johnson isn't exactly a household name, even among followers of blues music. That's because for 28 years, he worked as a sideman to one of rock & roll's most prominent performers, Chuck Berry. Berry joined Johnson's band, the Sir John Trio, on New Year's Eve, 1953, and afterward, Berry took over as the group's songwriter and frontman/guitar player. On the strength of a recommendation from Muddy Waters and an audition, Berry got a deal with Chess Records. Johnson's rhythmic piano playing was a key element in all of Berry's hit singles, a good number of which Johnson arranged. The pair's successful partnership lasted a lot longer than most rock & roll partnerships last these days.
Johnson was born July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, WV, and he began playing piano at age five, thanks to his mother, who provided the funds to purchase one and encouraged the young Johnson's interest. His parents had a good collection of 78-rpm records, including items by Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. In his teens, he listened to the radio broadcasts of big bands, and taught himself based on what he heard from the likes of Art Tatum, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Meade "Lux" Lewis. Johnson's goal in all of this listening and playing in his teenage years was to come up with his own distinctive style. His own somewhat ailing career got a shot in the arm with the Chuck Berry concert film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, and by his involvement in Keith Richards's solo release with Richards's band, the X-Pensive Winos.
In a 1995 interview, Johnson explains his abilities with piano as his mother did, a gift from God. "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."
Johnson's albums under his own name include Blue Hand Johnnie for the St. Louis-based Pulsar label in 1988; Johnnie B. Bad in 1991 for the Elektra American Explorer label; That'll Work in 1993 for the same label, and most recently, Johnnie Be Back for the New Jersey-based MusicMasters label in 1995. All four are winners, and all are available on compact disc.
- Richard Skelly (All Music Guide)