Mention the name Johnnie Johnson in local clubs and watering holes, and even neophyte music fans nod in recognition. After all, Johnson's unique keyboard style has been on display at area clubs and concert halls for decades. In addition, St. Louisans have recognized Johnson's many musical contributions with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award in the 1996 edition of the RFT's Slammies.
So the flurry of activity in St. Louis this week surrounding Johnnie Johnson's 75th birthday is, to a certain degree, expected. His hectic schedule includes a performance at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Whitaker Jazz series on Wednesday, July 7; a concert at Kiener Plaza on July 8 (plus throwing out the first ball at the Cardinal game that night); and a concert and signing of his new biography, Father of Rock & Roll: The Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson Story, at Borders Books & MusicSunset Hills on July 9. The grand finale of Johnson's birthday bash is a tribute concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall on July 10, featuring blues guitarist John Hammond followed by a jam session in the Sheldon ballroom featuring Henry Townsend, Oliver Sain and a host of other fine St. Louis musicians. But all this activity is more than just a local celebration of Johnson's birthday. The new biography, written by 23-year-old University of Texas senior Travis Fitzpatrick (with editing assistance from RFT contributor Daniel Durchholz), is intended to broadcast the message that Johnson is long overdue for election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The campaign has resulted in a 1996 petition of nomination for Johnson's election to the Hall, signed by Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, Etta James, Rod Stewart, the late Charles Brown and others. Chuck Berry, who gained his first big break when Johnson hired him to fill in for an ailing sax player for a New Year's Eve gig in 1952 at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, has also written a letter in support of Johnson's membership.
John Hammond, who has established a reputation over the past three-plus decades as a torch-bearer for traditional country-blues, is also a Johnson fan, and during a recent telephone interview he discussed the deep blues roots he finds in Johnson's keyboard style.
"I've been on some of the same concert bills with Johnnie over the years," he says. "And I have a real admiration for his musicianship. He was also a strong influence on me when I was growing up. I used to go see Chuck Berry play every chance I could, and Johnnie's piano style really caught my ear. I was mainly a blues fan, but there are plenty of different shades of blue, and I've performed most of 'em over the years. And his piano style definitely had that blues feeling. Listening to those old Chuck Berry albums, after you got past the hits, there were always a few tunes that were really blues-oriented, and Johnnie's piano really seemed to shine."
Despite the strong support of such big-name musical talent, the campaign to get Johnson into the Hall of Fame hasn't made much of an impression. Fitzpatrick hopes his biography of Johnson will have a positive influence. "I first heard Johnnie play when he came to Texas on July 4, 1993, to play for the wedding of my mother and my stepfather, George Turek," explains Fitzpatrick during a recent in-person interview that includes Johnson. "George was a huge fan of Johnnie's music, so I was interested in hearing him live. I only knew his music from the Chuck Berry box set, and on most of those cuts it was hard to hear the piano very well. But when I heard him live, that was it."
Johnson was a frequent visitor to the Turek household, and soon in answer to questions from Fitzpatrick concerning his experiences he began to relate captivating tales of his early years in rock & roll. To the 19-year-old Fitzpatrick, Johnson's stories were mesmerizing and he told Johnson that if he ever wanted a biography written to let him know. To his surprise, Johnson soon took him up on the offer.
"He was the first writer to approach me about doing a book," says Johnson, "so after I thought about it for awhile, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. Plus, Travis had already done some research, so I knew he was serious."
"I started by reading a book called Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," Fitzpatrick says, "and I'd ask Johnnie whether things in that book really happened the way it said. For example, the book claims Johnnie and Chuck took a bus to Chicago to record "Maybellene." And Johnnie would say, "No, that's not the way I remember it.' Then I read Chuck Berry's autobiography, and I'd check with Johnnie about something that Chuck wrote. He'd say, "Well, that part is right, but this part I remember happened different.' Basically we just started from there, and over the course of five years, we finally got the book together between me going to college and Johnnie playing music and doing tours."
A copy of Father of Rock & Roll was unavailable at press time, but Johnson and Fitzpatrick relate examples of little-known facts about Johnnie's career included in the book.
"When Chuck and I went out on our first tour after "Maybellene,' we played in a big cavalcade tour in Cleveland that was headlined by Tony Bennett," Johnson recalls. "One of the nights we played was the very night that Alan Freed, a disc jockey in Cleveland and host of the show, came up with the name "rock & roll.' We were backstage, and he was saying, "Man, just look at those kids out there rocking and rolling to the music.' Then he snapped his fingers and said to us, "That's a good name for this music!' And that's what he started calling it from then on."
"I think one thing that's really interesting in the book is how much influence Johnnie had on the music of Albert King," volunteers Fitzpatrick. "Not many people know it, but when we interviewed musicians like Kenny Rice, who played on sessions with Albert and Johnnie, they told us Johnnie contributed a lot to the sound of "Born Under a Bad Sign' and especially "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.'"
"I'm looking forward for the chance to play with Johnnie," says Hammond, told that a grand piano will be at Johnson's disposal at the Saturday-night Sheldon event. "However many tunes he wants to do with me at the Sheldon, you know I'll be ready. I can't wait to see how it all turns out."
Another well-known musician who has worked with Johnson, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, is unable to attend the Sheldon concert because of other commitments; Weir praised Johnson in a recent e-mail: "I've been way more than lucky to play with great musicians Jerry Garcia was no slouch but playing with Johnnie Johnson has been one of my life's blessings. After all, I've been playing rock & roll for 30 years, and then I got Johnny B. Goode his ownself for my band. Whew. The bonus was finding out that he was a lovely man as well as a great player. Happy birthday, Johnnie. I'm sorry I can't make it there, but I trust you'll have a good time so just go be good."
Johnnie Johnson performs in celebration of his 75th birthday at various locations around town this week, with a grand finale at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Saturday, July 10.