Gordon Baxter, Blues in Britain Magazine, issue June 2005
Johnnie Johnson, the inspiration for "Johnnie B. Goode," recently returned to playing in St. Louis, where he struck up a friendship with songwriter/producer Jeff Alexander. This resultant project builds on the two best tracks -- both featuring Johnson's piano -- from Alexander's previous project, the acclaimed "School for Fools."
The opener, "Beach Weather," sets up the album as a showcase for Johnson's highly accomplished piano playing. Rich McDonough provides the perfect foil on guitar, right down to the Hawaiian inspired solo, and Larry Thurston handles most of the vocals. The band are in fine form throughout--all the music was recorded live in the studio, and the vocals are all single takes -- and they sound like they had a lot of fun during recording.
Although best known for his work with Chuck Berry, Johnson was also Albert King's band leader for awhile. The King sound features strongly on the epic "The Blues Don't Knock," with Johnson's piano playing providing the glue that holds all the pieces together. His finest moments, however, come on "Lucky Fever," starting with a cracking solo intro, and maintaining the standard throughout.
The band take things home on "Better Sell My House" where Victor 'Big Daddy' Johnson delivers the Wolf-like vocals. Then it is all change once more as the tempo gets ramped up for the rocking closer "A Good Day."
"Johnnie Be Eighty..." stands as a fitting epitaph to Johnnie Johnson who died on April 13th, 2005. It is a finely crafted project that highlights Johnson's classy piano playing, in the company of an appropriately sympathetic band. The only real drawback is that there is not enough of it!
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--Chris Puyear – moblues.org
This CD is one of those bittersweet things, yes it’s Johnnie’s latest release but also his last, this CD was recorded not long before his passing.
Many times in the world of music CDs are released after the death of an artist, unfortunately many of those are old studio and live tapes that really weren’t good enough to release the first time around but are put out just to have something "new" or just make a buck. That’s the big difference between this release and those others, this was Johnnie’s last recording that he wanted released.
Jeff Alexander dreamed up this project, he had used Johnnie for some tracks on a previous one. Jeff wrote the songs on this CD and produced it with Johnnie and his piano playing in mind, it was all recorded in the old fashioned way that the great blues songs of the past were recorded, live in studio with the whole band in one room, no fixes, just as it happened. All this adds up to just what you would want, lots of good piano based music with Johnnie doing what he does best, playing "live" with a good band. The band consists of Johnnie on piano, Larry Thurston - vocals on all but one track, Victor Johnson sings on the other track, Rich McDonough - guitar, Gus Thornton - bass, Joe Pastor - drums. Larry and Gus have performed many times in past years with Johnnie and this is one of the reasons they were picked to play on this disc.
This CD starts off with unique song, Beach Weather seems like an odd title for a blues song but when you realize that it was written about and for Johnnie Johnson then you start to get it. In a nutshell it’s about Johnnie and his attitude towards life, to Johnnie it’s "beach weather" every day, every day he is trying to make the best of life. Everyone including myself who had met Johnnie has the same comment, a nice and humble man, I think this song got it right. Find Me A Woman is a song with much truth in it. Basically its theme is find me a nice woman, not a mean woman, not a porcupine who will stick me…. That says it all for me J . Lot’s of piano with several solos throughout this one and ain’t that a good thang.
I think The Blues Don’t Knock has to be my favorite track, probably because I am a sucker for a good long slow groove not to mention a well written song too. This track is almost nine minutes long, the short version is…. You can run and hide but when it’s time the blues will come and when the blues arrive the blues won’t call or knock, the blues just walk right in. I think Larry’s singing on this track it the best and most powerful I have heard from him. Johnnie’s playing is the base (or should I say bass?) of this song, there are no piano solos on this one just the super boom, boom of Johnnie’s piano playing all the way through, sure he hits some other notes here and there but the repeating piano line is just too much and too good. Lucky Four is another song written with Johnnie in mind. First (as you would expect) it’s filled with the joyful and constant sound of Johnnie’s piano with some nice solos too. The idea here is that four is Johnnie’s lucky number because his fourth wife is a real jewel.
This disc gets a big change of pace on Better Sell My House. This track has what you can only describe as a Howlin Wolf sound, imagine the Wolf’s original sound and substitute Johnnie on piano and Victor "Big Daddy" Johnson for the Wolf. The subject matter is also "Wolf like" in that it’s about the next door neighbor’s wife, lines like "you know I like that man, I like his wife a whole lot more" and "right now the back door’s wide open, she’s on her knees scrubbing the floor" say it all. I have to admit that the first time through that this was my least favorite track probably because Victor’s "wolf style" vocals are so radically different from Larry’s but it has grown on me now and I like it. This is one of those songs that you really need to read the lyrics then think about it as you listen and then you will "get it".
The last track, A Good Day is a real cooker, it’s upbeat and fast, lead by Johnnie’s 88s. In some ways this track has that old time R&R style that many associate with the heyday of Chuck & Johnnie, I think it was a good note to finish this CD with, a happy song with a good message. Another side benefit of this CD is some great liner notes. Jeff has put down the who, what & where about this CD telling you how & why it all happened, I found his words about his association with Johnnie interesting and heartfelt, I also like written song lyrics and you get them all.
If you are a big Johnnie fan like me (and about everyone else I know) then this is a must for your collection. If you aren’t familiar with Johnnie Johnson. (I ask is that possible? Is your cavemate Osama? Maybe you are Amish and have no radio or?.....No that’s impossible). Let us just assume you just don’t own any of Johnnie Johnson’s music then I would say this, his last recording might be a good way to get you started then you can become a big Johnnie Johnson fan like everyone else I know.
--Mary C. KZUM, Lincoln NE
--Brad Vautrinot, Quincy, MA
I've been a blues fan for more years than I can remember and grew up listening to all the old greats from Robert Johnson to Bobby "Blue" Bland to The Hook and just about everyone else in between. This is the first Johnnie Johnson album I've owned and I love it.
There are too many "modern" blues artists out there that cannot do the genre justice and will likely not ever have the magic of the old timers. Much of this contemporary music has been disappointing, at best, so it was with great pleasure and certainly a surprise when I heard parts from "Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!". This was the blues I knew and loved! So, I bought it and have never looked back.
While I truly like all the songs on the album, "The Blues Don't Knock" is my favorite track and it's the first song I play when listening to the album. This is great stuff and I'll be sure to listen to as much of Johnnie's music as I can find. His piano playing is unique and among the best I've ever heard. This is blues at its classic best with not a bad song on the entire album.
Johnnie Johnson -- Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!
--David Whiteis, Living Blues Sept/Oct 2005 Issue #180
Pianist Johnnie Johnson was one of the stalwarts of Chuck Berry’s sound. And he may have written or co-written some of Berry’s biggest hits. Johnson spent some time out of the limelight in the ‘70s and’80s, but after Keith Richards enlisted him for the 1986 Chuck Berry tribute film “Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll“, he revitalized his career. As a “living legend” he graced the stage alongside quite a few rockers during this latter period.
Much of this disc returns Johnson to his roots in swing and jump blues. Johnson, who cited the likes of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson as his idols, comports himself elegantly in this setting.” A Good Day” replicates Berry’s hyper-charged rock n’ roll cadence, but even here Johnson prefers to lay carefully timed splays atop his accompaniment with Basie-like precision. “The Blues Don’t Knock”, sparked by guitarist Rich McDonough’s fiery string-bending, is a grittier outing, cast in a minor key. Johnson’s comping.. is rhythmically sure and harmonically rich, and his brief solo melds deep blues soulfulness with deft fingered improvisational elan. “Better Sell My House” is marred by guest vocalist Victor “Big Daddy” Johnson’s labored Wolf imitation (elsewhere, vocalist Larry Thurston winningly mixed bluesy grit with uptown class), but Johnnie weighs in with a solo that toys with timing and meter yet never departs from the song’s steady rolling blues groove.
Johnnie Johnson died in April of 2005, so this disc has become a posthumous tribute. As such, it’s a moving and satisfying musical portrait of an important - if still too often unheralded - stylist in the full flourish of his latter day gifts.
--Ron Wynn, Nashville City Paper, June 16, 2005
Johnnie Johnson never received the fiscal rewards or critical acclaim he deserved for his role in helping shape rock 'n' roll. His pumping, octave-jumping riffs permeated every great Chuck Berry tune, but Johnson's contributions to the writing end of the Berry formula were never recognized.
This late 2004 session featured Johnson's spry blues and boogie-woogie licks anchoring musicians not nearly as well known or acclaimed as Berry but just as exuberant and steeped in the spirit. While rousing vocalist Larry Thurston, guitarist Rich McDonough, bassist Gus Thornton and drummer Joe Pastor also played key roles on such songs as "Find Me A Woman," "Beach Weather," "Lucky Four" and "Better Sell My House" Johnson's keyboard phrases and presence fortified the arrangements, framed the vocals and served as the link between the singer and the band.
--Mark Halverson, MN Blues/Blues On Stage July, 2005
What makes this release particularly notable is that it was released shortly before pianist Johnnie Johnson’s death on April 13, 2005. It is likely the last recorded material released with Johnnie’s blessing and active participation. The title reflects the fact it was released when Johnnie was eighty years old.
Johnnie laid claim to being the “father of rock ‘n’ roll,” a claim there is a good deal of support for. Johnnie, of course, called upon unknown guitarist Chuck Berry as a last minute replacement for an ill band member on New Year’s Eve 1952, and the rest is history. Johnnie’s band quickly became Chuck’s band. The two played together for twenty years, authoring many of the songs that form the foundation of rock and roll.
Johnnie later was Albert King’s band leader and played with a Who’s Who of blues and rock musicians. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. While he spent most of his career as a sideman to the famous (or to become famous) before working as a bus driver for the aged in St. Louis, his career experience a revival as a result of the 1986 film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll which highlighted Johnnie. Johnnie toured in his later years and released five prior albums, starting in 1987 with Blue Hand Johnnie.
Johnnie Be Eighty And Still Be Bad was recorded at the end of 2004. It was a “live” recording, the entire band being in the studio and playing at the same time. The band includes: Johnnie on piano: Rich McDonough on Guitar; Gus Thurston on bass; Joe Pastor on drums, Larry Thurston on vocals on five of the six tracks and Victor Johnson doing vocals on the remaining track.
All of the tracks of this somewhat short release (32:25) are originals written for this release. The producer, Jeff Alexander, penned the lyrics to all of the cuts. Johnnie, Jeff and Rich McDonough did all the music. The tracks were designed to feature Johnnie’s piano playing, and succeed at that. The cuts range from fast to slow paced blues, and show off Johnnie’s trademark chord and glissandos style. Especially considering they were apparently written in short order just for this product, the tracks hold up very well. Many seem destined for cover. One – The Blues Don’t Knock – is particularly good and may become something of a standard.
This is a meritorious release, even without considering it is probably the last work of a legend. Given that it is Johnnie’s swan song, it is an important release. For more information see: www.cousinmoemusic.com.
--Bill Fountain, Southwest Blues MagazineWell the title says it all. If you are looking to hear some amazing key tickling done old school till the piano smokes, this is the CD for you. All original tunes. Six songs. Like the oompa loompas in Willy Wonka, this album is short and sweet. Okay, maybe the oompa loompas weren't sweet. They were orange with green hair. And they had funny shoes. While this album doesn't have green hair or funny shoes, it does feature a very short running time: 32 minutes to be exact. Actually 32:25 to be absolutely exact. The beauty of it is I don't mind the shorter running time, except I wanted to hear more of Johnson tickling the hell out of the ivories. He really is amazing. And another nice thing is he doesn't sing that annoying oompa loompa song every time a kid gets carted off the property.
-- Steve Freund. Blues musician:
"This is a very cool CD! Through a modern mix, and tasteful electric guitars, one can see that before rock n' roll there was Johnnie Johnson!"