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Johnnie Johnson was born July 8th, 1924, in Fairmont, West Virginia. When Johnnie was 4 or 5 years old, his mother bought a piano. On March 19th, 2001, Johnnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A whole lot happened in the intervening years.
When Johnnie was 4 or 5 years old his parents bought a piano. Just to have in the living room Johnnie said, part of the style of the times. Johnnie enjoyed the sounds he could elicit from the piano. He discovered his uncanny ability to hear a song on the radio, then go home and figure out the song. Play the song. Johnnie’s unique ability to absorb sound, combined with his exposure to and appreciation of many types of music, eventually led to Johnnie developing what many musicians and music scholars consider the most influential sound in the history of modern popular music, the sound of Rock and Roll itself.
Johnnie joined the Marines during WWII, and, after seeing combat duty, eventually was a performer in the Barracudas, an elite Armed Forces band othat included top jazz players from the Count Basie Orchestra, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and the Glenn Miller Band. Following stints in Detroit and Chicago, Johnnie went to St. Louis to visit his brother in 1952, got a job, stayed, and formed his band, the Sir John Trio.
The Sir John Trio played regularly in the St Louis metropolitan area, mainly at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St Louis. With Johnnie were Ebby Hardy on drums, and a saxophone player.
Johnnie’s saxophonist became ill before New Year’s Eve, 1952, and Johnnie called a guitar player named Chuck Berry to fill in for the gig.
Chuck had a charisma. Though he had only been performing publicly for a several months, he had a way with an audience and a way with words. Realizing they had a chemistry, Johnnie kept Chuck on as a member of the Sir John’s Trio . "I asked him to sit in for me that night. And that night lasted many years."
Chuck was bringing country type music into the band. No stranger to it, and fond of it, Johnnie realized that what the Sir John Trio was now playing was unique. "We were doing standards back in that time, and what Chuck came in there doing, this rock 'n' roll, it was a novelty thing," he says. "There wasn't no black American doing hillbilly music."
Possessed of a way with words, Chuck began bringing in more and more lyrics. Johnnie combined his boogie woogie, blues, jazz, and gospel, and the hillbilly hybrid Chuck was bringin in. Johnnie’s unique left hand, referred to as sounding like “the left hand of God” by one of the Kentucky Headhunters,had as much to do with the liberating rockin and rollin rhythm of the songs as his magnificent sense of melody had to do with the melodic appeal. Many of the great songs Chuck Berry is known for, songs that changed the course of music and culture, were written at off the cuff sessions, “just me, Chuck and the piano” is how Johnnie is quoted as putting it. Many great musicians have gone on record saying that they could listen to the songs and know the music was written in piano chords, and that as great as he played, largely Chuck was playing on the guitar what Johnnie had laid out for him.
That needed to be said one more time. A more complete presentation, properly befitting Johnnie, and addressing the periods following, will be added later.
For plenty of history and articles about Johnnie, please visit:
A wonderful biography of Johnnie, "The Father of Rock and Roll: The Story of Johnnie B. Goode Johnson" was written by Travis Fitzpatrick.
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Johnnie Be Eighty.
And Still Bad!
Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!