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The Johnnie Be Eighty Sessions

The final sounds of Johnnie Johnson

By Dean C. Minderman of The Riverfront Times, St. Louis, Mo. May18th, 2005

From his time with Chuck Berry through his work with Keith Richards, Bob Weir and Eric Clapton, to his own records and gigs, Johnnie Johnson was a natural collaborator. On Johnnie Be Eighty, and Still Bad, his final recording issued just a week after his death, the veteran pianist teamed up with a relative newcomer, songwriter/producer and indie record entrepreneur Jeff Alexander.

A transplanted New Yorker, Alexander had been a fan since seeing Johnson perform back East during the early '90s. After moving to St. Louis in 1997, he approached the pianist at a birthday celebration for Henry Townsend. "He was very interested in the fact that I had songs, and I gave him a manila folder of lyrics," recalls Alexander. "He gave me his phone number, and we spoke on the phone a bunch of times."

Those conversations led to a Johnson cameo on School for Fools, a 2002 collection of Alexander's songs featuring a diverse cast of musicians and singers. Alexander and Johnson kept in touch after those sessions, and as their friendship grew, Alexander started writing "with Johnnie in mind."

When they decided to record together last year, former Blues Brothers frontman Larry Thurston was a natural choice as singer. Bassist Gus Thornton was another easy decision, as he'd worked alongside Johnson on many gigs over past the 25 years. Alexander recruited local standout Rich McDonough to play guitar, and McDonough brought along drummer Joe Pastor.

Alexander custom-crafted a half-dozen songs for the sessions, including "Beach Weather," which evokes the pianist's easygoing attitude, and "Lucky Four," inspired by Johnson's relationship with his wife. "I've never seen two people who loved each other the way Johnnie and Frances did," says Alexander. During rehearsals, "Johnnie called up Frances and made the band play the song over the phone for her, like a little kid showing off. He really was supposed to sing that song, but [because of his health] it just didn't happen. Frances did get to hear him sing it at home. "

Tracking was done in two days last fall at Sonic Temple Studios in Union, Missouri, and Johnson, though ailing, was highly focused. "We had stopped at White Castle on the way there, and Johnnie had some burgers and a cup of coffee," Alexander remembers. "He walked right to the piano, sat down, had his coffee and a burger, and didn't get up but two or three times for the rest of the day. He didn't say a word, but every time his fingers hit the piano, he took charge."

While Alexander waits to see how critics and the marketplace will receive Johnnie Be Eighty, he treasures his memories of Johnson and this final project. "Everybody who met Johnnie loved him, and people who got to be his friends really got something special."