Wednesday, April 13, 2005


The death has been announced of Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry's creative partner.

Born in 1925 in Fairmont, West Virginia, by the age of four Johnson was playing the piano. After the Second World War, Johnson moved first to Chicago, and then to St Louis, playing in bars and clubs and eventually creating his own trio.

New Years Eve 1952 brought a small crisis for the Johnnie Johnson trio - saxophonist Alvin bennett called in sick for the biggest gig of the year. The band managed to drum up a young bloke to fill in; it was the start of a collaboration with Chuck Berry that would shape the sound of rock and roll for a generation. Berry was a useful member of the band - not only was he a strong guitarist, but he had a car and the drive to hassle for gigs. It was Berry who got a tape of the act to Chess Records, claiming an audition slot and lifting the pair to a new level of working.

The partnership worked smoothly: Johnson would write a tune on the piano; Berry would then adapt it to guitar and add lyrics - a method which produced Sweet Little Sixteen, No Particular Place To Go and Roll Over Beethoven. Berry's Johnny B Goode was a tribute to his long standing partner.

Their working relationship came to an end in the early 70s, and it wasn't a happy split: Johnson tried to sue Berry for cash and credits in 2000, failing when a judge ruled there had been too much time passed since the songs had been written. Johnson had been a chronic alcoholic at the time, and was happy with a spot of cash in hand, while Berry, a sharper mind, was able to secure the glory and much of the cash for himself. (That was why the Johnnie Johnson trio auditioned for Chess, but the contract ended up under Chuck Berry's name).

While Berry continued to tour, Johnson had to find other ways of supporting himself. In 1987, Keith Richards set himself the task of putting together a backing band for a Chuck Berry tribute. Knowing his rock history, Richards set out to find Johnson, discovering him working a bus driver ferrying pensioners about. Despite all the upset, Johnson maintained he wasn't actually bitter; Berry and Johnson would often play together when their paths crossed. After the publication of Travis Fitzpatrick's biography of Johnson, Father of Rck and Roll, there were rumours that Berry was pissed off at suggestions that he diddled anyone out of their credits, which nearly wrecked plans for them to play together in St Louis, as Fitzpatrick recalls:

“Right about that time, the promoter came upstairs to the dressing room and said, ‘OK, Johnnie, there’s been a change in plans here ... you’re going to play your songs and then get off and Chuck is going to go on with his band,’” Fitzpatrick said. “Which is really unusual, because if they’re ever in the same vicinity, they always play together. So, obviously, it had to do with this controversy.”

As directed, Johnson played his set and left the stage. Berry followed with his band, but according to Fitzpatrick, things weren’t going well.

“It’s not sounding good at all .. all of a sudden, in the middle of his set, he kicks his piano player off the stage and says, ‘I need Johnnie,’” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s calling him a genius and my partner and all this stuff in front of the governors.

“He brought him (Johnson) on stage and really catered to him and actually stopped playing a couple of times just to point at Johnnie and let him take it,” Fitzpatrick continued. “It was really bizarre and I don’t know if it was him (Berry) admitting what happened (with the songwriting credits) or he just needed him to save the show.”

Johnson died on Wednesday morning at home. He had recently been in hospital with pneumonia, but had performed live a couple of weeks ago. The cause of death is still uncertain.

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