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Hail, hail, Johnnie Johnson: Chuck Berry collaborator was from Fairmont

FAIRMONT — If it hadn’t been for the film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Johnnie Johnson doubtless would have ended his days unheralded in St. Louis, a part-time bus driver who may play a imply boogie-woogie piano when he wished.

Mentioned title is the 1987 documentary that celebrates each Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday, and the mother-hen efforts of Keith Richards to wrangle the notoriously cranky star for the live performance he was staging that served as its centerpiece.

Rising because the unlikely anchor of that movie was the aforementioned Johnnie Johnson.

By the late Nineteen Eighties, Johnson had largely been forgotten on this planet of rock ‘n’ roll — if folks ever knew him within the first place.

It was Johnson, a resident of Pennsylvania Avenue in Fairmont till he was 17, who gave Berry the gig that modified the world.

Johnson was Berry’s sideman and chief musical collaborator for 20 years, placing down the chords and driving rhythms that made these basic tunes equivalent to “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybelline” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” what they had been — and what they continue to be.

Heck, Berry wrote “Johnny B. Goode,” in honor of Johnnie Johnson.

The track’s signature opening riff that launched 1,000,000 bands within the basement and storage was created by Johnson and handed alongside to Berry, who recreated it, on guitar.

Richards, who heard all these tunes on the BBC as a child in England and ordered the albums instantly from Chess Data in Chicago, the place these sides had been reduce, talked about that collaboration throughout an on-camera interview within the film.

“He ain’t copying Chuck’s riffs on piano,” the Rolling Stone mentioned.

“Chuck tailored them to guitar and put these nice lyrics behind them,” he continued.

“With out somebody to provide him these riffs, voilà, no track — simply loads of phrases on paper.”

It began when Johnson was 4 years previous, and his coal-miner dad wheeled a beat-to-hell, upright piano he purchased for affordable into the lounge of that home on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A toddler with outsized fingers was enthralled.

Ear-hand coordination

Music was additionally outsized in that home.

There have been 78 rpm information spinning on the Victrola, to go along with what was crackling down from KDKA in Pittsburgh and thru the speaker of the household’s Crosley radio.

Johnnie by no means had a piano lesson.

He was by no means taught to learn music.

However he had an ear that would soak up all of it, like ringing a bell.

If he heard it — he may play it.

And if he actually favored it, he mastered it.

Barely into his teenagers, and he was already enjoying, with authority, the raucous eight-beats-to-the-bar excursions of Meade Lux Lewis — to go along with the subtle jump-blues of Rely Basie.

The above would stay his musical idols and influences, as he discovered he may at the least make regular weekend cash on the bandstand.

It took a tragic dying to forge his piano life, even when he didn’t understand it on the time.

Hastings Avenue

When Johnson was 17, his father died immediately.

He wanted to assist help his mom, so he did what most younger Blacks of his era right here needed to do.

He moved away — for a paycheck.

With household connections he was capable of land a manufacturing facility job in Detroit, which was leaping for the home-front effort in World Struggle II.

The juke joints had been leaping, too, and Hastings Avenue was the epicenter.

John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker had been holding court docket within the Motor Metropolis bars and golf equipment lining that avenue then — and all one needed to do was stroll in, as they performed most each night time.

After Johnson joined the navy, all he needed to do, because it turned out, was audition.

New 12 months’s Eve

With World Struggle II raging each throughout the Atlantic and Pacific, the Jim Crow coloration strains had been simply starting to blur.

Johnson enlisted and was one of many first 1,500 troopers of coloration to combine the U.S. Marines.

He shipped out to the South Pacific, the place he didn’t see that a lot fight.

As a navy policeman, he broke up bar scuffles whereas hauling sergeants and lieutenants to the drunk tank.

His weapon within the struggle had 88 keys, in black and white.

Johnson efficiently auditioned for a 22-piece Particular Forces jazz band referred to as “The Barracudas.”

It was an all-star assemblage, made up of musicians who performed the large bands he would hear on the radio earlier than they wound up in uniform.

“There have been some actual cats there,” he mentioned.

After the struggle, he settled again in Detroit.

One other manufacturing facility job landed him in St. Louis, the place he started a aspect gig because the chief of his Sir John Trio. He performed blues and jazz on the Cosmopolitan nightclub within the Ville neighborhood on the North Aspect.

He had simply booked a plum gig, New 12 months’s Eve 1952, when his saxophone participant immediately fell unwell.

Johnson referred to as a man he knew casually.

A lanky showman who may make up lyrics on the spot whereas attempting to mix nation stylings into his blues-playing.

Chuck Berry.

You already know the remaining.

Reeling and Rocking (with a Rolling Stone)

Johnson hung in with Berry till 1973. After they parted, it wasn’t due to acrimony. Blame it on airplanes.

Berry started reserving worldwide excursions by then, and Johnson was afraid to fly.

The piano participant went again to weekend gigs whereas driving a bus part-time for a senior heart in St. Louis.

Then got here the film — and Keith Richards.

His “rediscovery,” as Johnson informed The Dominion Submit in 2002, wasn’t all cinematic drama.

Probably not.

Berry’s secretary referred to as him at dwelling.

“Johnnie, they’re doing this film about Chuck. There’s gonna be a live performance. The Rolling Stone man needs you within the band.”


You already know the remainder of that one, additionally.

After his star-turn within the film — the back-and-forth solos with Eric Clapton throughout “Wee, Wee Hours,” most notably — that piano participant hailing from north-central West Virginia wound up within the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame.

New household

That’s the place he made the acquaintance of Invoice Stalnaker, a Fairmont blues guitarist and instructor in Marion County Faculties who was a longtime fan.

Richards had simply inducted Johnson within the corridor and Stalnaker wished to get him again dwelling.

Johnson had an look there and the fan drove to Cleveland so he may make the invite in particular person.

“I used to be actually nervous once I first met him,” Stalnaker remembered.

“He mentioned, ‘Hey, man, why are you nervous? I’m a musician, you’re a musician. I’m from Fairmont, you’re from Fairmont. That makes us household.’ There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t take into consideration him.”

The 2 stayed mates till Johnson’s dying in 2005.

Stalnaker received him again dwelling for a live performance at Palatine Park and based the Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Society in his honor. The live performance collection has been ongoing ever since.

Johnson was all the time the principle act.

“I’m simply pleased I’m nonetheless right here, making music,” he informed this reporter in 2002.

You by no means can inform …

Stalnaker, in the meantime, was one of many first folks Johnson’s spouse Frances informed after her husband’s passing.

“Invoice, you recognize we’d like you out right here for the funeral.”

He was a pallbearer.

Individuals had been nonetheless feeling the loss at Palatine Park through the 2005 live performance.

A piano with its bench unoccupied sat on the bandstand in his honor.

Throughout an after-hours jam session on the now-defunct 110 Membership on Service provider Avenue, Stalnaker’s band was backing up Daryl Davis, Johnson’s godson who can be a boogie-woogie, rock ‘n’ roll piano participant.

Davis had headlined the live performance earlier.

A drunk and pleased wedding ceremony occasion crashed in and took over the dance ground.

When a few bridesmaids started making hair-metal requests for Poison and Warrant and the like, Davis grinned and shook his head no.

“I believe this one is likely to be extra applicable,” he mentioned.

He counted off “You By no means Can Inform,” the Creole-tinged shuffle Berry and Johnson labored on concerning the teenaged wedding ceremony and the previous of us wishing the younger of us effectively.

The bridesmaids had been transformed. The married couple cleared the ground.

One of the best man let forth with a joyous bellow.

“Whoo, Chuck Berry!”

And, Johnnie Johnson, too.

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