Johnnie Johnson, Hall of Fame Rock Pianist, Dies

Johnnie Johnson, most famous as Chuck Berry’s pianist, has died at 80.

Johnnie Johnson, 80, Dies; Hall of Fame Rock Pianist (WaPo)

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist Johnnie Johnson, who worked closely with Chuck Berry and insisted that he was the inspiration for the song “Johnny B. Goode,” died April 13 at his home in St. Louis. He was 80 and suffered recently from pneumonia and a kidney ailment.

Mr. Johnson, once known as the “baddest right hand in the land,” was a rollicking thriller on the ivories. Reared on stride and boogie-woogie styles, he went on to support Berry, the flamboyant, duckwalking singer-guitarist, for most of the 1950s and then sporadically afterward. They had a famously complex relationship. Berry, originally hired as a replacement in Mr. Johnson’s rhythm-and-blues trio, soon overshadowed the reserved pianist. “When Chuck started with me, he didn’t know but 12 songs all the way through and couldn’t play the guitar that well,” Mr. Johnson told his biographer, Travis Fitzpatrick.

Although sidelined by Berry and suffering from alcoholism, Mr. Johnson continued to help craft Berry’s most famous songs, including “Maybellene,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Back in the U.S.A.” He said he provided extensive melodic framework to accompany Berry’s ideas, but by the time Chess Records made them stars, Berry was the frontman and had the glory.

Mr. Johnson drove a bus for the elderly in St. Louis and occasionally went on the road with Berry and other musicians. Largely resigned to obscurity, he received an unexpected boost when he appeared in Taylor Hackford’s documentary film “Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1987), made to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday.

Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist who was featured in the documentary, became one of Mr. Johnson’s chief supporters. “You can tell how much Johnnie’s blues stylings had to do with the music for Chuck’s tunes,” he once said, “by the fact that a lot of those characteristic Chuck Berry guitar riffs and compositions are in keys familiar to Johnnie and other pianists but seldom used by guitarists.”

An interesting piece of rock history.

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  1. Jim Henley says:

    Damn. Johnson was every bit as important to the development of rock piano as Berry was to rock guitar. In a contest with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, he would give nothing.