‘Still Scuffling’ An Archival Interview with Johnnie Johnson
Johnnie Johnson, the Father of Rock & Roll, died in his sleep on April 13 at the age of 80. Kind words and condolences spread from the rock community with bouquets of flowers being sent (Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt) and others showing up in person to pay their respects (RatDog members Bob Weir, Jay Lane and Jeff Chimenti took a break from the band's tour to attend).
In a statement through RatDog publicist Dennis McNally, Weir said about Johnson and his days playing in the first incarnation of RatDog, "It's cool to play with the creator."
McNally added, "As far as Bob's concerned, Johnnie really was the father of rock and roll because he was the first guy to put the rock with the roll' – on the piano, with Chuck putting the guitar in.
"Johnnie was a lovely man, and that was clear from the way that Jay and Bob who played with him most, reacted."
On July 17, 1998 at the Riverport Amphitheatre in St. Louis, Johnson joined Weir and the members of the Other Ones for a couple of numbers. I brought up to Bruce Hornsby during an interview a few months later that I noticed him making some hand gesture to the members at that time.
"I might have motioned for them to play sensitively and play more quietly so the people could hear him, so he could hear himself. I think I also changed the key cause Johnnie only plays in a few keys.
"They started the song in another key and I said, Look, if you guys want Johnnie Johnson to come out and play, you gotta play to him. Make him comfortable. So, c'mon guys, you should be able to transpose to C.'"
While not everything in his life came together perfectly, at least Johnson was alive to receive his due for his lasting impression on rock music. He brought a young guitarist named Chuck Berry into his band and played on a number of his hits including "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." Johnson sued to receive writing credit for a number of classics written in the mid-50s, but the case was thrown out.
For years his contributions were unheralded. Finally, a chance meeting with Keith Richards in 1986 during the filming of a guest-laden Chuck Berry concert reignited Johnson's career. Since that he's performed concerts around the world and released six solo albums, the last one coming out shortly after his passing.
Ironically, his latest album, "Johnnie Be Eighty And Still Bad!" came out April 19 on the independent Cousin Moe Music Label. For more information, go to www.cousinmoemusic.com.
The following is an interview I did with Johnson on April 13, 2001 after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Sideman Category. While he was a bit tired from a recent flight from Australia, he displayed the type of Southern charm and gentleman qualities that get mentioned by peers and fans who came in contact with him.
JPG: First off, congratulations on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
JJ: That's been exciting to me ever since I found out.
JPG: I know this was in motion for a number of years. I see this really nice letter dated Jan. 18, 1996 with all these legendary figures from blues and rock n’ roll signing it. Everyone from Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, Etta James, Bob Weir, Bo Diddley… Tell me how you felt when you first heard the news.
JJ: I thought at first that they were pulling my leg because it's been in progress, I guess you could say. A couple times we thought that I was gonna make it and it come up that I didn't make it this time and I didn't make it that time.
So anyway, I never give up. I just kept on pushing. Sooner or later it's gonna happen. It was a great thought to me that the public thought enough of me to even nominate me to get in the Hall of Fame. I know my music must be reaching somebody.
I think the Grammy's about the only thing I don't have. I've gotten a Pioneer Award, I've been put in the Boogie Woogie Hall of Fame. Lifetime Achievement Award. I've been up for Grammy but I was beaten out by Mr. B.B. King. I didn't feel too bad about that.
JPG: Tell me about the night itself, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner.
JJ: At the beginning I found out I was going to New York for a couple days for the ceremony. Then, I find out that my partner, Keith Richards, was going to do the presentation. That was really exciting, the night of the dinner and everything. And when I got up and made my speech, I got to speak to the organization about that. Some of the people in the audience, they tell me were crying. Matter of fact, a couple of them told me that the speech brought tears to my eyes. But, I didn't see where it was no sad speech. I guess it was cause there was so many people that had been pulling for us for so many years to do this and it finally happened.
JPG: Keith was a fitting choice to introduce you.
JJ: It was perfect to me, indeed, cause he and I have been real tight since we made this movie together, "Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll." We're pretty close. Eric Clapton. A matter of fact those two stuck closer than anybody else. They were pitching for me at all times. They were both on my recordings and I was on both of their recordings. It was a touching thing.
JPG: That’s nice to hear. I think it’s cute in a way that Keith convinced you to start singing after all this time.
JJ: He ain't convincing, but he kept on badgering me. I said, Well I'd go ahead and sing.' And he knew I can't sing any of that at all. And it backfired on him. People in the audience, everywhere I played, I was only doing that one number and that was the one I put out, the drinking "Tangueray." People kept badgering me to do more and more. Now, they can't shut me up. They shouldn't have started.
JPG: I actually had the pleasure of seeing you, not play solo, but as a member of RatDog during the Furthur Festival back in 1996. At that point, you were becoming more known and you were doing your own headlining gigs around the world.
JJ: Yeah, right, right. Mm-hmm.
JPG: Now, how did that come about?
JJ: I was asked to go. They called my agent in New York and asked him if I was available for a tour with them. That's how they made arrangements.
JPG: Were you familiar with what they were doing or…?
JJ: I was familiar with their music, but I wasn't exactly sure I could play their kind of music. But what it was there was part of their program they was turning over to me to do my kind of music.
JPG: That version of RatDog was very much a bluesy type of unit. The other time I saw you, it was in your hometown of St. Louis in 1998. I convinced a friend to drive from Chicago to St. Louis to see The Other Ones play. And I remember you coming onstage in the middle of the set to do "Gone Fishin’." Later, you came on for "Lovelight."
JJ: Right. All this was very exciting. Let you know that your music is being noticed, and to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that's the icing on the cake.
JPG: Since 1987, we could say that’s the rebirth of Johnnie Johnson, what is it that drives you now, that gets you excited to get out there?
JJ: I just love playing music period and I like, I figured I'd know enough about it now playing music as long as I did as a sideman that I could come up front and see what happens. That I could hold my own as a bandleader, myself. It also has been working pretty nicely. I travel quite a few places. Spain, Africa and all over Europe. I've been going to Australia for the last 11 years. This year so far, I've gone to Singapore. As I said, it's panned out pretty good.
JPG: I read in your biography, Father of Rock & Roll, that in the early 60s you started playing with Albert King because you didn’t want to fly over to Europe.
JJ: I wasn't flying at the time. That was the whole thing. I was afraid of flying. I stayed with Albert almost five years.
JPG: I take it you fly now.
JJ: To go to Australia, only way I can think of going that far. I got over the fear of flying. I flew to Africa, Japan and quite a few places.
JPG: Is the reaction for you different in other parts of the world? Blues artists talk about having a cult following in the U.S. but they get a major following in Europe.
JJ: I have a mixed audience of blues, jazz, even some of the rap, which that is a little out of my territory. But the blues and the rock and all that I was right down on top of everything. I was well-received every place I was playing. It has always been a return engagement every place I played.
JPG: Your style, I know it’s a combination of musical genres, are you still being influenced by things today?
JJ: You're always learning no matter how good you are. There's always more out there to learn, I'll put it that way. I'm still scuffling and, I guess, continue scuffling as long as I'm living here on earth, cause there's always something new coming up. You have to keep up with the trends if you want to keep working, if you want people to hire you.
JPG: Would you put hip-hop beats or have raps in your songs?
JJ: I think that's a little too young for me. I'll stick with those standards like I've been doing and the old type of blues. There's always people out there who appreciate this kind of music because there's always a new trend coming around. There's reggae, I mean I haven't played any reggae that I know of, but anyway there's some people out there who love it.
JPG: Back to your particular playing style, I know it came from blues and you listened to country & western when you were little and jazz records. What type of artists? What came to influence you?
JJ: Well, I was in interested in people, mostly piano players, naturally. People like Art Tatum, Earl Garner, Earl "Fatha" Hines. And my favorite nowadays cause most of them have passed is Oscar Peterson. He's one of my favorites. And I get a little bit from all of them. Horace Silver whatever, there's some parts that they worked it and I like it, I'll try to carbon copy it and then put my own style to it, that's how I come up with my own, that's how I come up with the style that I got now.
JPG: What about boogie-woogie and stuff that came from jump blues?
JJ: Most all your boogie-woogie piano players that I know about, even down to Mary Williams one girl piano player that you see with a band called Clouds of Joy. This is how I got the boogie so much wrapped up in my blood. In fact, I was put in the Boogie Woogie Hall of Fame in Cincinnati in the last year or two.
I hope in the years to come, I'll have more and more of my own stuff. Well, I know I will to stay in business. Put the icing on the cake, with mostly all my tunes.