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Johnnie Johnson, 80, Dies; Hall of Fame Rock Pianist

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page B07

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.


Johnnie Johnson, playing piano for Cleveland hospital patients in 1999, helped Chuck Berry craft such hits as "Maybellene" and insisted that he inspired the song "Johnny B. Goode." (Tony Dejak -- AP)


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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."

In 2000, Mr. Johnson sued for co-writing credit on 57 songs, claiming Berry had taken advantage of Mr. Johnson's alcoholism to claim sole credit. A federal judge dismissed the claim because too many years had passed since the disputed songs were written.

Mr. Johnson's final fight was winning recognition from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2001, when it added a new category for sidemen. Mr. Johnson saw the long wait as one of rules and politics, saying, "I knew there were others in there not as good as me."

Johnnie Clyde Johnson was born July 8, 1924, in Fairmont, W.Va., where his father was a coal miner. His parents bought him a secondhand upright piano when he was 4. When the youngster sat down and began fingering some music, he said his mother "cried out that it was a gift from God."

Mr. Johnson said he learned musical timing by listening to trains near his home. He also listened to his parents' blues records and tuned into a late-night big-band program in Pittsburgh called "Dawn Patrol."

While serving in the Marine Corps in the Pacific, he played in a group composed of musicians from the Count Basie and Lionel Hampton bands. He said that meeting many of his idols focused him on a career in music.

In 1952, while fronting a blues trio for a New Year's Eve engagement at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Ill., he hired the obscure Berry as a last-minute replacement and noticed an immediate impact.

Berry, favoring a raucous, hillbilly-blues style, soon became the star presence at the Cosmopolitan. Sir John's Trio, as Mr. Johnson's group was called, was soon the Chuck Berry Combo.

Mr. Johnson was deferential, up to a point, mostly because Berry had a car. But conflicts ensued over money and Mr. Johnson's habitual lateness to engagements. Mr. Johnson once said: "I'd just get there in time for the show and Chuck would be shakin' his head, askin' me: 'Why can't you just be good, Johnnie? Stay with us.' "

He claimed the phrase inspired Berry to write "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958. Berry said the lyrics, which describe a country boy who "could play a guitar just like ringing a bell," was more about himself, though some sources claim he wrote it for Mr. Johnson.

It became one of Berry's greatest hits, a song so infectiously upbeat that NASA blasted it into space in a time capsule as a sample of Earth music. In interviews, Mr. Johnson introduced himself as "Johnny B. Goode."

After the Hackford documentary, Mr. Johnson played with such artists as Richards, Bob Weir and Eric Clapton, and toured from Scandinavia to Australia despite a fear of flying. He appeared on guitarist Buddy Guy's 1994 Grammy-winning blues album, "Slippin' In."

Survivors include his wife, Frances, whom he married in 1989. He had numerous children from previous marriages.


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