Blues Music Now! feature

Who is the father of rock and roll? The answer might surprise you.

by Jeff Stevens

Who is the father of rock and roll?

If you answered piano player Johnnie Johnson, you’d likely get the buzzer if you were playing a TV game show. If that was your final answer, Regis Philbin probably wouldn’t hand you a check for a million dollars. Johnnie Johnson

Yet, that's the reply you'd get from author Travis Fitzpatrick, who is so sure about his answer that he named his first book, Father of Rock & Roll: The Story of Johnnie “B Goode” Johnson.

This assertion might startle more than a few historians of pop music. Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the exact birth of rock and roll, the bloodlines typically are traced back to the likes of Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and, of course, Chuck Berry.

After all, Berry’s first hit song, “Maybellene,” is one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll hits. And, Berry is cited as a major influence by some of rock’s most important bands, specifically the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Who is this Johnnie Johnson, the casual rock and roll fan might ask? The simple answer is that Johnson was the piano player on “Maybellene” and most of Chuck Berry’s other well-known songs.

Yet, according to Fitzpatrick, Johnson was much more than a sideman to the flamboyant Berry. Much of Fitzpatrick’s book advances the argument that Johnson was an equal partner with Berry and instrumental in providing the music for Berry’s lyrics for “Maybellene,” “School Days” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” to name a few.

Fitzpatrick said he realized his book, especially its provocative title, would raise a few eyebrows.

“I figured people would be a little taken aback by calling it, ‘Father of Rock and Roll,’” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s why I didn’t call it, ‘The Father of Rock and Roll,’ because although you can make an argument that he is the father of rock and roll, other people can say, well, he’s just one of the fathers of rock and roll.”

The two men first worked together when Johnson invited Berry to play with his band, Sir John’s Trio, for a New Year Eve’s show in St. Louis in 1953. Berry was filling in for sax player Alvin Bennett, who became seriously ill just days before the big show at the Cosmopolitan Club.

“I hired Chuck to work with me for one night because one of my musicians couldn’t make the job on account of illness,” Johnson said. “And that one night lasted pretty close to 30 years.”

Although Berry was musically inexperienced compared to Johnson, the guitarist had a stronger and more aggressive personality than the more laidback Johnson. It didn’t take long for Berry to take over leadership of the band, a move that Johnson didn’t fight.

“He did so many things for the band ... he had a car and he could get out,” Johnson recalled. “We didn’t have a booking agency or nothing, so he got out and hustled up the jobs.”

According to Johnson, Berry also took a demo tape of some of the band’s music to Chess Records in Chicago. “Leonard Chess sent for us all to come up and to do it live ... and the rest of it is history,” Johnson said.

History lists Chuck Berry as the author of “Maybellene,” the first song recorded by the trio, although Chess Records added the name of disk jockey Alan Freed to the song’s writing credits, a common practice in those days to ensure radio airplay.

In contrast, Johnnie Johnson’s name was conspicuously absent from the record’s label, despite the piano player’s prominent role in shaping “Maybellene,” as well as other songs recorded by Berry.

“Technically, the band that went up (to Chicago) to record “Maybellene” was the Johnnie Johnson Trio,” Fitzpatrick said. “It ended up going under Chuck’s name. Johnnie said, ‘It was Chuck’s little thing that he wanted to do ... that’s how they looked at making records.’”

Chuck’s “little thing” hit No. 5 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 1 on the rhythm and blues chart. Soon, the spotlight was focused on the band’s vocalist and guitar player, Chuck Berry, and Johnnie Johnson was pushed into the role of sideman.

“It didn’t change over to the Chuck Berry Trio until “Maybellene” hit and Alan Freed invited them to go on the road,” Fitzpatrick said. “Chuck asked Johnnie to go along with him on the road. That’s how they became the Chuck Berry Trio.”

Other hit songs soon followed, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Despite Johnson’s contribution to the music, Berry claimed sole credit as performer and songwriter.

“Johnnie was an easy foil,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was drinking a whole lot at the time, and he had no idea ... he went in and made a record, he got paid $100 and got a cigar. He figured he got paid and that was it. He had no idea about the royalties he got.”

Berry, on the other hand, was a quick study when it came to the music business, perhaps motivated by the addition of Freed to the songwriting credits for “Maybellene.”

“Chuck educated himself ... he doesn’t come across as the typical artist, letting a manager handle his career or his money,” Fitzpatrick said. “He wants to handle his money ... right from the beginning, he was very shrewd.”

Berry and Johnson worked together, on and off, until the early 1970s. In contrast to Berry, whose name and royalties provided him with a comfortable living, Johnson had little to show for his musical career.

Johnnie Johnson

The story might have ended there, sadly, for Johnnie Johnson. Ironically, a 1987 tribute for Chuck Berry, the documentary film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n Roll,” might have sparked a turnaround for Johnson’s career and personal life.

During the filming of the documentary, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was enlisted to find a backing band for Berry’s tribute concert at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. Richards sought out Johnson, who was working as a bus driver for senior citizens.

Johnson did join the backing band for the star-studded event, which also included the likes of Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt. Johnson’s piano work is prominently displayed in the film and, more importantly, his role in helping create Chuck Berry’s sound is clearly pointed out by Richards, who said he came to realize Johnson’s importance while working on the project.

“He ain’t copying Chuck’s riffs on piano ... Chuck adapted them to guitar and put those great lyrics behind him,” Richards says in the film. “Without someone to give him those riffs, voila, no song ... just a lot of words on paper.”

When asked about his contributions, Johnson describes a songwriting process that clearly is a collaborative effort between himself and Berry.

“Chuck wrote all the lyrics himself. I had nothing to do with that,” Johnson said. “It was just that we’d get down to the piano and guitar between recordings and have our little rehearsal. That’s when we’d work out the music to what he had already written.”

During his research on the book, Fitzpatrick said musicians told him that Berry’s songs were written in musical keys more commonly used by piano players, not guitarists.

“When Johnnie hired him (Berry), he came into the band and he had to play in the keys that Johnnie played in, which were keys that were easier for piano, like C and G and B-flat,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s why most of Chuck’s songs are in what Bruce Springsteen has called strange keys for a guitar player ... they are much harder for a guitarist to play, but luckily for Chuck, he had really big hands ... that made it easier for him to move around.”

Fitzpatrick noted that many of Berry’s songs are propelled by Johnson’s “pounding bass piano.”

“Johnnie has a left-hand rhythm that he does ... called a chopping bass,” Fitzpatrick says. “It is alternating the fifths and sixths on every beat. It is a certain rhythm and it adds kind of a swing feel to what he plays. Chuck adapted that style to the guitar.”

When asked which songs he helped write, Johnson said: “‘Maybellene’ all up to ‘My Ding-a-Ling,’” referring to Berry’s only No. 1 pop song from 1972. One of the few exceptions was “Johnny B. Goode,” which Berry has said he wrote at least partially about his piano player.

So, why didn’t Johnson get the credit he deserved?

“He (Berry) was a showman and Johnnie is very reserved and quiet,” Fitzpatrick said. “In fact, he didn’t even start singing until 1990, when he went in to record ‘Tanqueray.’ He just had no aspiration to be out front ... he just wanted to play music, he just wanted to play piano. And whatever happened, happened.”

Besides, many musicians of that era didn’t understand the importance of songwriting credits and royalties, Fitzpatrick said.

“It’s like condemning Pete Best for messing up his gig with the Beatles,” Fitzpatrick said about the former Beatles drummer who left the band just before the Beatles took off. “It’s just too bad, you feel bad for him, but you can’t say, Pete Best was stupid ... he didn’t know. A lot of us would probably make the same mistake.”

When “Maybellene” hit the top of the charts, Johnson said all of the focus was on Berry. “At the time, they only interviewed the artist and never talked about the supporting musicians,” Johnson said. “So all of the attention was focused on him.”

It would be understandable if Johnson harbored bitterness against Berry, but the piano player says he doesn’t carry a grudge. “I didn’t really feel bad about it,” Johnson said. “We were new at the business and really we didn’t know what was what. It was just exciting to be out there, to play to the public and hear the applause.”

Fitzpatrick said Johnson’s lack of bitterness about his lack of recognition is remarkable. “Johnnie doesn’t seem to have any bitterness about it ... it’s strange,” he said. “He’ll tell you when you ask him, ‘It’s no good to carry a grudge ... I’m not the type of person that wants to carry that bitterness around with me.’

“I have to admit, I’d probably be pretty bitter about it, but I think that’s just his personality,” Fitzpatrick adds.

Instead, the two men remain friends today and even play together for an occasional show when their paths cross in St. Louis.

“We’ve got a club here called Blueberry Hill and the fellow that owns it ... he’s kind of fond of the both of us,” Johnson says. “Whenever Chuck’s in town and I’m in town, he asks me to come down and sit in with him.

“We have no disagreement with nothing. We still associate with each other from time and again,” Johnson adds.

Apparently, even the book didn’t strain the relationship between Johnson and Berry, although the author wondered if it might.

The two men were scheduled to play together at the National Governors’ Meeting in St. Louis in August 1999, shortly after the book came out. Backstage, the husband of one of the other musicians told Fitzpatrick that “Chuck’s camp is not too happy about it.”

“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 said he didn’t know why Berry called him on stage either. “I don’t know what the reason was, but anyway, I ended up there with him,” he said.

Berry might have been trying to acknowledge Johnson’s contributions in a subtle way, although he apparently isn’t willing to discuss them publicly, as the frequently cantankerous Berry declined Fitzpatrick’s requests for an interview for the book.

“I don’t know what Chuck says behind his back, but when they’re together, he (Berry) is nothing but happy,” Fitzpatrick said. “He can be rude to everyone in the room, but he’ll be nice to Johnnie.”

At 75, Johnson's career is thriving. Click here to read the sidebar.

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