There are sounds that never leave you.
To several generations of musicians and
music lovers, the sound of Johnnie Johnson
playing piano is such a sound. It is a
unique sound that grabs hold of your soul,
gets you moving and liberates any dark
corner of you that might need liberating.
Johnnie’s signature combination
of boogie woogie, swing, jazz, blues,
gospel, stride piano, and his unique chopping
bass, laid the foundation and set the
melody for some of the earliest and greatest
rock and roll songs. Almost all, from
“Maybellene” all up to “My
Ding A Ling.”
I was tempted to title this recording
“Johnnie B. Gooder.”
The truth is, what Johnnie has accomplished
since those days (since he and Chuck Berry
wrote all the hits they wrote) has been
worthy of his talent. Johnnie was the
leader of Albert King’s rhythm section
during King’s most defining period.
Just a few of the well known artists he
has performed and or recorded with since
then are Eric Clapton, Keith Richards,
Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Jay McShann,
Koko Taylor, Aerosmith, and Bob Weir’s
Ratdog. Johnnie has also released excellent
recordings of his own, working with Keith
Richards, NRBQ, The Kentucky Headhunters
and Jimmy Vivino.
There are sounds that never leave you.
Johnnie’s sound never left me. From
“School Days” to “Roll
Over Beethoven” to the deep Delta
blues he played on the early and deepest
Albert King classics, to his solo work.
But then I saw Johnnie live. I saw Johnnie
guest on a few numbers at a Al Kooper
show in NYC, and I was blown away. And
I saw shows of his own in NYC to the same
effect. Then in 1997, for the second time
in my life, I moved to St Louis. At first
I didn’t get out a lot. But then
in 1999 I got loose and seeing Johnnie
perform in St. Louis was overwhelming,
revelatory. And once I saw one show, I
never missed another for a long time.
Musical sounds are not necessarily geographically
bound, and I have seen Johnnie with greats
elsewhere. They took no prisoners and
played for the gods to hear. But when
I heard Johnnie at home, with the best
St Louis musicians, nothing could top
that for me. The feel in St Louis is just
a little different. But worlds away. The
sound never left me, and since then I
have never stopped wanting to make a make
a record with Johnnie Johnson.
The sound of Johnnie’s voice will
never leave me. As much for what Johnnie
says as for the quality of its sound.
It is elegant, strong, musical, proud,
friendly and kind. Sometimes all at once.
Like Johnnie himself. Driving Johnnie
to the studio and him telling me about
a donut shop we were nearing, where they
had “these big old fluffy chocolate
donuts.” You could taste the donut
yourself. Made me want to have one. And
I did. Hearing about a gig another well
known pianist got, and my saying that
I enjoy him but rather hear Johnnie and
Pinetop Perkins, and Johnnie saying: “I
know what you mean. DELTA Players.”
Elegant, strong, musical, and emphatic.
And he’s right too. The deep blues
of Johnnie Johnson’s piano is a
musical journey back in time, a syncopation
and chords and melodies from the past.
Although on certain kinds of blues you
might hear jazz chords sneak in. Johnnie
hears things different.
This project came together real fast.
I had previously recorded a spontaneous
type project on which Johnnie guested
on two songs. Since then I can’t
help but write with his piano playing
in my brain. My knowing Johnnie and Frances
precipitated my lyrics to “Beach
Weather” and “Lucky Four.”
I explained this and proposed this project
while we were eating in Sweetie Pie’s
Restaurant (owned by former Ikette Robbie
Montgomery, and you want to taste their
food). Johnnie and Frances said let’s
go. First the fork was removed from the
side of my mouth, two weeks later we were
back in the studio. From experience I
knew whom would walk in and do the job
instantaneously. Gus Thornton is one of
the finest bass players breathing, and
has performed with Johnnie over a twenty
some odd year stretch. Rich McDonough
is a strong, creative guitarist, nonetheless,
Rich is a feel player who I knew would
“serve the music.” as he puts
it. Rich recommended Joe Pastor for the
drum spot, and Joe’s playing and
attitude won me over immediately. I had
the unit to interact with Johnnie and
frame his unique abilities. I knew this
band would go where Johnnie would go,
feel, and accentuate Johnnie’s playing,
with musical sense.
We had one short rehearsal and went in
to record. I chose a place a distance
from town. It was a long ride out to the
studio. We walked in, Johnnie walked straight
to the piano, sat down, and hardly ever
left that spot the rest of the day. Happy
at his piano. Had his coffee and a burger
right off, at his piano. While everyone
was setting up, last minute stuff being
dealt with, and the general goofing around
and chaos ensued, Johnnie manned his station.
Happy at his piano. And that was pretty
much how it was the next six plus hours.
Sat up straight as an arrow all day. Hardly
ever left that piano. It did not matter
what was happening, Johnnie let us work
out our stuff, and when we were right,
he was ready. And played his eighty year
old ass off. Smiling when he was playing.
What you hear recorded is real music.
Like the old days. Everyone in one room.
Johnnie’s performance leading the
band, his unique and varied senses of
time and melody dictating where each song
would go. The musicians understanding.
The music was cut live. The vocals were
complete takes. The first time I heard
Larry Thurston sing he was performing
with Johnnie, indeed, they and Gus have
performed together going back over twenty
years. Larry quickly became one of my
all time favorite singers. Victor Johnson
is another of my favorite singers. Victor
was the perfect interpreter for the vocal
he contributes to this project. Johnnie’s
piano and these musicians and vocalists
belong together like a beautiful woman
and a sheer negligee. And yes, Johnnie’s
playing is otherworldly. That beauty you
hear in Johnnie’s playing comes
from inside Johnnie. It is, as he puts
it, “a gift from God,” the
beauty inherent in the man. The playfulness,
that is Johnnie. Trust me, he is a joker.
The deep blues, comes from spending a
good part of his growing up years in the
South. But there is something else that
you may not be able to hear, and that
is the decency in Johnnie Johnson. The
music will speak for itself, but I’m
gonna tell you a little something about
Johnnie Johnson the man.
Lord knows Johnnie never was a saint,
but if he is anything, he is decent and
regular to people. Always considerate
of everyone feeling at home and comfortable.
There is more to this record than just
music. This recording has also secretly
captured trust and friendship. You don’t
have to be a star or a celebrity for Johnnie
to be your friend. You just have to be
decent and honest. This recording has
captured the capacity of Johnnie to trust
and befriend everyday people; the trust
that Johnnie and Frances placed in me
and our friendship when they allowed me
the opportunity to complete these songs
and make this record with and for Johnnie.
And that is a shot that I don’t
know of another Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame Member giving to a sophomore record
maker without a label behind him. But
it tells you something about Johnnie Johnson.
He does not think he’s too good
for or better than the average Joe. Johnnie
is proud of his playing and his accomplishments,
but he knows his blood is red, and that
he breathes the same air as the rest of
us. And he lives that way. And listen
to that man play that piano!
Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad!
Liner Notes by: Jeff Alexander