© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Legendary Blues Pianist Johnnie Johnson Dies

Bluesman Johnnie Johnson (photo from johnnie.com)
Bluesman Johnnie Johnson (photo from johnnie.com)


St. Louis, MO –

Legendary blues pianist Johnnie Johnson died this morning (Wednesday) in St. Louis. "The Father of Rock and Roll," as he was called, was 80.

It was Johnson's band that Chuck Berry joined and became a star in. Johnson had moved to St. Louis in the early 1950s and formed the Sir John Trio. He later hired Berry as a fill-in and later as the band's front man.

Through such early rock anthems as "Maybelline" and "Johnnie B. Goode," Johnson produced an energetic, almost manic sound steeped in boogie-woogie and the blues. He earned the nickname "The Father of Rock and Roll."

Johnson often composed music on piano, then Chuck Berry converted it to guitar and wrote lyrics. Berry's song "Johnnie B. Goode" was a tribute to Johnson. The two parted ways in the early 70s.

"He shared superstar status with his fellow and partner, Chuck Berry," said Mark O'Shaughnessy, the President of BB's on Broadway. Johnson often performed at BB's and other clubs in St. Louis. The annual Johnnie Johnson birthday party also became a staple of the St. Louis music scene.

"When you think of Chuck Berry you must think of Johnnie Johnson," O'Shaughnessy said.

Johnson was born in West Virginia, but made his home in St. Louis. His last performance was April 3rd on Laclede's Landing as part of Final Four celebrations.

"We should be proud that he made his home in St. Louis," John May, chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society. "Because together with some of the other titans of rhythm and blues that came out of this town, they helped create the rhythm and blues sound that's known around the world as the St. Louis sound."

Johnson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. His entry on the Hall of Fame's website starts with the line: "Johnnie Johnson is one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll."

Johnson's star was added to the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop in 1998.

Johnson sued Berry in 2000, saying he was owed royalties and proper credit for more than 50 songs they composed together. A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2002.

In 1999, Kevin Lavery talked with Johnnie Johnson and his biographer, Travis Fitzpatrick, as St. Louis prepared to celebrate Johnson's 75th birthday. To hear that interview, click on the 'listen' icon above.

On Thursday, NPR's Fresh Air dedicated a portion of its show to Johnson. Here that segment by clicking here