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Johnnie Johnson

Considered by Rolling Stone to be "the greatest sideman in rock & roll," pianist Johnnie Johnson spent most of his career in the shadow of his musical partner, Chuck Berry. Johnson played on most of Berry's hit records and co-wrote the music for several of Berry's songs, but did not begin to achieve particular recognition until he pursued a solo career in his seventies. After Johnson came out of retirement to appear in the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll in 1986, interest in his music grew. The following year, he put out his first solo album, “Blue Hand Johnnie,” the first of several well-received recordings including “Johnnie B. Bad.” He also toured extensively, playing with such superstars as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. When Johnson died in 2005 at age 80, he was at the height of his musical fame. Born in Fairmont, Virginia, in 1924, Johnson taught himself to play piano by ear and played his first radio gig at age eight. By the time he was 13, he had joined his first band, the Blue Rhythm Swingsters. Johnson moved to Detroit in 1941 to work at one of the Ford defense plants in nearby Dearborn, Michigan. At the same time, he found gigs in local clubs and at private parties, and competed for jobs with various bands. In 1943 he joined the Marines, serving in the South Pacific, where he played in a 23-piece band called The Barracudas. After leaving the service Johnson returned to Detroit, where he discovered the blues music of T-Bone Walker. "Finally I ended up in St. Louis, met Chuck Berry, and I hired him one night because I was short a musician," he said. "And that's when history actually started." Johnson's band, Sir John's Trio, had been hired to play a New Year's Eve show at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis in 1953. But when a regular band member suddenly became ill, Johnson hired Berry, a guitarist, as a one-night replacement. "And that one night," he explained in material quoted in Blues Music Now!, "lasted pretty close to 30 years." Although lacking in professional experience compared to Johnson, Berry had a strong personality and natural leadership skills, and soon he had taken charge of the band, with Johnson's tacit approval. "He did so many things for the band," Johnson explained. "We didn't have a booking agency or nothing, so he got out and hustled up the jobs." Berry also took a demo tape of the trio's music to Chicago, where Leonard Chess, head of Chess Records, was so impressed that he requested that the band come to his studio and perform the numbers for him live.

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