A Graffiti Thank You to the REAL Johnny B. Goode
When the bridal party barreled into the after-hours blues jam, I settled in to see what might happen next.
It was a couple of Saturdays ago at the 110 Club in Fairmont. The occasion was the Johnnie Johnson Blues and Jazz Festival, an annual outdoor concert that honors the hometown legacy of Johnson, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and longtime Chuck Berry collaborator who was the inspiration of “Johnny B. Goode.”
Johnson, who died two years ago at the age of 80, was a Fairmont native who left home at 17 to work in a factory in Detroit at the height of World War II. He ended up serving himself, as one of the first 1,500 blacks to integrate the Marines.
After the war, he stayed in the Midwest because factory jobs were plentiful. The bandstand kept calling his name, though. Johnson could pound out a boogie-woogie piano like ringing a bell, and while he couldn’t quit his day job, he loved seeing those ladies in tight dresses parking it on the dance floor when he punched out his time card so he could do what he really wanted to do.
He had booked his Sir John Trio into the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis for a plumb gig on New Year’s Eve, 1952. The sax player got sick and Johnson had to call another local player he casually knew: Berry.
You know the rest.
Anyway, back to the 110 Club. Those late-night sessions are a highlight of the festival that’s hosted blues luminaries like Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Bob Margolin over the years.
Daryl Davis, a musician, writer and actor from Washington, D.C., who can also make 88 keys beg for mercy, was having some fun after his set. Davis is a human jukebox of American roots music, and his earlier performance included tunes by everyone from Muddy Waters to Asleep at the Wheel.
He was doing more of the same, when said bridal party burst in. They were drunk and happy, and they took over the dance floor. There was a little bit of a smirking vibe to their appearance, though, and a couple of curvy bridesmaids kept calling for songs by Warrant and Poison, which Davis preferred not to oblige.
Instead, he counted off Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” that little slice-of-life that Johnson played on about the teen-age wedding and the old folks wishing the couple well. A segue from that into a glorious, eight-beats-to-the-bar instrumental and those bridesmaids were converted.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at with all of this: the lasting impact of Chuck and Johnnie’s musical endeavors. I mean, those bridesmaids were cute and all, but I’ll take “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” and “Maybelline” over “Unskinny Bop” and “Cherry Pie” any day.
In 2002, when I was still a newspaper reporter, I sat down with Johnson to talk about the blues, boogie-woogie and his big-screen TV (he liked scary movies and “The Young and Restless”).
I saved Chuck Berry for last. He remembered how Berry would come to him with lyrics and how he would translate it to piano — “It seemed to work out OK,” he told me with one of his characteristic understatements.
But what about all those years when Berry didn’t acknowledge the immense contributions of the humble piano player from Fairmont? What about those royalty checks that didn’t land in his mailbox?
“I’m not bitter and I’m not mad,” he said. “I’m just happy I’m still here, making music.”
We were too, Johnnie, believe me. And thanks for those tunes. We know what you did.
Contact Jim at email@example.com