On July 5th, 1987 Chuck Berry performed in BĂ„stad, Sweden.
This site's contributor Morten Reff and the Berry fans Johan Hasselberg and Thomas Einarsson had the opportunity to talk to Johnnie Johnson, long-time partner and pianist for Chuck Berry. Thanks to Morten and Johan we can reprint the questions and answers.
Left to right: Morten Reff, Johnnie Johnson, Thomas Einarsson, Johan Hasselberg, and Herman Jackson at the Park Hotel in BĂ„stad, Sweden, July 5, 1987. Herman was Chuck Berry's drummer during the summer 1987 tour. Thomas had done a painting by Chuck Berry that he handed over to Johnnie Johnson.
Photo: Carl Hasselberg
The interview is made over a cup of coffee at the hotel's outdoor seating. Johnnie takes a big chunk of coffee and starts telling about himself:
I was born in West Virginia on July 8, 1924. When I went to school I played piano, drums, and bass. But piano was my main instrument. I was in a High School band until 1943, when I started my military service at the navy. When I pulled out in 1946, I started my first own band. In 1949 I moved to Chicago, and then on to St. Louis.
DID YOU PLAY MOSTLY RHYTHM & BLUES?
Well, most of the time there were nothing but standard songs, such as "Stardust", "Body and Soul", Sunny Side of the Street", or whatever. It was before this rhythm & blues breakthrough.
WHAT PIANISTS DID YOU LISTEN TO AT THIS TIME?
I'm a Oscar Peterson-fantast. Yeah! Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, and Pete Johnson. Pete Johnson was my first favorite. It was late 1930's and 1940's. I used to play a Pete Johnson song, called "627 Stomp". That was my signature then.
HOW DID YOU TO GET IN CONTACT WITH CHUCK BERRY?
I heard him at a club in East St. Louis called Hoff's Garden. I liked the way he played the guitar. One evening when I was playing, my saxophonist became ill. I called Chuck and asked if he could have the possibility to play the guitar. And he said, "sure, I can play". He came home to me and we played through the songs and then we drove to the show.
Chuck Berry in concert, Norrvikens TrĂ€dgĂ„rdar, BĂ„stad, Sweden, July 5, 1987
Photo: Johan Hasselberg
WHO PLAYED THE SAXOPHONE IN THE JOHNNIE JOHNSON TRIO?
His name was Alvin Bennett. But it was only until 1954. Now he is paralyzed. He can't even... yes, you know.
WAS IT A BASS PLAYER IN THE BAND?
No, it was drums, piano, and saxophone, and then guitar when Chuck came along. We played most at Club Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis. Ebbie Hardy, who played drums, suffered a heart attack and died a few years ago (1983).
CHANGED THE BAND NAME WHEN CHUCK CAME?
No, it was still called The Johnnie Johnson Trio. It was only when Chuck went to Chicago and met Leonard Chess we renamed the band. We recorded the single "Maybellene" and Chuck said, "Johnnie, is it okay that I call it The Chuck Berry Combo?". I said, "Of course, you paid the gas to Chicago", and then it became The Chuck Berry Combo.
Left to right: Chuck Berry, George French, Johnnie Johnson in concert, Norrvikens TrĂ€dgĂ„rdar, BĂ„stad, Sweden, July 5, 1987
Photo: Bo Berglind
YOU PLAY A MELODY ON THE PIANO ON MANY OF CHUCK BERRY'S SONGS.
That's what Chuck Berry wanted me to play. I play as I feel so everything rolls smoothly, just like ice cream on a cream cake!
IT WORKS AS A SOLO INSTRUMENT.
That's right and that's what Chuck Berry likes with my pianoplaying. That's why he doesn't like someone else's pianoplaying than mine! Let me give a good example. Chuck and I have recorded some songs that have not been released. For example, Frog's "Good Times Boogie" and "Honky Tonk Train". It was in the 1950's. It was my music style, but Chuck and I could play together and it sounded like Chuck Berry's music. Chuck is still playing some jazz, as for example, "Jazz at the Philharmonic". He plays all kinds of music!
DO YOU STILL PLAY IN THE CLUBS IN ST. LOUIS?
Yes, three nights a week.
DO YOU PLAY ALONE OR DO YOU HAVE A BAND?
I have a band called Johnnie Johnson & The Magnificent Four, and when Chuck comes to town he plays with us.
WHAT REPERTOIRE DO YOU HAVE?
There are blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, and usually rock when Chuck visit us.
DO YOU EVEN SING?
No, no, I can always talk, but do not sing!
YOU HAVE BEEN AWARDED A DISTINCTION AT ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME.
Yes, I was chosen as the fourth biggest rock'n'roll pianist throughout the ages. It was Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and myself. I didn't know about it, but they sent me a magazine afterwards.
THANK YOU, JOHNNIE !!
Thank you, I hope to see you again!
And, Johan tells, they met again: "Johnnie gave me his address and two years later I greeted him in St. Louis, and listened to Johnnie Johnson & The Magnificent Four."
Many thanks to Morten and Johan for sharing these memories with us!