Johnnie Johnson – Johnnie B Bad Audio Cassette (1991)

It’s feasible that you won’t have heard the name Johnnie Johnson, but if you’ve ever heard one of Chuck Berry’s best known hits, you’ll have heard him play the piano. Johnnie Johnson, however, was far more than just Chuck Berry’s pianist. Johnson actually formed the band, and ran it as a trio before involving Berry as an extrovert frontman. Much of Chuck Berry’s guitar playing (and certainly the bits most people now associate with him having brought to the world) was highly reminiscent of Johnnie Johnson’s piano work. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was of the view that Chuck had essentially adapted Johnnie’s piano playing for the guitar, thus hitting upon a novel and exciting style, which came to define rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar. That, I feel, is a pretty fair synopsis.

Johnnie Johnson - Johnnie B Bad Audio Cassette (1991)

So Chuck Berry was heavily influenced by Johnnie Johnson, and initially a mere component in Johnson’s band. But as the go-getter, talking point and visionary in the group, it was Berry who won record company interest. At that point, leadership of the band changed hands. Chuck Berry officially became the star, and Johnnie Johnson became a supporting musician. All accounts state, however, that easy-going Johnnie was quite happy to concede band leadership to Chuck. The rest, of course, is well-documented history.

In more modern times, Johnnie Johnson began to get fuller and more just recognition after appearing in the documentary movie Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll, as a member of a R&R/blues supergroup, assembled by Keith Richards, to back Chuck Berry at his 60th Birthday concerts in October 1986. Other performers in the band included blues guitar giant Robert Cray, bassist Joey Spampinato, drummer Steve Jordan, sax player Bobby Keys, Chuck’s daughter Ingrid Berry on backing vocals, and of course Richards himself. There were also guest appearances from stars such as Etta James, Eric Clapton and Linda Ronstadt. Prior to the making of the movie, the association between Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson had lapsed, so there was also an element of reunion.

Johnson’s rising profile through the late 1980s led neatly into the blues revival of the early 1990s, and in November ’90, recording for this solo album – Johnnie B Bad – began. The personalities featured include numerous names from the Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll performances. Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Joey Spampinato and Steve Jordan all appear, although Clapton is present purely as a guitarist, and unfortunately doesn’t perform any lead vocals.

As you might expect, what with Johnson being renowned as a pianist rather than a songwriter, there isn’t the kind of vocal drive/engagement or lyrical impact you’d get with an album full of Chuck Berry tracks. In fact it does feel a bit like some of the tracks were created because someone wanted an album’s worth of material, rather than the album being created because someone wanted to showcase some tracks. Stepped in What!? for example, is basically a song about dog poo. It’s a sort of facepalm moment at the end of Side 1, but there are some good numbers. The opener Tanqueray, produced by Keith Richards (and a Johnson/Richards co-write), has a great groove, and is the perfect vehicle for Johnson’s undeniably wicked piano playing.

There is a lot of instrumental material on the Johnnie B Bad album, and that might not please everyone. But the musicianship is always excellent, and if, like me, you’re one of those people who’s more impressed by the (often technically demanding) piano lines on old rock ‘n’ roll records than the songs themselves, this album takes those piano lines and makes them the centre of attention. Johnnie Johnson, now sadly deceased, was one of the key, yet unsung figures in the birth and heyday of rock ‘n’ roll. This album showcases him, and his exceptional, highly influential ability as a pianist.

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