Johnnie Johnson

Johnnie Johnson
Johnnie Be Good - and Remembered!

By Art Holliday
March 2008

EDITORíS NOTE: Art Holliday, a St. Louis television newscaster and filmmaker is working on a documentary about pianist Johnnie Johnson, who was the original inspiration behind the mythical Johnny Be Good in the now famous Chuck Berry song.

Many feel Johnson never got the credit he deserved for his many contributions to Berryís music. Not to mention his own songs, including two of my favorites, “Tangueray” and “Thatíll Work.” Holliday is hoping the film will change that.

Filmmaker Art Holliday spent several years crisscrossing the country to interview the long list of entertainment superstars who thought enough of Johnnie Johnson to lend their names to this project.

The interview list includes these members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, and John Sebastian, who provided the single best story of the documentary.

In 2000, when Sebastian was inducted into the Hall of Fame with other members of the Lovin' Spoonful, he shipped his trophy to Johnnie's St. Louis home, with a note saying, “all of the Hall of Fame inductees remember what you did and we'll never forget.”

When I asked Sebastian why - during his moment in the international spotlight, he was thinking of Johnnie Johnson - he replied: “Because he was our architect.”

This project has taken me to Toronto, Hollywood, Macon, Syracuse, Philadelphia, New York, Woodstock, Houston, Chicago, and Fairmont, West Virginia - Johnnie's hometown.

On New Yearís Eve 1952, bandleader Johnnie Johnson hired a little-known guitar player named Chuck Berry, and the two men eventually became the first great song-writing team in rock-and-roll.

Johnnie Be Good is the story of the complicated relationship between two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers: Berry, the brilliant lyricist, and Johnson, a master keyboardist, complimented each other perfectly, and collaborated on hits such as “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”

But only Berry's name appeared on the writing credits, and just how many of Berry's songs should have been co-credited to Johnson will always be contested.

Not even a lawsuit settled the debate.

Johnnie Be Good tells the improbable story of a coal miner's son who wound up in the Hall of Fame and shared concert stages with Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley, Bob Weir, and John Lee Hooker.

Johnnie began playing piano in 1928 when he was four years old, after his mother bought a secondhand upright piano as a decoration. A self-taught prodigy, Johnnie even made his radio debut on local radio station, WMMN, at the age of eight.

Johnnie was a Montford Point Marine, one of the first 1,500 black Marines to integrate the Marine Corps during World War II. While a Marine, Johnnie played in a military orchestra called The Baracudas, which included world-class musicians from the Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Glen Miller orchestras.

The framework for Johnnie's story is 2004, when I followed Johnnie to Fairmont, West Virginia, his hometown, for the Johnnie Johnson Jazz and Blues Festival.

Johnnie returned home as a conquering hero: to billboards, radio spots, front page newspaper headlines, and a huge painted mural wishing Johnnie a happy 80th birthday.

There was no way to know that less than a year later, Johnnie would be gone. Johnnie was in his 70ís before his hometown even realized he grew up there. Musician Bill Stalnaker mortgaged his house to keep the jazz and blues festival

alive, and literally went to the Fairmont City Council with proof that the father of rock and roll piano should be recognized as a favorite son. A bridge in Fairmont now bears Johnnie's name.

Johnnie's biggest fan, Pam Rudolph from Belleville, drove to West Virginia to see him perform and reminisced in front of my camera. Fast forward to four days before Johnnie's death: His final performance was at the wedding reception of Rudolph's daughter. It was fitting that Johnnieís last performance was a favor for a friend and fan.

Others interviewed include movie director Taylor Hackford, Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, Bruce Hornsby, Michael McDonald, Jimmy Vivino from the Conan O'Brien band, drumming superstar Steve Jordan, James Young of Styx, Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters, Bill Morganfield (Muddy Waters' son), Johnny Rivers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame president Terry Stewart.

I also interviewed two respected music historians.

Bruce Pegg wrote the Chuck Berry biography “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Rob Bowman wrote a critically acclaimed book about Stax Records, as well as the official bio when Johnnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

The executive producer of Johnnie Be Good is filmmaker George Hickenlooper, a respected director of both feature films and documentaries. He has directed Anjelica Huston, Mick Jagger, Andy Garcia, and William Hurt. His most recent film was 2006's Factory Girl, starring Hayden Christensen, Sienna Miller, and Guy Pearce. His documentaries include Hearts of Darkness, the story behind Francis Ford Copula's Apocalypse Now, and Mayor of Sunset Strip, about legendary LA deejay Rodney Bingenheimer.

Johnnie Be Good is the second feature length documentary from Art Holliday. His first, Before They Fall Off The Cliff: The Ripple Effect Of Schizophrenia (www.beforetheyfall.com) was screened at the national conference of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI,) and the national conference for the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) a program that trains police officers about mental illness.

“People always ask me why I decided to make films,” says Holliday. “There are so many fascinating stories to tell, whether itís someone who helped create rock and roll or a young man struggling to regain his sanity after committing a horrible crime. Each documentary project is a fantastic journey and learning experience.”

To learn more about the project, buy merchandise, or contribute, visit www.johnniebegood.net

To learn about the man himself, visit his official site at: www.johnnie.com

www.johnniebegood.net

www.johnnie.com

<- back to Features