A Million Stories

Blues, rock, and a magical ride—Kentucky Headhunter’s Richard Young remembers the late Johnnie Johnson.


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Photo Courtesy of Webster Public Relations

Ask Richard Young of the Grammy-winning southern rock band The Kentucky Headhunters about his memories of Johnnie Johnson, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and West Virginia native, and you’ll get a cocktail of emotions. Oscillating between belly laughter and tears—Richard doesn’t hesitate to pull back the curtains and talk about Johnnie’s gift as a pianist, his humor in the face of both fame and misfortune, and his mysterious way of coaxing the best out of people and pianos in equal measure. “I have a million stories to tell you about him,” Richard says. He sighs, like he knows there’ll never be enough time to tell them all in just the right way—the way Johnnie deserves—full of nuance and magic.

Many of these stories already feel like legend. They say Johnnie’s hands were the size of baseball gloves, but his fingers were as nimble as cat tails. Richard says, even at 78, Johnnie could still play with all the energy of a 25-year-old. When recording with the Headhunters, the pianist was known for leaving the studio promptly at 6 p.m., regardless of the recording schedule, just so he wouldn’t miss his favorite TV show. While riding in the back of the Headhunters’ tour bus, Johnnie fell asleep on the couch with the air conditioning cranked up too high. When the band found him in the morning, he was white as frost. But he never complained. Richard’s memories of Johnnie often end with a “You had to be there,” but that’s the sort of life Johnnie lived.

Once, well into their friendship, Johnnie ran into Richard backstage after a Headhunters’ performance and handed him a little pink piece of paper with something scribbled on it. When Richard questioned him, Johnnie just shrugged. “It’s from that guy, that Mick Jagger who plays with Keith,” he’d said. Richard’s jaw dropped. Johnnie didn’t even bat an eyelash. To him, it was nothing big. As a pianist he’d played with greats—Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Albert King. Even after his death in 2005, Johnnie’s ghostly fingerprints can be found everywhere. He’s been called the founding father of rock and roll and the greatest sideman in rock and roll. But “all Johnnie wanted to do was eat fried chicken and play piano. That’s how Johnnie was. He didn’t really care about that stuff.”

What Johnnie did care about was music, Richard says. He loved it so much it came off him in waves and everyone around him could hop a ride on the feeling. “He made us different. I don’t care if you’re the Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry. Whoever Johnnie played with, he became the band leader,” Richard says. “He would pull you back into this little funky groove and make you play like a real man. Every time we played with him, we became better as musicians.”

Born in Fairmont in 1924, Johnnie was rattling the piano keys as a toddler. “The way Johnnie was born and raised, his mother always had a radio on. She got him a piano when he was 4,” Richard says. “She would always listen to the Grand Ole Opry. She would tell him, if he kept practicing, he could play on that stage one day.” Johnnie took her words to heart and by age 9 he was playing jazz tunes on a local radio station.

From there Johnnie joined the marines during World War II and found his calling with Bobby Troup’s servicemen jazz orchestra, The Barracudas. After the war he moved around— from Detroit, Illinois, to Chicago, to St. Louis—he started work in a factory and by night played in the R&B group the Johnnie Johnson Trio (also known as the Sir John Trio) in the early 1950s. That’s when the stars aligned. “Johnnie’s sax player got sick on New Year’s. Chuck Berry was just this kid running around town, trying to sit in with bands. Johnnie took a chance on him,” Richard says. Combining Chuck’s electric charisma on vocals and guitar and Johnnie’s cool energy on the piano was like throwing gasoline on a fire. “It was a magic combination. What people don’t realize is there were a lot of greats coming out at that time—Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard—all these great acts. They were helping fashion rock and roll. But Johnnie and Chuck were a team. They were a first.” 

Chuck and Johnnie cranked out some of the most iconic early rock songs of their age—from “Johnny B. Goode,” to “Maybellene,” to “School Days.” But the duo parted ways in 1973. Johnnie went back to blue collar work, driving a bus in St. Louis to make ends meet. His luck didn’t change again until the 1980s, when director Taylor Hackford brought Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards in on a documentary project called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, chronicling Chuck Berry’s career. Richard says it was Keith’s influence that brought Johnnie back from obscurity. “Thank God for Keith,” Richard says. “He said, ‘I’ll only do it if we bring Chuck and Johnnie back together.’ And they did.” Johnnie, Keith, Chuck, Eric Clapton, Chuck Leavell, Steve Jordan, Joey Spampinato—an all-star group came together and effectively reintroduced Johnnie to the world.

The humble pianist went on to record a solo project and it was that album that sparked something big in the Headhunters. “We listened to it all the way to the Grammys and were just bouncing off the walls.” After the awards, the band ran into the legend himself sitting alone at a table. “We ran straight over and started talking to him like we’d known him forever,” Richard says. “I think we startled him. But it was the start of a great relationship that lasted until he passed. He and his wife became like an uncle and aunt to us.”

The Headhunters’ southern soul meshed beautifully with Johnnie’s boogie. The group traveled to shows with Johnnie, played some of their best work with him, and absorbed all they could from a man who lived and breathed the essence of rock and roll. Together they put out the critically acclaimed 1993 album That’ll Work, a tour de force of 12 songs written in 12 days, and in 2003 the Headhunters were recording their album Soul when they got the idea to bring Johnnie in again. “Frances, Johnnie’s wife, called and said, ‘You know Johnnie is getting old. Why don’t you stay out there and record some things? Because you never know.’” Although they’d only intended to record one song, the vibe was just too strong. “We looked at each other, and we knew we were there to do the Soul record. But we said, ‘We have to stop. We’ll just keep him here three days and record it all.’”

Those three days became Meet Me in Bluesland, a sweet and sultry mix of The Headhunters’ iconic southern soul and Johnnie’s blues vibes. It would turn out to be the last recorded performances of Johnnie’s career. Less than two years later, this founding father of rock and roll passed away and the album remained buried. “I packed the tapes up and took them to my house and that was it,” Richard says. “They just stayed there. It just never felt right. After Johnnie passed we just hunkered down and didn’t say anything. We didn’t want ride that train. We didn’t want to ride on his coattails.”

Nearly a decade after Johnnie passed on, the Headhunters got another call from Frances. “She said, ‘Richard, I’m getting old. When are you going to get that album out?’” Once again the band was in the thick of a project, but the members put the brakes on without a thought. “We will always put our lives on hold for Johnnie,” Richard says. Luckily Meet Me in Bluesland didn’t require much in the way of cleaning up. It was as if Johnnie himself had taken the liberty of fixing it up from the blues land beyond. “It was like the hand of God was in it. We listened and there was nothing wrong with it. We just mixed it.”

Richard still gets choked up when you ask him about Johnnie, but mostly he’s just grateful. How many people get to say they’ve traded riffs and uncorked brand new sounds with one of the greatest and most influential rock and roll artists of all time? Even a band like the Headhunters, what Billboard magazine calls “the great American rock and roll band,” feel humbled. “As you get older you start listening more and you learn to shut up. You learn more as a musician that way.” Johnnie had that effect on everyone, Richard says. Young and old, when Johnnie’s fingers hit the keys, you just had to listen. “He had that gift. He’s taught so many people how to rock.”

Meet Me in Bluesland will be released on Alligator Records June 2, 2015.

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