Johnnie Johnson, a rock ’n’ roll pioneer who teamed with Chuck Berry for hits like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “No Particular Place to Go,” died Wednesday. He was 80.
Johnson died at his St. Louis home. The cause of death was not immediately known, said publicist Margo Lewis. He had been hospitalized a month ago with pneumonia and was on dialysis for a kidney ailment, said John May, a friend and fellow musician.
Though he was never a household name, Johnson and Berry’s long collaboration helped define early rock ’n’ roll. Johnson often composed the music on piano, then Berry converted it to guitar and wrote the lyrics. In fact, Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was a tribute to Johnson.
After he and Berry parted ways, Johnson performed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, among others. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 in the “sidemen” category.
“It was so much fun to play with Johnnie,” Diddley said. “The world has lost a great man and a great musician.”
Berry, 78, who returned from a European tour Wednesday, said he would perform a tribute concert to honor “the man with a dynamite right hand ... the greatest piano player I ever had” who gave the then-struggling Berry his first paid gig — a $4 job — half a century ago.
Johnson was born in Fairmont, W.Va., and began playing piano at
4. He moved to Chicago after World War II, where he played jazz and blues in clubs. He moved to St. Louis in the early 1950s, forming his own R&B band, the Johnnie Johnson Trio.
When a band member became ill on New Year’s Eve 1952, Johnson hired Berry to fill in.
“Midway through the show, Chuck did a hillbilly country number with a bluesy vein, and it knocked people out,” said Joe Edwards, owner of the Blueberry Hill nightclub just outside of St. Louis where both men often played.
Johnson and Berry parted ways in the early 1970s, and in 2000, Johnson sued Berry, seeking a share of royalties and proper credit for what Johnson said were more than 50 songs the men composed together. A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2002, ruling that too many years had passed since the disputed songs were written.
The lawsuit contended that Berry took advantage of Johnson’s alcoholism, misleading him into believing that only Berry was entitled to own the copyrights “and reap the monetary benefits.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, 10 children and several grandchildren.