July 8, 1924: Rock & Roll Pioneer Johnnie Johnson Born in Fairmont
Rock n’ roll pioneer Johnnie Johnson was born in Fairmont on July 8, 1924. The son of a coal miner, he started playing piano at age five and grew up listening to big band music and what was known then as hillbilly music. During World War II, he became one of the first 1,500 African-Americans admitted to the Marine Corps.
After the war, Johnson performed in Chicago for several years before moving to St. Louis, where on New Year’s Eve 1952, he hired 26-year-old guitarist Chuck Berry to play in his band. Soon, their roles switched. Johnson became Berry’s pianist and collaborated with the music legend on rock ’n’ roll standards including ‘‘Maybellene,’’ ‘‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’’ ‘‘School Days,’’ and ‘‘Roll Over, Beethoven.’’ Berry’s hit ‘‘Johnny B. Goode’’ was written as a tribute to Johnson. Nearly a half-century later, Johnson sued Berry for partial songwriting credits on several songs, but the case was dismissed because too much time had passed.
Johnnie Johnson played both of Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugurations and was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He died in 2005 at age 80.