Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Johnnie Johnson (July 8, 1924-April 13, 2005) was born in Fairmont. He began playing the piano at the age of five. The son of a coal miner, Johnson grew up listening to ‘‘hillbilly’’ and big band music. He left West Virginia in 1941, during World War II, to work in a Detroit defense plant. He entered the Marines in 1943 as one of the first 1,500 African-Americans admitted to the Corps, and became a member of the Special Service Band.
Johnson performed in Chicago from 1946 to 1952, before moving to St. Louis. It was there that he formed his own band—the Johnnie Johnson Trio—and on New Year’s Eve 1952 he hired rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry. Johnson soon became Berry’s piano player and collaborated with Berry on songs that form the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, including ‘‘Maybellene,’’ ‘‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’’ ‘‘School Days,’’ and ‘‘Roll Over, Beethoven.’’ Berry’s hit ‘‘Johnny B. Goode’’ was written as a tribute to Johnson.
Johnson played at both of Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugurations and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. In September 1999, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus awarded him a congressional citation. In 2000, Johnson was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the sidemen category. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
This Article was written by Shirley L. Stewart
Fitzpatrick, Travis. Father of Rock & Roll: The Story of Johnnie "B. Goode" Johnson. Houston: Thomas, Cooke & Co., 1999.