Turned down by a legend
I now have a new definition of a bad day: when a Beatle says no to my film. People always ask how I get in touch with the music stars, actors, and director who are in JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Every celebrity interview has a unique backstory.
Interviewing famous people requires patience, creativity, humility, salesmanship, and luck. Sometimes a big one gets away. Here’s how I found out Paul McCartney turned down a request for a JOHNNIE BE GOOD interview. For years I had been trying to figure out how to get in touch with Sir Paul McCartney to ask him why the early Beatles and early Rolling Stones were so turned on by Chuck Berry’s music on which Johnnie performed. Combined, the two greatest bands covered at least eighteen Berry songs. But I got nowhere for years. It was because of the death last year of JOHNNIE BE GOOD executive producer George Hickenlooper, that I met LA composer and producer Thomas Morse. He was a friend of George’s, and scored one of Hickenlooper’s films THE BIG BRASS RING. Thomas took an interest in my film and has been generous with sharing his contacts and put me in touch with Jason Kramer, a radio show host and music licensing expert.While telling Jason about the project, he mentioned that he knew someone who had contact information for Paul McCartney. Ten minutes later he shot me an email with contact for McCartney. I don’t get too excited about developments like this, because much of the time they lead nowhere. But not always. After spending about ninety minutes crafting the perfect email to a Beatle, I hit the *send* button. The next day I got an email from McCartney’s representative. He asked if I was on deadline and would I be willing to travel to the UK. He later indicated he would get my request to McCartney.It took several weeks until I received my ‘Dear Art’ rejection email. I was told Paul didn’t know Johnnie Johnson and didn’t feel qualified to appear in his film. I knew I was dead in the water, but I wrote back explaining that I mainly wanted Paul to talk about Chuck Berry’s influence on the Beatles. I knew it was over and I wasn’t going to get the interview, but I nevertheless pleaded my case to no avail. McCartney would have been the thirteenth member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to appear in JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Much more importantly, he could have explained why the early Beatles were drawn to music featuring Berry and Johnson. That was a bad day. Not so much because it was a crucial interview, but it was an ultra-cool interview. Paul McCartney is music history. His perspective on early influences would have been illuminating.
JJ Entered the Hall of Fame Ten Years Ago
On March 19, 2001, Keith Richards introduced Johnnie Johnson and Elvis’ guitarist James Burton as the latest sidemen to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The effort by businessman George Turek and Turek’s stepson Travis Fitzpatrick to get Johnnie into the hall is a major story line of JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Turek’s petition, featuring the signatures of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bob Weir, Little Richard, and many other rock luminaries made a huge impression on the hall of fame. If you go to the Hall of Fame website, this is the official bio of Johnnie Johnson:Inductee: Johnnie Johnson (piano; born July 8, 1924)Johnnie Johnson is one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll. He has been called “the world’s greatest living blues pianist” and “the founding father of rock and roll,” but relatively few knew his name because he played piano in Chuck Berry’s band and did relatively little recording on his own. That, however, is changing, as Johnson’s unsung role as a key player in some of rock and roll’s most classic songs has been brought to light through the efforts of music journalists and boosters like Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones), Eric Clapton John Sebastian (of the Lovin Spoonful) and Terry Adams (of NRBQ).Johnson began playing at age four when his parents brought a new piano into their Fairmont, West Virginia, home. The youngster seemed to possess an innate mastery of the instrument. By nine he was playing jazz tunes by Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Earl “Fatha” Hines on a local radio station. While serving in the Marines, Johnson performed alongside seasoned jazz professionals in the Special Service Band, and it was here he decided to make music his life’s work. Moving to Chicago after the war, Johnson apprenticed with such blues masters as Muddy Waters and Albert King on the club scene. By the early Fifties, he was living in St. Louis, where he worked in a factory by day and fronted the Johnnie Johnson Trio, an R&B band, as time allowed. When he had to replace an ailing saxophonist for a club date on New Year’s Eve 1952, he called a guitar-playing friend on short notice to sit in. His name was Chuck Berry.Berry’s rocking hillbilly style melded with Johnson’s jazz-tinged blues and boogie. Many of Chuck Berry’s rock and roll classics – including “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Days” and “Roll Over Beethoven” – came about during impromptu rehearsals when Berry would show up with lyrics and ask Johnson to play some music behind it. “Just me, Chuck and the piano” is how Johnson put it. Johnson and Berry traveled to Chicago in 1957, where they recorded “Maybellene,” the first of many Chuck Berry hits that featured Johnson on piano. In fact, Berry wrote “Johnny B. Goode” as a tribute to Johnson, who often kept playing piano long after a show ended, sitting in with jazz bands and anyone who would have him. “I would play anytime, anywhere, with anybody,” he has said. Referring to his disappearing acts, Berry would look at him and say, ‘Why can’t you just be good, Johnny?”Johnson remained with Berry until 1973. It was nothing personal, he said of his departure. I was just tired and, plus, I was scared to fly. Over time, there was a growing recognition that Johnson’s musical contributions to Berry’s songs were essential to their success. The humble, overlooked pianist finally received some long-overdue attention in the Chuck Berry film documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, wherein Keith Richards and others testified to the importance of Johnson’s piano stylings. Ironically, Johnson at the time was working as a bus driver in St. Louis. The intervention of Richards and others and the attention brought to him by the film returned Johnson to the world of music.Johnson began recording on his own in the late Eighties, debuting with Blue Hand Johnnie and receiving a lot of help from famous friends on such subsequent releases as Johnnie B. Bad. In the words of biographer Travis Fitzpatrick, “Without Johnnie Johnson, that perfect mixture of blues, country and jazz flowing together into joyful cohesion – that sound we call rock and roll – may never have been.”
JBG Editing Update
Edit number three is underway on JOHNNIE BE GOOD. The first edit, sometimes called an assembly cut, was a shade over three hours. I got to work on refining the script and chopped thirty pages from the original script. Then I gave editor Jon King the new script. Jon and I will finish the film in 2011. Our goal is to make JOHNNIE BE GOOD great. Next up, a famous actor has agreed to watch the film before deciding whether to narrate. So the quality of the next round of editing takes on even more importance….the journey be good.