I just lost a friend. Was so sorry to hear that Frances Johnson, Johnnie Johnson’s wife passed away February 16. One of the joys of the JOHNNIE BE GOOD documentary project is I’ve made some great new friends, including Frances. She had a distinctive voice, a wonderful laugh, and a bullshit meter that was finely tuned. I remember going to meet Johnnie and Frances for the first time in 2004 to find out if they were interested in a film about Johnnie’s life. It quickly became apparent to me that Frances was the gatekeeper. I guess I passed the test. The last time I saw her was last year when Johnnie posthumously received his Congressional Gold Medal as one of the Montfort Point Marines, the black marines who endured racism while integrating the U.S. Marines during WWII. A great lady who’ll be missed. I’ve been at this project so long that some great people who appear in JOHNNIE BE GOOD have passed away: Johnnie, Frances, Bo Diddley, Hubert Sumlin (Muddy Waters’ guitarist), Ian McLagan.
Hours before his March 6 St. Louis performance at The Pageant,” rocker George Thorogood sat down to talk about Johnnie Johnson for the music documentary “Johnnie Be Good.”
“If there’s one key piano player in all of rock and roll, the creation of rock and roll, it’s Johnnie Johnson,” said Thorogood, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses.
Thorogood recalled a 1995 performance at St. Louis concert venue Mississippi Nights when he shared the stage with Johnson while recording a live album.
“I was a little afraid to approach him because he’s such a legend.”
Whatever apprehension Thorogood felt didn’t last long. Johnnie and his wife Frances took Thorogood to dinner before the concert.
“He and his wife were more than accommodating. They almost adopted me for a night.”
Thorogood said his concert highlight was performing “Johnny B. Goode” with Johnnie Johnson at the keyboard.
“I remember saying ‘I know Johnny B. Goode has been done a hundred times but I got Johnnie Johnson on-stage.'”
Most conversations about Johnnie Johnson inevitably lead to Chuck Berry, who Johnson hired for his band in the early 1950’s.
“Chuck Berry basically invented rock and roll and I’ll tell you how that happened,” said Thorogood. “He took the blues, revved it up, played it faster, played it tighter, wrote some very clever lyrics and he made them to appeal to the buying public, teenagers. “There’s nobody that can be more important or influential in creating rock and roll than Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson was right there with him.”
The late Johnnie Johnson, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is about to receive another prestigious award, the Congressional Gold Medal. The Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest civilian honors in the United States, going to people whose achievements had an impact on American history and culture.
“It’s beyond happy, ecstatic,” said Frances Johnson, Johnnie Johnson’s widow. “Eleven years he’s been gone and I’m still extremely proud of him.”
Frances Johnson said details about the medal ceremony for her late husband are still being worked out.
Johnson’s recognition by Congress is not because of the world class piano playing that landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Instead, it’s Johnson’s military history that’s being recognized. Johnson was a Montford Point Marine, the African-American Marines who endured racism and inspired social change while integrating the previously all-white Marine Corps during World War II.
”Those first blacks trained at a place called Camp Montford Point near Jacksonville, North Carolina,” said Joe Geeter, national president of the Montford Point Marine Association. “From 1942 to 1949, nearly 24,000 African-American men received their Marine Corp recruit training at Camp Montford Point.”
Geeter said beginning in 2012, more than 700 Montford Point Marines have received the Congressional Gold Medal as the organization spreads word about the award.
“A lot of folks are just now getting the word. Even though we advertised in over 400 newspapers prior to the gold medal ceremony in 2012, we’re receiving calls almost daily from family members who say my dad or granddad was one of those Marines,” said Geeter.
For more information about the Montford Point Marines, http://www.montfordpointmarines.com.
How’s this for a happy accident? Recently KMOX Radio aired an interview I did with Mike Claiborne about the progress of JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Professional photographer Brian Baybo heard the interview and contacted me on Facebook. He said in the 1990’s George Thorogood hired him to shoot photos for the album cover of “Let’s Work Together”, a live album featuring Johnnie Johnson. He volunteered his photos of Johnnie and suggested I reach out to Thorogood about doing an interview for JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Two days after sending my email, Thorogood’s manager contacted me and said George would be happy to talk about Johnnie Johnson for the film. The interview takes place in March when Thorogood performs at The Pageant in St. Louis.
Several musicians who appear in JOHNNIE BE GOOD have viewed a recent edit and provided some valuable feedback. That includes longtime Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. Leavell performed with Johnnie in the Taylor Hackford film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll” and this is what he had to say about JOHNNIE BE GOOD:
“…congrats on the piece…just awesome and a fab job. I think you have been very fair in the ‘controversy’ of Johnnie/Chuck Berry…and I think that is really important. While there is obviously some thought that Johnnie should have received some royalties for his contributions, it is important to have that balance of pointing out the incredible influence and genius of Chuck. I just wanted to give you my initial thoughts and accolades for doing such a fantastic job.”
Thanks for your support of the film, Chuck!
If you’d like to financially support JOHNNIE BE GOOD, buy a song! Online sales of “Johnny B. Goode” with featured performances by Michael McDonald, David Sanborn and the late Johnnie Johnson continue on iTunes, CD Baby, and many other music download sites.
The day Johnnie Johnson was Rediscovered
This blog from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame details October 16, 1986…the day Johnnie Johnson was rediscovered during the Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll concerts at the Fox Theater. Some of you were lucky enough to be there that night. It’s the turning point in my music documentary Johnnie Be Good, JJTheMovie.com.
I just got back from Nashville where I witnessed the professionalism of Michael McDonald and enjoyed stories about The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Beyonce, and Ray Charles. Earlier this summer, McDonald volunteered to narrate JOHNNIE BE GOOD. Awesome!
McDonald to Narrate JBG
Two of St. Louis’ most celebrated musicians, Michael McDonald and David Sanborn, show their respect for Johnnie Johnson by performing on a new version of the iconic rock and roll song “Johnny B. Goode” to help raise money to finish the music documentary about Johnson’s life and music. Both musicians are interviewed in the film “Johnnie Be Good”.
10th Anniversary of Johnnie’s Death
April 13, 2015 is the 10th anniversary of Johnnie Johnson’s death. The 2001 Rock and Roll Hall Fame inductee would have been 90 years old.
It’s been awhile since I’ve updated the progress of JOHNNIE BE GOOD. That’s because there wasn’t much good news to report and I needed to get my mojo back. I even got a couple of emails asking if the project had been cancelled. JBG hit a rough stretch of road, full of potholes and speed bumps, untimely deaths, and investors who changed their minds. But that’s in the rearview mirror now and I’m back to work, ready to finish what i started.
Jon King Passes Away at 55
My friend and colleague Jon King, editor for JOHNNIE BE GOOD, died Saturday at age 55. Jon and I had worked together at KSDK-TV for 31 years and had worked on two documentaries together. He had been involved with JOHNNIE BE GOOD since we started the project in 2003.