Sour Note

Time for Chuck Berry to roll over, says rock legend Johnnie Johnson

What a weird week in St. Louis music history, one that wouldn't have been shocking 35 years ago, but now? In an odd turn of events that threatens to transform one of this city's most venerable legacies into Court TV fodder, Johnnie Johnson has sued Chuck Berry. Claiming that he never received proper songwriting credits and, therefore, royalties for his share of the work, Johnson wants half of all the cash Berry has made off seminal rock & roll tunes "Roll Over Beethoven," "No Particular Place to Go," "Rock and Roll Music" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," as well as 48 others -- virtually every song Berry released through 1965. It's a body of work that's worth millions.

The suit, filed Nov. 29 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, seeks, in essence, to rewrite the history of rock & roll by giving Johnson the credit he claims is long overdue.

"The claim is that virtually all the songs that were created between 1955 and 1965 were collaborations between Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson," says Mitch Margo, the lawyer representing Johnson. "Most often, the way they came about was that Chuck Berry would write poems, and he and Johnnie Johnson would then sit down together and write the music to the words to create the songs. This was done on the road, different places, Chuck Berry's home in Wentzville."

It's long been suggested that Johnnie Johnson had an equal part in building the foundations of rock & roll; the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards said as much in the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Johnson's frantic piano riffs are an integral component of Berry's sound, and it was in part a combination of guitar and piano that set the world ablaze -- even if it was Berry's good looks, charisma and duck walk that made the biggest impression. That Johnnie Johnson is, in the history of rock & roll, a mere footnote is a shame, as is the truth that on some of the compositions you can barely hear the tink of his piano beneath the din of Berry's guitar.

Margo says he intends to prove that Johnson was responsible not only for the melodies but even, ultimately, the key in which Berry played his guitar: "Many people in the music industry have wondered out loud recently why it is that all of Chuck Berry's songs are in strange keys for the guitar. They're very unusual, and people who write guitar music don't write in those keys. And the reason is, they're piano keys. Virtually all of his songs are in piano keys, and the reason that is is because Johnnie Johnson was sitting doing the music while Chuck Berry was writing the poems." Margo says that this will be a key emphasis in Johnson's court offense.

Berry's lawyer, Joe Jacobson, says his client denies that Johnson co-wrote any of the songs and notes that Berry was "shocked and saddened" by the lawsuit: "He stood by Johnnie for many years when Johnnie was having a lot of problems. Johnnie was a paid employee of Mr. Berry's. Mr. Berry paid his salary and recording sessions. It was no secret for anybody that Mr. Berry was writing these songs and copyrighting them, and he's just shocked that now, all these years later, Mr. Johnson is coming by and claiming to be a co-writer. This isn't the case."

Jacobson also says the lawsuit seems well timed, being filed mere days before Berry was honored with the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award last weekend. "Obviously I can't get into somebody's mind," he says, "but what occurred to me was that this was designed to maximize the leverage on Mr. Berry for a meritless settlement in order to avoid embarrassment on a day when he was going to be in the public's eye throughout the United States." (As if Berry's going to be embarrassed by a lawsuit. Anyone who has followed Berry's career knows of his sometimes-sordid run-ins with the law; he's weathered far more embarrassing episodes than a lawsuit over songwriting credits. If you don't know what we're talking about, we've got a videotape you should check out.)

Examining the list of Chuck Berry songs -- classic pieces of music that nearly single-handedly changed the world (John Lennon once called him "my teacher") -- it's interesting to note the breadth of Johnson's suit. He's claiming partial ownership not of a few classic songs but of nearly all of them created before 1965. Johnson claims ownership of songs that he didn't even perform on -- like "Downbound Train," on which Otis Spann was the pianist, and "Rock and Roll Music," which featured Lafayette Leake on piano.

Most confusing is Johnson's admitted rationale for bringing the suit and waiting 40 years to take action: He's using the "I was drunk and a poor businessman" defense. Says Margo: "I think part of it is because of the alcoholism (Johnson is a recovering alcoholic). Part of it is because of misleading Johnnie into thinking that he was not entitled to anything. And Johnnie Johnson is not a sophisticated businessman; he is a musical genius. And, all those things coupled, he was not aware he was entitled to anything more than the studio-musician's fee."

Whatever the merits of the case, one heartbreaking thing's for certain: Don't expect Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson to appear onstage together anytime soon.

 
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