It's late December 1953. Johnnie Johnson's saxophone player is sick and can't make the biggest money gig of the year: New Year's Eve at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. Johnson knows this kid, Chuck Berry, heard him do his thing in the same dive bars where his band, the Sir John Trio, was cutting its teeth. He calls up the young guitar picker and history answers.
On April 13, 2005, Johnnie Johnson died at his St. Louis home at the age of 80. News reports will tell you that he played piano with Chuck Berry, that he was there at the birth of rock & roll, that he laid claim to those first wild, brilliant children -- "Maybelline," "Memphis," "Nadine," "Little Queenie" -- but that his claim came too late for justice, financial or historical. The same reports will tell you that his career was revived in 1986, when Keith Richards pulled Johnson out of retirement -- at the time, he was driving a bus in St. Louis -- to play piano in the movie Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. In 2001 Johnson was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, under the "Sidemen" category.
What no news report can tell you is what it's like to live most of your life in the shadow of a titan like Chuck Berry. Travis Fitzpatrick called his biography of Johnnie Johnson Father of Rock & Roll. Johnson would never have claimed the title: He was gracious and humble, articulate and knowledgeable about the history of blues and R&B, a player's player, someone who would show up at a Soulard nightclub just to back up old friends on a gig. For much of his career, Johnson suffered from stage fright and alcoholism, but when called to play, he answered with the most rhythmic, melodic boogie-woogie in history.
In December 2000 Johnson filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Berry for the royalties he felt he was owed for collaborating on some of the greatest songs ever written. In 2002 the suit was dismissed, the judge ruling that the statute of limitations on copyright infringement had expired.
Still, no one doubts that Johnson's hard-chopping, right-hand bass lines helped shaped Berry's exhilarating style. Bruce Springsteen once said Berry used "strange keys for a guitar player," though they were the essential keys and notes of a musician like Johnson. Without Johnson, Berry's original poetry would never have swung so hard, and pop music would never have pushed past such unthinkable limits.
All we can say, really, is that we owe Johnnie Johnson all the joy and pleasure of rock & roll. And all we can offer the man now is respect and thanks. -- Roy Kasten
Boston MC Mr. Lif created, as part of an impressive catalog, one of the best records of 2002: I, Phantom, a sprawling concept album that moves from the daily grind of working stiffs to a final track ("Postmortem") telling the thoughts of different people while dying in a nuclear war. Lif's character takes time while perishing to treasure "watching the Patriots win the Super Bowl/Grabbing that fumble from Ricky Proehl." Lif and his group, the Perceptionists, come to St. Louis for the first time ever this week, so we chatted with him about Boston, St. Louis and sports.
B-Sides: On I, Phantom's last track, your character is dying in a nuclear apocalypse, yet he takes time to relish the Patriots beating the Rams in the Super Bowl. You that big a football fan?
Mr. Lif: Absolutely, son. We shocked the world with that. We made a single for the Patriots that was supposed to be a bonus track on our album. We're affiliated with the team to a small extent. We wish it was larger. It's all about the Pats.
What about the Red Sox? They beat us too.
Yeah, I can't say I'm as big a baseball fan. I'm very proud of the Red Sox, but baseball needs a salary cap; they need to make some changes. But yeah, New England has not been friendly to St. Louis in the past. I don't know what to say. You've done it to us in the past.
So you'll be nicer to us?
Definitely, man. I'm coming to shake hands, sign autographs and entertain y'all. -- Jordan Harper
This weekend Jews celebrate the spring holiday of Passover, a commemoration of our exodus from Egypt several thousand years ago.
Growing up, B-Sides was always the youngest at the Passover dinner table, thus the task of asking the Four Questions during the Seder fell to us. The Seder is basically a loosely scripted re-enactment of the book of Exodus with audience participation, the audience in our case being a family of secular Jews who would rather be eating. The Four Questions are asked to remind us why this night is different from all other nights.
B-Sides is flying to Florida this year for a family Passover weekend. The very same weekend, a rare, must-see concert is taking place right here in St. Louis. Therefore, B-Sides is cranky.
And the Four Questions? Well, they've taken on a whole new set of answers.
Question 1: Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzah, but on this night we eat only matzah?
Traditional answer: When the Jews fled Egypt, they didn't have time to let their bread rise. They packed raw dough and later baked flat crackers in the desert.
B-Sides' answer: Matzah never goes bad, much like the bands playing tonight at the Gearbox in Soulard. Prisonshake hasn't performed their raw rock & roll in St. Louis since 2000. We can't believe we're missing it.
Question 2: Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
Traditional answer: We eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitter suffering our people endured as slaves in Egypt.
B-Sides' answer: We're friggin' bitter. In addition to missing Prisonshake, we're also missing Cleveland's Cobra Verde and Champaign's Water Between Continents, both fantastic rock bands in their own right.
Question 3: Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?
Traditional answer: We first dip the herbs in Charoset, a mixture of chopped apples and nuts that reminds us of the mortar used to make the heavy bricks Jews hauled as slaves. We then dip our parsley in salt water. The parsley commemorates the green renewal of spring. The salt water reminds us of the tears shed by the slaves.
B-Sides' answer: We dip these herbs to remind us of the herb we certainly won't be enjoying tonight, the kind we certainly would be enjoying if we were celebrating the grand re-opening of Lil' Nikki's as the Gearbox, a venue dedicated to showcasing the best of local and regional rock & roll.
Question 4: Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?
Traditional answer: We recline to remind us of the luxuries of freedom our people never enjoyed as slaves.
B-Sides' answer: We're slouching in honor of Scat Records, the folks behind the Gearbox show, and their tenth year in St. Louis. We may be slackers, but they're sure not. -- Jess Minnen
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