Jimmy Vivino Talks Johnnie Johnson, Conan O'Brien, and St. Louis' Role as a Rock & Roll Breeding Ground

Sep 22, 2010 at 1:45 pm
click to enlarge Jimmy Vivino, taken April 3, 2010 - Photo by Bernard Ente
Photo by Bernard Ente
Jimmy Vivino, taken April 3, 2010

Watchers of late-night television knew Jimmy Vivino as the guitarist for the Tonight Show band during Conan O'Brien's short-lived stint as host. Before that, Vivino was part of the Max Weinberg 7 on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and since 1993, he's enjoyed a certain ubiquity as an integral part of the best band in late night. But before he hit the small screen, Vivino and two of his Tonight Show bandmates, bassist Mike Merritt and drummer/percussionist James Wormworth, were a part of pianist Johnnie Johnson's touring band. It was Johnson who brought the players together, inadvertently setting these players on a path that led them to work on O'Brien's shows during his years at NBC. Starting in November Vivino will take over Weinberg's role as bandleader for O'Brien's new TBS show, Conan.

Reached by phone in New York City, where his Beatles cover band the Fab Faux was rehearsing for a gig to celebrate John Lennon's 70th birthday, Vivino talked at length about his love for Johnson and his support of Johnnie Be Good, Art Holliday's forthcoming documentary about the legendary rock & roll architect. "I'm about Art finishing this thing," Vivino says. "He's a great guy, and he's traveled all over the country to get these interviews, and he's put a lot of love into it."

Vivino, Merritt and Wormworth were in town on Sunday for a Johnson-themed tribute at the Sheldon Concert Hall, which also raised funds for Holliday's film. Nearly two decades after backing Johnson, Vivino still feels a keen connection to the pianist. "We were saying the other day, we don't feel like he's gone, because he's so in us, so with us," he says. "We're gonna really miss him Sunday when we're in St. Louis and he's not there."

Christian Schaeffer: How did you get involved with the documentary on Johnnie Johnson? Jimmy Vivino: Well, I was in Johnnie's band in New York for a long time, and Johnnie was like family for the band, for me and Mike Merritt and James Wormworth. We all met musically through Johnnie Johnson, and we've been working together for twenty years ever since then. Everything we've done has been because of our association with Johnnie. So now those two guys are with me; they were with me at The Tonight Show and they're with me now at Conan's new show. I always think of it as, "Wow, it's Johnnie Johnson's band without Johnnie." And you know, the band was formed to play behind Johnnie and then just started gelling in a different way because of Johnnie's influence over us. I don't know if you're familiar with his music at all, but he was much more than a rock & roll piano player. He had no idea what rock & roll was, he was just playing music. He was playing jazz, rhythm & blues, country.

So Keith Richards brought Johnnie out, and then Johnnie started working [again]. He had been driving a bus, as you know, and needed a band. He had a band in St. Louis that Tom Maloney was running, and needed a band in St. Louis for the East Coast stuff. Mike Merritt met him through playing with Johnny Copeland, touring Europe with Jimmy Dawkins and Johnny Copeland, and Mike had also used James Wormworth for that gig. So when Johnnie called Mike and said, "I need a band," I had just met Mike in New York and he said, "I think this guy would be good." So thanks to Mike, we all got together and stayed together for a long time.

When Art Holliday wanted to make this documentary, we all jumped on board and did whatever we could to help. Now we're at sort of a crossroads for finishing it off, and the show should be very, very interesting because Johnnie's not there. But Doña Oxford [will be there], who was just a kid playing piano opened up for us one night at a place called Manny's Car Wash in New York. Johnnie was the headliner, and there was this little girl playing boogie-woogie piano, and we're sticking our heads out of the dressing room door saying, "What's going on here?" And Johnnie said, "I want her to open all of our shows so people get to see her," because that's how he was. A lot of guys would have said, "She's never opening for me any more; she's too good. Never put anybody that good in front of me." But Johnnie took her under his wing, and she really is the only player I know that can do what we call "the Johnnie Thing," so having her there is natural in what would be an empty chair.

The poster for last weekend's Johnnie's Jam.
The poster for last weekend's Johnnie's Jam.

In St. Louis, Chuck Berry is still playing every month, and we're very much aware of Johnnie's role in his music. But I'm curious as to what kind of player he was when he was doing his solo shows. Well, Chuck's thing is undeniable, of course. Those two could feud and carry on only like brothers can - I know from working with my brother every day for all of my life, that we can go at each other in a way that no one would think is civilized. [laughs] And those two guys were very civil about it. Chuck got out of hand a couple times when we had to do some gigs with Chuck, and Chuck would be telling everybody how to play, whatever it is that Chuck goes through.

You gotta realize that Chuck had to pick up bands a lot, so he never trusted the bands. Johnnie would say, "It's my band; I want you to treat these guys like you would treat me or anyone else in your family." So he always straightened it out with us, and we never had much trouble with Chuck. What those guys did together was undeniable. They didn't think they were playing rock & roll. Nobody said, "Hey, let's make a rock & roll record" or "Let's have a rock & roll band." They were just entertaining, playing the music they liked, which was really rhythm & blues and swing-based. Chuck brought in the country influence, with "Maybellene" and a lot of country stuff. But he still had a very strong T-Bone Walker guitar style. Chuck is underrated as a player. There's no Keith Richards without him. There's no rock & roll. Bob Dylan said he wanted to play like Chuck Berry; he was trying to play like Chuck Berry when he was a kid, trying to write songs like Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry was a great songwriter, and is a great songwriter.