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

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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. Jimmy Vivino showing off some of his blues moves:

Johnnie loved Oscar Peterson, obviously Nat Cole, Count Basie. His favorite piano players were not boogie-woogie piano players. He liked Avery Parrish, who did "After Hours," but even that's more jazz style. Johnnie liked what you would call, at the time, rhythm & blues; whatever Nat Cole was doing. I don't know what we'd call that today. Rock & roll had to do with playing dance music, so the piano starts pumping and boogie-woogie-ing - there really was no bass player in the beginning - so all that stuff we play on guitars now, all the rhythm guitar parts, were played on the piano. So that's where the influence is. He could play some barrelhouse stuff, but he wasn't just a blues piano player. There's a difference in the amount of jazz he had in his playing. And I think all the guys in St. Louis, you'd have to say that the playing was a little more sophisticated, I think. There were great boogie-woogie players like Ike Turner. You listen to "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston, which may be the first rock & roll record -- that's St. Louis.

So I don't know if I'm getting to any point at all; the only point is you couldn't call it rock & roll. It's filtering all these things, everything they heard on the radio. Johnnie would tell me, "We heard the Grand Ole Opry in St. Louis. We heard the rhythm revues, and we heard big beats coming out of Texas at night, and New Orleans music." Being that that was the biggest riverboat town too, St. Louis was the real connection between the East and the Northeast and the South, and Chicago. Everything came through St. Louis; it had to. So there you go: it's a better candidate than Cleveland for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Part of what I like about this documentary is that it's as much about Johnnie as it is about the nature of being a sideman. As somebody who has done that for most of your life, do you feel like sidemen are starting to get their due? The general public will never get that. They'll never hold these guys in the high esteem that musicologists do, and audiophiles who find this stuff out. When we got a record, we read everything we could. We got every piece of information. Even off of the label, you could find out who the producer was. So it wasn't such a fast world. You had that record, you held that record, and you loved that record and you learned everything about that one record that you had. You didn't download one song with no information: "I don't even know who it is, but I like the song!" That's what happens today. There was a ritual involved with taking that thing out of its cover, if it was an LP or if it was a 45, even, and just playing it over and over and over and learning everything you could about it. With me and my friends, at least, we wanted to know who these guys were.

I think Johnnie Johnson and Ike Turner and James Jamerson and the Motown guys, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, they finally are getting their due and people are learning who they are. But I think they should get their own hall of fame, because they get overshadowed constantly by the stars. And some of them are totally responsible for the session happening. When you look at Scotty Moore and Bill Black, what they did for Elvis, the sound that they put behind him, it was huge. And it took a long time for people to realize that it wasn't Elvis Presley who was playing guitar. You know how it works. It's hard to say; there are a lot of guys still unsung. Johnnie luckily got his due when he was still alive, you know, he got in that Hall of Fame while he was here.

Vivino plays out the Ben Folds Five...

I'm surprised you're taking time out to come to town. I assume you're getting ready to launch Conan's new show in about a month. We're starting up on November 8th, and we're really excited to be on the Warner Brothers' lot and doing it for TBS, who gives a shit -- they really do give a shit!

I can't imagine how frustrating that NBC deal was. It was like having a big air-filled carrot held in front of you, you know? You take a bite out of it and it explodes in your face, like a joke. You got a network of people that don't know what they want, or what they're doing with what they've got. We're much happier to be a part of a family atmosphere at TBS.

So the show is staying out in L.A.? We're on the Warner Brothers' lot, stage 15, which is a classic. You know the beginning of Warner Brothers' movies and you see all those airplane hangers? It's one of those. So there's a lot of history on that lot, and my favorite cartoons were made there. [Laughs]

Speaking of air-filled carrots. Yeah, definitely. An ACME carrot!

Will the band structure be the same for the new show as it was for The Tonight Show? I'll be leading the band, and James Wormworth will be playing drums now. He played half of The Tonight Shows and a good quarter of the Late Night shows. The funny thing was, when we got this gig, James was the only one we had to leave behind, you know, 'cause Max [Weinberg] got the gig and we didn't need two drummers. But basically we took the band that was mine and my brother's [and] combined [them] with some of the guys from Southside Johnny's band that Max knew and it worked. It worked great for a long time. Now, we're staying in L.A. and I'm committed to that now. It feels different than when we went out and tried to continue the New York show, because now we're disassociated from one network and starting up with a new one. It's gonna be great.

I didn't realize that Max wouldn't be leading the band anymore. Max has his big band out there that has been his dream all his life, kind of a Buddy Rich band. And there's a kid in Jersey that works with him occasionally. A singer-songwriter! [Laughs] Some guy that's got some hope over there!

It's funny: I was driving to work today and our community radio station (88.1 KDHX) played a Southside Johnny song. I thought, "This is great! I'm talking to Jimmy V. today and everything is aligning for this Jersey music pow-wow." There is a mafia, and it's a music mafia in New Jersey. That's why [E Street member/Sopranos star Steven] Van Zandt is really the godfather of that mafia. He's a soul brother, man. Steven Van Zandt is a soulful cat. You don't throw one past him.

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