Johnnie Johnson, dubbed “the greatest sideman in rock ‘n’ roll” by Rolling Stone Magazine, began playing the piano at age 5 as a child in West Virginia. He played in a band called the Barracudas in a stint with the Marine Corps and then landed in Detroit and Chicago, playing with Muddy Waters and Little Walter before moving to St. Louis and forming the Sir John Trio. A young guitar player named Chuck Berry later joined the group and eventually became it’s leader. When Berry got his contract with Chess Records, Johnson’s piano groove went with him, garnering Johnson attention as a great piano man. He also played with Albert King when Chuck was not busy. Tiring of the road, he left Chuck’s band in 1973 and returned to St. Louis as a bus driver. Keith Richards and the Stones dragged him back in the limelight with the Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll in 1987 and in 1993 met up by chance with the Kentucky Headhunters after releasing 3 solo albums. Several albums were recorded but these 11 tracks from a session in 2003 remained unreleased. He was inducted into the rock and roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and passed away in 2005.
The Kentucky Headhunters began as the band Itchy Brother in 1968. Country and blues infused Southern rock is their staple, learned from their parents and neighbours where they grew up on a 1300 acre farm in Kentucky. They fortunately met Johnnie in 1992 at a Grammy Awards Party after a road trip where they had spent the entire trip listening to and falling in love with his Johnnie B. Bad album. They recorded and toured together for many years after this meeting.
I spoke to Bruce Iglauer about this album and he was very excited to bring Jimmie Johnson’s unreleased cuts into the light of day for all to hear. While the Headhunters may not be Alligator’s average blues band, the beautiful piano work and synergy between Johnson and the Headhunters is something that should not be missed. It is a raucous and wonderful album.
The album kicks off with the rollicking “Stumblin’,” a tune that would have them on their feet at the Country Music Awards. A driving boogie woogie beat that makes the blues, rock, and country music work so well is made even better by Johnson’s work on the ivories. “Walking with the Wolf” follows, a straight blues tune with some outstanding big time solo work by Johnson and some nice slide to boot. Berry’s “Little Queenie,” the lone cover here, gets a good treatment and Johnnie gives us another spectacular solo. “She’s Got to Have It” features Johnson on the vocals and piano, growling out his gravelly baritone in stark contrast to the Headhunters vocal approach. Solos by Johnson and then Greg Martin on guitar are again impressive. “Party In Heaven” is a nice, country-fried boogie tune where Martin takes the first solo before Johnson’s. A fun cut.
The title track is slow blues introduced to us with Jimmie’s tinkling on the ivories. Soulfully sweet, the band shows restraint in their approach and it sells well. “King Rooster” steps up the tempo a notch; Johnson gets the first solo and then Martin offers another; both are effective. “Shufflin’ Back to Memphis” opens to a big bass line. Johnson and Martin again trade solos, but the second solo that takes us out is where Jimmie really shines. With “Fast Train” the tempo really rises, a rocking instrumental where Johnson really takes off and struts his stuff. This cut is all his. Martin parries with him, but Johnson blazes over the ivories and shows his mettle. “Sometime” gets the boogie going again in a slow to mid tempo tune where Johnson again shines as he supports the band with his two-fisted piano work. The slide introduces us to the finale, “Super-man Blues.” Martin gets the first solo here, a really pretty slide solo. After another chorus Johnson gets his turn in front and he does not disappoint.
The Headhunters are a lot of fun but they are a seriously good band. Richard Young on vocals and rhythm guitar and Doug Phelps on vocals and rhythm guitar are both great front man. Martin’s guitar is pretty much as good as it gets. Anthony Kenney is solid on bass and Fred Young on drums also holds his own. Johnnie Johnson gives one fantastic performance after another here and show us the chops that helped launch Chuck Berry’s career and put him in demand. Thanks to Alligator and Bruce Iglauer for bring these tunes to us to enjoy. This is some of Johnnie Johnson’s best stuff and it deserves to be heard!