On January 25, 2003, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson—the man Rolling Stone called “the greatest sideman in rock and roll” for his groundbreaking piano work with Chuck Berry—stepped on stage at Houston, Texas’ Reliant Stadium. He joined his hosts, The Rolling Stones, for a rousing rendition of Honky Tonk Women. After hanging out all night with Keith Richards, Johnson got on a plane and flew to Kentucky. There he reunited with his good friends, Grammy-winning Southern blues-rockers The Kentucky Headhunters (brothers Richard and Fred Young, Greg Martin, Doug Phelps and Anthony Kenney). The plan was to have Johnnie lay down some piano for the band’s upcoming release, Soul. But the vibe was too strong and the music too good, so the tapes just kept rolling. With songs and arrangements furiously being created on the spot and everything recorded live as it happened over the course of three days, a magical musical event was underway.
Because the whole session was spontaneous, there were no immediate plans to release an album. After Johnnie’s death in 2005, the tapes, while never forgotten, remained unissued. The performances, which can now be heard on Meet Me In Bluesland, found Johnson playing some of the deepest and most rocking blues piano of his legendary career. With The Kentucky Headhunters at their down-home best, the record is a country-fried, blues-infused party from start to finish. The album grooves from the raunchy rock of Stumblin’ to the slide-fueled Superman Blues to the roof-raising version of Little Queenie to the salacious She’s Got To Have It (the last vocal Johnson ever recorded).
“The minute Johnnie sat down with us, the music was a kind of ecstasy,” says guitarist/vocalist Richard Young. “Johnnie made us play like real men,” adds guitarist/vocalist Greg Martin. “Playing with him, the groove got bigger and much more grown up.” Drummer Fred Young explains, “We all admired Johnnie from the start. The first time we played with him was the first time I ever felt like we were doing it right. The music we made on Meet Me In Bluesland is as good as it gets.”
The relationship between Johnson and The Kentucky Headhunters dated back to 1992. Headed to New York for a Grammy Awards party, Greg picked up the new Johnnie Johnson CD, Johnnie B. Bad, for the ride. The band listened to nothing else all the way to New York. Having no idea he’d be at the party, they were shocked to see Johnnie Johnson sitting alone at a table. After some quick introductions, the musicians talked for hours, becoming fast friends. In 1993 they released their first collaboration, That’ll Work, on Nonesuch. They took the show on the road, playing gigs from the West Coast to New England, from Chicago’s Buddy Guy’s Legends to New York City’s Lone Star Café. They performed at The Jamboree In The Hills in Belmont County, Ohio, where Johnson, with the Headhunters triumphantly jamming behind him, played to over 30,000 fans.
From their very first meeting, Johnson and The Kentucky Headhunters stayed close, getting together whenever possible. In 2003, when the band asked Johnson to record with them again, he couldn’t wait to get back to Kentucky and make music with his friends. Over the next three days, they created an album filled with rollicking, timeless performances. “Johnnie’s music was spontaneous, organic, magic energy,” says Greg. “During the recordings, everything was off-the-cuff and easy; a higher power just took over. This album is special, and we’re very happy in 2015 that it’s coming to fruition.” Adds Fred, “Johnnie gave us the gift of letting us know what it was like to do something great.”
The Kentucky Headhunters, declared “the great American rock ‘n’ roll band” by Billboard magazine, began their professional journey in 1968 when brothers Fred and Richard Young and cousins Greg Martin and Anthony Kenney formed the Southern blues-rock band Itchy Brother. The band morphed into The Kentucky Headhunters in 1986. Their first album, 1989’s Pickin’ On Nashville, was released by Mercury Records and surprised the world, becoming a bona fide hit, selling over two million copies. The album won a Grammy Award, three Country Music Awards, an American Music Award and an Academy Of Country Music Award. It spawned four consecutive Top 40 Country hits. Currently, the band is made up of Richard Young, Fred Young, Greg Martin and Doug Phelps.
Growing up on a 1300-acre family farm in Edmonton, Kentucky, the Young brothers, Martin and Kenney heard plenty of raucous R&B and deep, soulful blues courtesy of Fred and Richard’s mother, who listened to powerhouse radio station WLAC late at night. “She was a real hip white girl,” Richard says. “She was a huge influence on us.” Their father loved big band jazz, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Sarah Vaughan. “Music in our home was a mixture, unlike what most farm kids heard.” Part of their musical upbringing included their friendship with three African-American families who lived and worked on nearby farms. The boys heard gospel and blues, both sung by their neighbors in the fields and blasting out of their radios. They were reared on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters (the name Headhunters was a nickname given to Waters and Jimmy Rogers when they came into a club ready to take on all comers). “All of these things taught us the blues,” says Richard. They loved Chuck Berry, and were especially wowed by Berry’s piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Befriending him and recording with him was a dream come true for the band. According to Fred, “We were fortunate to know him. It was a good marriage.” Richard adds, “Anyone who ever played with him became a better player.”
Johnnie Johnson was born on July 8, 1924 in Fairmont, West Virginia. He began playing piano at age five and never stopped. While serving in the Marines, he joined The Barracudas, a Marines servicemen’s band. He moved to Detroit and then Chicago, eventually playing with Muddy Waters and Little Walter. He landed in St. Louis in 1952 where he formed The Sir John Trio, playing jazz, blues and pop standards. Chuck Berry, an ambitious local guitarist and songwriter, was added to the group the same year and eventually took over leadership of the band. After Berry scored a contract with Chess Records, the hits came fast and furious. Many, including Maybellene, Nadine, Carol and School Days, were fueled by Johnson’s two-fisted piano. He was the high-octane gasoline in Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll engine. When Chuck wasn’t touring, Johnson played with Albert King, and recorded a number of singles with him for the Bobbin label. Tired of the road, Johnson left Chuck’s band in 1973 and returned to St. Louis to become a bus driver. With the 1987 release of the Chuck Berry documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Johnson found himself back in the spotlight, reintroduced to the world by his friend-to-be Keith Richards. After three solo recordings, Johnson joined his musical cohorts The Kentucky Headhunters for 1993’s That’ll Work. In 1996 and 1997 he toured with Ratdog, the band fronted by The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and continued to perform and record until his death in 2005. His 2003 sessions with The Kentucky Headhunters, released now for the very first time as Meet Me In Bluesland, are some of the most spirited and organic recordings of his remarkable and still influential career.