Johnnie Johnson was one of the architects of rock 'n' roll piano. Although there is some controversy over exactly which of Chuck Berry's sides he played on (such Chess stalwarts as Lafayette Leake and Otis Spann occasionally took the piano stool for sessions), Johnson was undoubtedly on hand for most of Chuck's "golden decade" from the early '50s to the early '60s.
But before he came into rock 'n' roll, Johnson was a jazzman who alternated between swinging variations on Basie/Ellington themes and the propulsive jump-blues that became known in the 1940s and early '50s as rhythm & blues. This disc, recorded just a few months before Johnson's death in April of this year, returns him to that setting.
And he sounds delighted to be back. His right-hand patterns are jubilant, even merry; he'll break up a line with impish departures, then return to his original theme several bars down the road. Although his bass lines are unerringly propulsive, he toys with rhythm and cadence in a manner that recalls one of his idols, Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Johnnie Be Eighty And Still Bad was recorded with a minimum of rehearsal time, but Johnson negotiates his way through everything with the easygoing elan of a man whose years onstage taught him to expect, and adapt to, the unexpected.
Vocalist Larry Thurston's deep-chested baritone evokes such classic jazz shouters as vintage-era Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams. On the weakest cut here, "Better Sell My House", Thurston is replaced by Victor "Big Daddy" Johnson, whose ponderous Howlin' Wolf imitation nearly sabotages the entire song.
This disc was never intended as a posthumous tribute, but that's the way it turned out. In the spirit of the blues, we should celebrate what is, rather than mourn the might-have-been: To have a lasting record of Johnnie Johnson playing the music he loved most, in a respectful and supportive setting, is a blessing indeed.