- Johnnie Johnson
Stage fright kept Johnnie Johnson in a supporting role for a good part of his career. It wasn't until his third solo album that Johnson, the man Eric Clapton has called the best blues pianist ever, finally became a vocalist. That was 10 years ago. The jitters are gone, and Johnson, now 76, is finally the man out front; his show at the Rock Hall a year and a half ago was testament to that. It was 1952 when Johnson and Chuck Berry met in St. Louis and began a partnership that would change popular music forever. With Berry's Delta blues and hillbilly influences, and Johnson's classic blues and big-band influences (he grew up listening to his mother's Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters 78s, plus Count Basie and Chick Webb on the radio), the pair created a sound that started popular music on its rock and roll path. Johnson's shyness prevented him from upstaging the flamboyant Berry, yet he was winning a legion of fans -- including guitarists such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, George Thorogood, Buddy Guy, and John Sebastian. These supporters resurrected Johnson's career in 1986 by reuniting him with Berry after 14 years for the film Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll. About five years ago, a group of 14 of the biggest names in rock, blues, and R&B also began to push for Johnson's induction in the Rock Hall, forming a committee for that purpose. Their efforts were rewarded last month, as the man many believe to be the best musician in rock history was immortalized on the Cleveland lakefront, even though he was never a star in his own right.