Johnnie B. Tossed

Federal judge throws out royalties lawsuit brought by pianist Johnnie Johnson against Chuck Berry

By Josh Grossberg Oct 24, 2002 9:25 PMTags

Johnnie might be good, but he ain't got nothin' on Chuck Berry.

So it goes in St. Louis, where a federal judge has tossed a royalties lawsuit filed against the rock icon by former sideman Johnnie Johnson, the pianist immortalized in Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode."

Johnson sued Berry in 2000 claiming to have cowritten the music for 52 of Berry's songs from 1955 to 1966, including such rock 'n' roll staples as "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "No Particular Place to Go." Johnson said he had come up with the rollicking piano riffs and trademark rhythm backing Berry's lyrics.

Through his suit, Johnson was attempting to recoup potentially millions in unrealized profits from Berry and his publishing company, Isalee Music.

But in a 19-page opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Donald Stohr determined that under the federal Copyright Act, Johnson, 77, was not entitled to anything because he had simply waited too long to pursue his case against Berry, 76, who copyrighted all the songs himself.

Johnson's attorney, Mitch Margo, had argued that decades of excessive alcoholism coupled with a low IQ had hindered his client's ability to comprehend the situation and was easily manipulated by Berry. "Johnnie is a man who is a genius at the piano but has troube doing other things," Margo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Stohr, however, said he was "unpersuaded," and challenged Johnson's claim that he was incapacitated.

For its part, Berry's camp was psyched about the outcome. But Berry's lawyer says the rocker is sympathetic to his former pianist's struggles.

"He likes him very much, considers him a friend and expects to play with him in the future," attorney Martin Green told the Post-Dispatch. "He doesn't blame Johnnie for the lawsuit. He blames some of Johnnie's advisers."

According to Green, those advisers include Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and blues great Bo Diddley, who, the lawyer says, convinced Johnson to take on his former mate.

Richards has been championing Johnson's cause for years, producing the pianist's Grammy-nominated 1987 album Blue Hand Johnnie and launching a petition drive to get Johnson inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Johnson was enshrined last year in the "sideman" category.)

Johnson and Berry first hooked up way back in 1952, when the latter took over as frontman for the pianist's small combo and became the house band at the Cosmopolitian Club in East St. Louis. Berry's showmanship was a big draw, and the outfit was renamed the Chuck Berry Trio.

A recommendation from Chicago blues man Muddy Waters led to an audition and deal with Chess Records. And the rest is rock history.

But Johnson wants to be remembered as more than a footnote. Margo says the pianist is still weighing whether to appeal the decision.