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Kermit H. Johnson (his birth name) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He was raised by his mother after his father deserted the family. He was placed in an orphanage when he was three, becoming so homesick, however, he ran away and returned to living at home. By the age of 12, he sought out work to ease some of the financial burdens at home. He worked various jobs; in a factory, a print shop, and shining shoes. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade.
Johnson began his musical career in 1922 as a drummer in Kansas City. He began piano about the same time he was learning the drums. His early piano practices took place in a church, also he was working as a water boy for a construction company. From 1926 to 1938 he played piano, often working with Big Joe Turner. An encounter with record producer John Hammond in 1936 led to an engagement at the Famous Door in New York City. In 1938 Johnson and Turner appeared in the From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. After this show the popularity of the boogie-woogie style was on the upswing. Johnson worked locally and toured and recorded with Turner, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons during this period.
Lewis, Ammons, and Johnson appeared in the film short Boogie-Woogie Dream in 1941. The song "Roll 'Em Pete" (composed by Johnson and Turner), featuring Turner on vocals and Johnson on piano, was one of the first rock and roll records. Another self-referential title was their "Johnson and Turner Blues." In 1949, he also wrote and recorded "Rocket 88 Boogie," a two-sided instrumental, which influenced the 1951 Ike Turner hit, "Rocket 88". On three dates in January 1946, Johnson recorded an early concept album, House Rent Party. In 1950 he moved to Buffalo, where he encountered some health and financial problems, including losing part of a finger in an accident and being partially paralyzed by a stroke.
In 1953, he was washing trucks and supplemented his income by performing in a trio which played at the Bamboo Room in Buffalo on weekends. Johnson experienced more of the same the following year. In July 1954, he played at the St. Louis Forest Park Hotel, a six-week engagement as resident pianist at the Circus Snack Bar. Some broadcasts were made on Saturday afternoons in a program called Saturday at the Chase. Johnson was also privately recorded July 20 and August 1 at two house parties arranged at the home of a close friend. He continued to record, and toured Europe in 1958 with the Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble.
While in Europe he received an invitation to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival accompanying Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry and Big Maybelle. Johnson developed a heart condition as well as diabetes. Several strokes followed, resulting in complete loss of mobility in both hands. Four years after the series of strokes he was still disabled and was beginning to lose his eyesight. Jazz Report magazine ran a series of record auctions to raise money for Johnson.
In 1964, a longtime correspondent of his, Hans Maurer, published The Pete Johnson Story. All sales proceeds went to Johnson. After an article appeared in a 1964 issue of Blues Unlimited detailing Johnson's difficulty in receiving royalty payments other than from Blue Note and Victor, in June, Johnson was accepted as a member of ASCAP, which finally ensured that some of the royalties would be received on a regular basis.
His final live appearance was the Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1967, his eighth and final appearance at this event. His old buddy, Turner, took him by the hand, and for a moment the two middle-aged men looked touchingly like little boys. Johnson was a bit shaky but game, gaining in confidence as the number built in intensity." Pete Johnson died two months later in Meyer Hospital, Buffalo, New York on March 23, 1967, at the age of 62.
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Image: William P. Gottlieb