Marine and bluesman Johnnie Johnson posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medal
By KEVIN MCDERMOTT | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 28, 2016
ST. LOUIS — Pianist Johnnie Johnson — who broke racial barriers in the military and pioneered St. Louis’ 1950s blues scene, only to find immortality as the subject of someone else’s song — was honored posthumously on Monday with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Johnson, a West Virginia native turned St. Louisan, was a Montford Point Marine, the African-American Marine unit that endured racism and inspired social change while integrating the previously all-white Marine Corps during World War II.
He later embarked on a long musical career as a jazz and blues pianist in St. Louis, culminating with his 2001 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He died in St. Louis in 2005, and was interred in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Much of Johnson’s musical career was spent in St. Louis, where he recruited local guitarist and fellow future Hall of Famer Chuck Berry to be part of his band. Berry would later rocket to stardom with Johnson serving as his pianist — and as the inspiration for Berry’s iconic song “Johnnie B. Goode.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., presented the medal to Johnson’s widow, Frances Johnson, in a ceremony at the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis.
“Music is a universal language and no one spoke it better than Johnnie Johnson,” said McCaskill.
She noted that Johnson “didn’t always get the recognition he deserved because he wasn’t quite as showy as some of the musicians he hung out with, some of whom we know well here in St. Louis.” She didn’t mention Berry by name, but the line drew knowing laughter from gathered family, friends and fans.
Before Johnson was a groundbreaking bluesman, he was a groundbreaking soldier.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing African-Americans to be recruited by the Marine Corps, but they weren’t allowed to attend traditional boot camps.
McCaskill co-sponsored legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to all Montford Point Marines who trained for duty at the segregated Montford Point facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“He (Johnson) signed up and said, ‘Take me, take me, I want to fight for my country,’ knowing what he was likely to encounter in a Marine Corps that hadn’t gotten used to the idea of African-Americans on the battlefield alongside white Marines,” said McCaskill. “This truly was an extraordinary man.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction calls Johnson “one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll.” It describes him as a towering but “humble” talent who was overshadowed by his more flamboyant musical partner, Berry, but was himself an important influence on the Rolling Stones and others.
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