Doug Phelps talks about Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and the late Johnnie Johnson.
“We dead stopped right out on there in the middle of recording Soul and basically spent three days writing in the studio as we went. It was all off the cuff, spur of the moment stuff and we came up with Meet Me In Bluesland. It was so organic…” – Doug Phelps
Country rebels, The Kentucky Headhunters are set to release Meet Me in Bluesland [Alligator Records] on June 2nd, a recording made with late pianist Johnnie Johnson, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, known for his work with Chuck Berry, not long before his passing.
The Kentucky Headhunters met Johnnie Johnson at a Grammy after party in 1989 after they had won the Grammy for best Country performance by a group or duo for Pickin’ On Nashville.
Their name would be brought up by Keith Richards when Johnnie was getting ready to record his second solo album. A friendship both personal and professional endured through recordings, jam sessions and live gigs until Johnnie’s passing in 2005.
Brad Hardisty / The Nashville Bridge: How did you work with Johnnie Johnson in the first place?
Doug Phelps / Kentucky Headhunters: Keith, Eric Clapton and NRBQ got on the project with Johnnie for his first solo record. That would have been, I guess that was the early nineties when that came out. They wanted to do another album and Keith recommended The Kentucky Headhunters, because he couldn’t do it at the time.
TNB: So, Keith recommended you guys. I guess that was really an honor. Most people are still not aware how important Johnnie Johnson was to Chuck Berry’s songwriting and recordings as well as some of the other things he did.
DP: Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Johnnie hired Chuck Berry in 1955 to be his guitar player. He had a sax player that couldn’t make it to a gig and he knew about Chuck. Of course, you know, Chuck ended up taking over. Anyways, Johnnie was the initial person that hired Chuck and that’s how he got that ball rollin’ in the first place. So, Johnnie sang on all the early hits and played with him for years. Chuck at one point in time decided he just wanted to start playing with the local band and he let everybody go. So, Johnnie played with Albert King for a while and recorded with him and toured with others.
TNB: I never heard much about him after that.
DP: Johnnie got off the road and became a bus driver in St. Louis. He was a city bus driver.
TNB: The realization of how important he was to Chuck Berry’s style as well as the way Chuck would do two string leads didn’t really come to my attention until the film Hail Hail Rock and Roll and Johnnie Johnson was up there playing and Chuck’s music sounded like it was supposed to.
DP: Yeah, Keith Richards kind of brought that out and got them playing together for the first time in quite a while. When they chose Keith to be the director, he said “I’ll do this on one condition, I’ve got to find Johnnie Johnson and put Johnny and Chuck together. “
TNB: Keith knew how important that original partnership was to the integrity of those songs. Chuck and Johnnie were really partners at one time.
DP: When you think of Johnnie and Chuck back in the day, you think so much of the teams like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page or Keith and Mick. They were the first rock and roll team if you can call it that.
TNB: What period of time was the band in when you got approached to work with Johnnie?
DP: We were approached to do the second Johnnie record.
TNB: Didn’t you meet Johnnie Johnson at the Grammys before that?
DP: I wasn’t there at the Grammys. At that time, they had just brought the Johnnie record over there to the Grammys. The first thing they ran into at this Grammy after party was Johnnie Johnson. He was over there by himself. So, they immediately went over to him and hung out with him all night. And that’s really where they first met him and they became friends with Johnnie. Then they got approached to do the second project with Johnnie which was called That’ll Work and that was in 93. So, that’ll fix you up on how they met.
TNB: So what was that first session like?
DP: Johnnie walked into the practice house and said, “Play a song and if I like it great and if I don’t, I’m out.” They tore into something and Johnnie loved it. Johnnie said, “Alright, I’m in the Headhunters!”
TNB: It sounds kind of like it gelled from the first time the band jammed with Johnnie.
DP: We really just love Johnnie. I came back in the band in 95. So, when I met Jonnie we did some shows together. We` would bring him out and use him on some of his recordings.
TNB: So, how did Meet Me In Bluesland come about?
DP: It came time for us to do our next project for Audium during 2003 and so we were recording Soul and on that particular album we were going to do the Freddie King song, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and we wanted Johnnie to play on it so we got in touch with him. The night before he was in Houston and sat in with The [Rolling] Stones. He is a heavy heavyweight in music. He had hung out with The Stones all night., In the meantime, Francis, Johnnie’s wife, called Richard and said “I know you have him coming into record this one song for this project but you are going to have him for two or three days there. He’s not getting any younger.” I think he was seventy eight at the time. She basically said she would love us to record and write with him, do some stuff and record with Johnnie because who knows how much longer he is going be around, so that is basically what we did.
TNB: You’re in the middle of recording Soul and the project stops?
DP: We dead stopped right out on there in the middle of recording Soul and basically spent three days writing in the studio as we went. It was all off the cuff, spur of the moment stuff and we came up with Meet Me In Bluesland. It was so organic and Johnnie made you play like men. He made you grow up in your playing. We got the project finished and just basically put it under the bed. Richard literally put it under his bed at the house. We figured there would be some point when we would take a look at it and see what we could do with it.
TNB: It’s been over a decade since it was recorded. The public never knew about it. Why didn’t this come out earlier?
DP: Now, we have been asked this question already. Johnnie passed away in April 2005 so it wasn’t much beyond this project that he passed. You know, we were asked the question, why didn’t you release it at that point? It just seemed like we didn’t want to misconstrue the fact that we were taking advantage of his death. We had the highest regard for Johnnie as well so we just we said we will just wait until Francis says what about the project or what are you gonna do with it?
TNB: So, ten years passes.
DP: It’s October of last year and we get the call from Francis, “I’m not getting any younger myself. Now, I know you got the project and I’d love to hear it.” And we said okay that’s our sign that it’s time for us to do something. Ironically, we were in the middle of writing for a new Headhunter record. We weren’t in the studio yet but kind of like that same thing like when he came in we just stopped Soul in the middle of recording.
TNB: You dropped everything again.
DP: We stopped our writing and then went full force, full speed on getting this project back out. We knew we’d done it. We were really under the gun and in a hurry. We knew it was good when we did it but it had been a long time since we had heard it so we didn’t know what we were going to get into when we pulled the tracks back up and to our surprise it was all there. I re-sang two songs. Richard re-sang two songs. Greg wanted to re-do one of the guitar parts. It was just little bits here and there and that was it. It was all there.
TNB: It was only a few days but the magic was there. Johnnie had really fit in with the band or vice versa.
DP: It was one of those magical things that just happened in the studio with Johnnie.
TNB: Yeah, then you had to figure out distribution and all that.
DP: The first thing we did was go to Alligator Records and wanted Bruce Iglauer to hear it. We figured that would be a great blues label home for it. He loved it and we started negotiating immediately with Alligator Records. We wanna make sure it gets its due. There is a lot of historical value with this project that we did with Johnnie. Johnnie brings a lot to the table and we just happened to be along for the ride. We want to be good stewards of what we do with the project. We thought that if anybody could pull that off, Alligator Records could.
TNB: It’s good to see that The Kentucky Headhunters are still around. A lot of the big rock sound in Country today can trace back to what you started back then.
DP: We were ahead of our time. Yet, we still somehow or another broke through and you know it was just such a crazy time that we were just fortunate that it turned out like it did. Well we’re all the way back to where we started with just the four of us. That’s how we started.
TNB: What about the new Headhunters album you were working on?
DP: We were about seven songs into our writing process when Francis called. We waited too long. We should have had a Headhunters project out last year or even at the end of the year before last because Dixie came out in 2010. We knew were a little behind and coming out with something new helps our tour dates. It kind of goes hand in hand. When this came up, we knew this was the project that we need to work on right now. Once it gets past the bulk of this, we are going to get back into writing and finishing up the record ahead of us. So there will be another one of them sooner than later.
TNB: This is a cool project.
DP: I still get chills when I talk about it. That’s how special it was for us and how much respect we had for Johnnie and how close we became over the years. We’re very excited about it.
- Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN