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Music : Getting Attention as a Soloist : * Pianist Johnnie Johnson, on tour with his own four-piece band, is due at the Palomino in North Hollywood tonight.

September 24, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times. and

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — The man had finally arrived to work up some blues with the Kentucky Headhunters last year. Johnnie Johnson had already made his reputation as one of the architects of Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll blueprint, and was joining this group of country rockers for an album collaboration called "That'll Work."

Yet when Johnson first walked into the Headhunters' rehearsal space in Kentucky, decorated with the band's collection of gold and platinum record awards, guitarist Richard Young felt awkward for a moment.

"It kind of turned me to a sad moment for a second," Young says. "To think that here's a man 60-something-years-old that was part of the band that taught us all how to rock 'n' roll, and he didn't have one of those gold records."

Young says he's hoping that Johnson's new "That'll Work" collection of swinging blues will finally earn Johnson a long-deserved gold or platinum disc. But other forms of recognition have already come his way in the past few years.

His last solo album, "Johnnie B. Bad," featured such prominent sidemen as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, and earned a Grammy Award nomination. And earlier this year, Johnson reunited with Berry to perform at one of Bill Clinton's presidential inaugural balls.

Johnson is on tour now with his own four-piece band, performing a mixture of blues and such Berry classics as "Memphis" and "Johnny B. Goode." He lands at the Palomino in North Hollywood tonight. And a tour with the Headhunters is expected by November.

The pianist enjoyed an active career before meeting Berry in 1954. But this new attention as a solo artist came to Johnson mostly as the aftermath of the 1987 Berry documentary "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll," which for the first time identified Johnson's role in rock history.

"I had never had any big desire to be the man out front of a band or anything," Johnson says. "It was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton that kept on talking to me about doing this sort of thing because 'Your music is too good to be kept in the background.'

"I never sang before in my life. But Keith Richards kept pounding into my head that I could sing. I said to myself I'd go ahead and try it, and he'd find out I can't sing and let me alone about it. But it backfired on me."

Johnson actually began his career in 1943 while in the Marine Corps, where he was made part of a 26-piece swing band. "I fell in love with playing behind a great big band," he says. "We had men in there from Glenn Miller's band, Count Basie's, Lionel Hampton's. I was fortunate to be part of it. I picked up a whole lot from them."

As for the future, Young says, he hopes that Johnson and the Headhunters turn their new collaboration into a long-lasting one. "He called me the other night and said he wants us to get ready to start writing some more tunes for a new album," Young says. "So maybe for the rest of his career, Johnnie will have some pals to play with."

Who: Johnnie Johnson and his band, with Top Jimmy.

Location: The Palomino, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 9 tonight.

Price: $8.

Call: (818) 764-4010.

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