Kentucky Headhunters mainstay Richard Young sits in his music room on Headhunter Highway and talks about Johnnie Johnson, his late close pal and occasional house guest who helped invent rock ‘n’ roll but didn’t really get much of the credit.
Johnson was the lively bandleader and piano player, with what Young recalls as “huge hands like overripe bananas,” who in 1952 enlisted rock poet Chuck Berry into his outfit and, with no particular place to go, they changed the world.
Although Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, his role in rock history has been a part of a great debate for decades.
Did Chuck Berry invent rock ’n’ roll? Or was it Elvis Presley? Ike Turner? Little Richard? Fats Domino?
Or was it a team? Like Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black.
More to the point for this tale: Was it the pairing of duck-walking and flamboyant Berry’s spitfire wordplay accompanying or accompanied by the rhythm and rollick of Johnson’s piano?
Young relishes the fact that he not only became a friend of Johnson’s but that the band he’s in was able to record what turned out to be a well-regarded and recently released posthumous album, Meet Me in Bluesland by the Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson.
The Headhunters had an album release showcase, one of many events planned around the album, Thursday night (July 23) at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville.
Of course, Johnson, who died a decade ago, wasn’t there. But the rest of the gang who made what Young regards as his band’s “happiest” record paid tribute.
Young, 60, has been playing music for 46 years with his brothers, cousins and others from along Headhunter Highway (where U.S. 68 meets Kentucky 640, the place where Gen. Nathaniel Greene granted 7,000 acres to the family after the Revolutionary War, he says.)
“We’ve still got about 700 acres here. We all live around here,” say Young.
The Kentucky Headhunters had a massive burst of glory 25 years ago when they were the award-winning toast of Nashville. Nearly every awards organization — the Grammys, the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music — saluted them for their 2 million-selling “country” album Pickin’ on Nashville, which somehow slipped past the country music industry police who attempt to keep such rocking fare at bay.
And while they still are held dearly in the hearts of their country fans — who demonstrated their love last month during their CMA Music Fest autograph signing and concert appearance — Young knows Headhunter music is more similar to Johnnie Johnson’s than contemporary country (although he notes he has plenty of friends in those modern country circles.)
“It didn’t take me but one minute on country radio and hear one of our songs come on and know that our country career was short-lived,” he says, looking back on this silver anniversary of the Pickin’ on Nashville glory days.
It was too rock’ n’ roll. So they started working on other genres of music and built up a resume and road schedule that had “a baby-Grateful Dead following” as they crisscrossed the nation.
He laughs when asked how often people ask him: “Whatever became of the Kentucky Headhunters?”
“I got people even around here (along Headhunter Highway) who wonder if we’re still playing,” he says, adding the band never really sought stardom, rather used that burst of major success to lubricate a rather long, strange trip of a “country music” career.
“You are never ready for your success. It’s what you do with your 15 minutes of fame that counts,” he says.
While there have been some personnel changes, the band remains much as it was when Nashville had its passionate fling with the boys.
Young recalls not succumbing to the advice from Music Row as to the types of tunes to record.
“We want to play what we want to play,” they told label execs back then.
And as for the other advice they constantly received — “You boys better straighten up, cut that hair a little bit, don’t be wearing those raggedy clothes” — it’s still ignored by the Headhunters.
They were not-ready-for-primetime pickers, out of place in the thick of the Hat Act era. Only a few — including George Strait, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks — proved to be legitimate stars who were much more than posturing and headwear. But it did seem for a few years that a cowboy hat was a necessity for every male artist except Vince Gill.
And, of course, for the boys from Kentucky.
The Headhunters, with their well-honed bar-band attitude, long hair and beards simply were not made for times like those.
“We never set out to be big stars,” Young says, noting the band has been traveling and recording ever since that big breakthrough.
It was on one of those travels — to the 1993 Grammys in New York City — that the boys, always eager to listen to good music while on the road, heard a new disc by Johnson.
“He did this great record with NRBQ, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, and we listened to it all the way up there,” Young recalls.
After checking into their rooms, the Headhunters went to the ballroom to see what kind of pre-Grammy activities were taking place.
“There sits Johnnie Johnson. He told us later he ‘felt out of place until I met the Headhunters,’” says Young.
The band asked if they could pull up some chairs and join him. Johnson readily agreed.
It birthed a friendship that soon led to Johnson climbing out of a car on Headhunter Highway to check on the boys’ invitation to record together.
“Johnnie comes on the porch and says (with slight disdain), ‘I been playing country-and-western music,’” recalls Young. “He said ‘We will play one song and if it works, we’ll record.’
“He said ‘let’s play ‘Little Queenie.’ We did it, and he sat there at the piano and said ‘OK, I’m in the Headhunters.”
“Little Queenie,” of course, is a staple of the Chuck Berry (and Johnnie Johnson) songbook and has been covered by just about anyone who ever wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll record.
That’ll Work, a jazz-oriented album with Johnson out front was the result of those 1993 sessions. One of the songs, “Back to Memphis” — written by Johnson and the Headhunters during the session — was later recorded by The Band on the 1996 album, High on the Hog.
“To us, that’s like having one of our songs recorded by the Beatles,” Young says.
Three of the songs from That’ll Work were reworked and are featured on the new Meet Me in Bluesland collection.
The Johnson-Headhunters friendship blossomed. In fact, Young became executor of Johnson’s musical treasure trove after the piano player died in April 2005.
That death came a couple of years after Johnson and the Headhunters recorded the tracks that are now being released on Bluesland, which came out last month and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard blues and Living Blues magazine charts.
Actually, the night before these recording sessions began in 2003, Johnson was onstage with his pals, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, for a version of ‘Honky Tonk Women” in a Houston concert that was one of the last times, if indeed not the very last time, that the old showman performed on a stage. In fact, the great piano man got on an airplane right after the Stones took their bows and arrived, sleepless, on Headhunter Highway.
Young says Johnson was ready for the recording sessions to begin.
“Playing with Johnnie was the most fun I’ve ever had,” says Young.
Johnson had just planned a short recording stint with his friends, but his wife, Frances, called Headhunters HQ while Johnnie was still en route and semi-demanded: “You keep Johnnie down there.… You show him a good time.”
His health was failing, and his wife knew it was important for her husband to do what he loved best: play rock ‘n’ roll piano and be around these younger friends and admirers
“We stopped what we were doing when Johnnie got there (and) we put our album together,” says Young.
They became almost legendary “secret” sessions, some music made among pals in rural Kentucky that was stowed away for safekeeping. By Headhunter reckoning, 2005 wasn’t the right time to put out this collection of them playing with their hero.
Now, realizing the music will be greeted with joy both in St. Louis juke joints and in Headhunter-headlined honky-tonks, Young says 2015 is the right time, however.
In reality, Frances Johnson also played a role in the new release. The Headhunters had the tapes that became Bluesland squirreled away beneath Young’s bed.
“Frances called and said, ‘When you gonna put this record with Johnnie out?’” Young recalls, adding that the piano man’s widow also gave her blessing to the project.
The Headhunters pulled the tapes out and played them.
“We didn’t have to do anything with it. It was magic,” says Young, of the tapes that became the Alligator Records album. “It was like the hand of God was in the studio with us. We didn’t have to do anything.”
The recording is a memento of the best time in the Headhunters’ long run.
“We been lucky boys,” says Young. “We have had a great time. Got to play with some neat people, some of our heroes. We did a show with Bob Dylan in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was a little quiet.”
Then he laughs. “We played with everyone from Bob Dylan to David Bowie and Hank Jr., and nothing stands up like Johnnie.”