by Adam Wolnski
The Kentucky Headhunters, affectionately shortened to The Headhunters by fans, is the kind of band that has been around forever; their timeless sound makes the release dates of their albums irrelevant. They’ve been true to the Rock and Country in their blood when the grass surrounding them was Kentucky blue, but they’ve also been known to embrace that color. Meet Me in Bluesland is the opening of a cave that breaks off and twists into a thousand different channels of Rock, Country and Blues history, and at the very last stop you’ll find Johnnie Johnson.
Johnson was a Blues pianist when he hired a teenager named Chuck Berry to fill in for a missing spot in his band, the Sir John Trio, in 1953. Berry eventually took centerstage and the two played together on hundreds of songs, including the one about Johnson himself: Johnnie be Good.
“I would say these two guys were the first team, you know, the first Rock ‘n’ Roll team,” Doug Phelps, lead singer of The Headhunters, said. “Johnnie is often considered the father of Rock ‘n’ Roll since he’s the one that hired Chuck to come in and play for him.”
The father of Rock ‘n’ Roll didn’t have his own signature dance or glasses or fame, but to the people that mattered, he had respect. When Berry’s film, Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll was set to come out, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was asked to help put it together. Richards said he’d do it on one condition: that they find Johnnie Johnson. When Richards tracked him down he found Johnson driving a city bus in St. Louis, playing music on the weekends.
Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll finally gave Johnson the recognition as the pioneer that he was, and brought him back into the fold. He played on Richards’ next album, then started putting out a handful of his own solo albums featuring names like Eric Clapton, Al Kooper, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughn and The Kentucky Headhunters.
The Headhunters were already huge fans of Johnson when they got a chance to play with him, and when they flew him to Kentucky he sat down at the piano in The Headhunters’ studio and lit a cigar. He said he’d play one song, and if he liked it, great, but if not he was heading home.
The Headhunters covered Berry’s song Little Queenie through the nerves and impressed Johnson. When they finished the tune, Johnson laid his cigar down on the keyboard and said, “Alright, I’m a Headhunter.”
Thus began a longtime friendship and mutual respect between the Headhunters and the father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In 2003, The Headhunters were in the studio recording Soul and something familiar happened: they came across a song that needed Johnson. The day after playing for thousands with the Rolling Stones, Johnson flew in to lay down the track with The Headhunters.
“We got a call from [Johnson’s] wife, Frances, and she told us, ‘I know you’re gonna have him up there for two or three days and I know you’re just doing this one track on your album but Johnnie’s not getting any younger,’” Phelps said. “And so we said, ‘Well, we need to stop what we’re doing and do a project with Johnnie.’”
So they put Soul in the backseat and started writing on the spot with Johnson. They hit record and the songs just started flowing; and if they got it right, Johnson knew it.
“With Johnnie, he knew that it was right but you might say, ‘Hey, lets do another track just to be sure.’ And if we made him do a second track he would sabotage it,” Phelps said, laughing while he remembered. “He would just start playing bee-bo-beebee-doo in the middle of the song, so he knew that we had it.”
The Headhunters and Johnson laid down 11 tracks, all of them done in the first take, and Richard Young, another Headhunter, put the tapes under his bed. A little over a year later, Johnnie Johnson died.
Many people urged the Headhunters to release the tapes at the time of Johnson’s death, but the Headhunters didn’t even consider it.
“We felt like that would be taking advantage of his passing, and we loved Johnnie and had a lot of respect for him,” Phelps said.
Twelve years later, Johnson’s widow Frances called up the Headhunters and said she’d love to hear the project. It was the last full record Johnson played on and the last known recording of his voice. The Headhunters knew it felt right, so they fished the tapes out from under the bed, polished them up, and on June 2 they’ll release them under the name, Meet me in Bluesland.
Little Queenie, the song that earned Johnson’s respect, is on the album along with a song sung by Johnson himself, some slow soul blues, and some Fast Train.
“Fast Train was a complete accident,” Phelps said. “We started jamming on this little instrumental tune… we just said lets start in this key and here we go; we didn’t even know we were being recorded. We went from start to finish and I swear when you hear it, it’s like all the parts were written and directed and you do this and you do that but it was none of that, it was one of those beautiful accidents as I like to call it. That’s kinda how that whole session was, it was really just a magical experience for us.”
Yells and whoops of excitement can be heard in the studio as the track ends and it’s hard not to have the same reaction when you hear the track through your speakers.
“Man when he played, he set the groove,” Phelps said. “He makes you play like a man.”
Johnson makes this album so historic and special, but The Headhunters don’t owe him everything. They are quick to praise him and honor his legacy, but they met him at a Grammy’s party when they were both nominated for Grammys, which The Headhunters went on to win. The Headhunters have continued to put out Grammy-worthy music and don’t show any signs of slowing down, and Meet Me in Bluesland is a perfect addition to their collection of music.
“We’re just thrilled because we know that there is a historical value here that goes along with this project and we want to be good stewards of it,” Phelps said. “Johnnie never got to hear it in its final version here but hopefully he’s listening up in the sky and knows that we have a great deal of respect for him and love for him. He knows we want to do this right for him.”