GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For Greensboro musician Evan Olson learning to play Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” on his guitar was like a rite of passage.
“It doesn't matter where you go in the world,” says Evan, “people - young and old - are going to go, 'Ah, I know that song!' It's probably the most familiar riff in rock history.”
In the early days of rock-n-roll, Chuck Berry personified the art form.
“I think he came along at the right time,” says Evan.
Johnnie Johnson and his lawsuit, on the other hand, were nearly half a century late.
Johnnie grew up in St. Louis, just as Chuck did, and they played together for years, including through Chuck’s heyday, but they were very different people.
“Chuck was a force of nature and Johnnie didn't have that personality,” says Elon Law fellow Tim McFarlin.
And that force is the kind of thing to which Americans tend to be drawn.
“I think we like our heroes and it goes back to the Greeks and Homer,” says McFarlin. “We want to have our heroes and, especially, individual heroes are often very attractive to us.”
But Chuck Berry may seem something less than heroic if you read the academic paper McFarlin published in the Vanderbilt Law Journal.
In it, McFarlin tells the story of Johnnie Johnson’s lawsuit in 2002, over royalties he felt he deserved from helping write some of Berry’s most iconic songs.
In the paper, McFarlin uses the depositions from the suit to raise the question of how we should determine who is the writer of a song, depending upon their contribution.
In one point in the deposition, Berry says: “We had rhythm together and so when I would stop playing something or singing, Johnnie would fill in and vice versa and this is was all in our souls.”
“So they had this bond, together,” McFarlin notes.
That leads Evan Olson – who not just plays Chuck Berry songs but writes many of his own – to come to one conclusion.
“I think it's a true testament to why if you're going to co-write a song, you should get those kind of particulars worked out, early,” Evan notes.
So why delve into this, 15 years after Johnson’s suit was dismissed?
“The music they generated has been so influential in ways both seen and unseen with the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan,” says McFarlin. “Because of how these cultural touchstones and things that swept across the world in this rock and roll revolution – whose ripples are still being felt, today – let’s dig deeper to understand what brought this to being.”
See Chuck Berry’s surprising admission on whether Johnnie Johnson really helped write his famous songs, in this edition of the Buckley Report.