The Kentucky Headhunters Remember Johnnie Johnson With New Album

Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters has pleasant memories of the first time they met the legendary Johnnie Johnson.

“We were on our way to the Grammy Awards, and we were listening to his album Johnnie B. Bad -- hearing Johnnie play in modern times still sounding like he always had. We walked in, and every flavor of the day was there who was nominated, and Johnnie was over in the corner sitting by himself. So we went over and sit down with him and talked and became instant friends. He was the one who was there that impressed us the most,” Young fondly recollected.

It wasn’t to be the band’s last encounter with Johnson. "When it came time for him to do another album, our managers talked, and we got the offer to do the second solo record with him. It took us about ten seconds to say yes,” he told Billboard. “He came down to Kentucky, out to the music house. He walks up, we all greet each other. All we had in there was a Wurlitzer piano. He said, ‘OK, guys. Here’s how it is. I heard that y’all are a country-western band. I want to make a jazz/blues record.'”

The Headhunters were ready for the challenge. “As it was, we had been cued in by the label, so we had been burning the midnight oil with Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and that kind of thing. He looks at us and says, ‘OK, let’s do something that you and I both know.’ So we did ‘Little Queenie,’ and after we got done, he stands up and says ‘OK, I’m in the Headhunters.'”

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The resulting project, 1993’s That’ll Work, became one of the band’s most critically acclaimed albums. Twenty-two years later, the award winners have released the follow up: Meet Me in Bluesland. Recording with Johnson was an experience the band will never forget, says Young, though he admits the legendary piano player -- famous for his work with Chuck Berry -- did have somewhat of a quirky side.

“Recording with Johnnie was a huge stripe on the shoulders. We had a week to write and rehearse it, then we were to go to Nashville the next week and record it. We’d get together about 1 p.m., and then about 6, he’d say, ‘OK, boys. It’s time to go to bed.’ Later, when we were mixing, I asked him why he always had to leave early. He said, ‘I want to make sure I don’t miss Tales From the Crypt,'” he said, laughing. “You just had to love him. He wasn’t the kind that was going to sweat anything. The album came out on Elektra, and it was a critical success, and as far as blues records go, it sold pretty well. We were tickled to death about it. He touched our life in so many ways.”

Fast-forward a decade to 2003, when the Headhunters were cutting a new record, and the band kept hitting somewhat of a brick wall in the studio. “We wanted to do ‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman,’ and we couldn’t see through it without Johnnie coming in and playing on it. We called him, and he had been out with The Rolling Stones. So he flies out, and we made another album together,” he said, allowing that he didn’t feel the time was right for the project to be released.

“I took the tapes home and stuck them in my music room. They sat there for 12 years. We wanted the stars to line up in a lot of different ways. First of all, we were waiting on his wife Frances’ blessing (Johnson died in April 2005), and then we wanted country music to catch up to the blues. We knew if we wanted to really help this record, it was going to have to come through Southern rock and the fans. I think that if you look back in the past year, there’s been a pilgrimage of people who are starting to understand and like the blues.”

The album has just been released, and Young said the greatest part about the music finally seeing the light of day has been the reaction of Johnnie Johnson's widow. “She was ecstatic. When we finally got copies, she called and said, ‘Oh, Richard. This is great. Thank you so much for doing this for me.’ The whole family loves it, and I’ve been forwarding every article to them that has been written about him, which makes them feel good.”

The album -- highlighted by the rollicking boogie-woogie sounds of “Stumblin,” “She’s Got to Have It” and “Party in Heaven" -- has already made quite the commercial splash, debuting on the Billboard Blues Album chart at No. 3.