The Times West Virginian

July 12, 2012

Johnnie Johnson Festival this weekend

By Nicole Lemal
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Many likely remember Johnnie Johnson as an accomplished musician, but for Bill Stalnaker, he was much more than that.

“We were actually in an interview one time and they asked him about our friendship and he said, ‘Oh, this goes beyond friendship,’” Stalnaker, also a musician, said. “He said, ‘We’re family. He’s my son.’ I carry that pretty proudly and with a whole lot of humility because he was a pretty special guy.”

Among his many honors during his solo career, Johnson was nominated for a Grammy Award, was recognized as a National Treasure and Father of Rock and Roll by the U.S. Congress, and received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. During the last decade of Johnson’s life, Stalnaker had the privilege of working with him and eventually starting a festival in his honor. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Johnson also had quite the homecoming when he came back to Fairmont for the inaugural Johnnie Johnson Festival.

Now in its 11th year, the festival will be held at Palatine Park this weekend. Weekend passes may be purchased in advance for $25 at one of the following locations: Cashland Pawn, Fawley Music, Travel Emporium or Rider Pharmacy, or at the gate for $30. Tickets for one day are also available.

Throughout the weekend, a lineup of musicians will perform to honor the late musician. Groups such as Roddy Barnes, KWT Blues Band, Paul Geremia, and Satan and Adam will take the stage beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, with a special tribute scheduled for 10 p.m. that day.

“The music is the most important because Johnnie was music,” Stalnaker said.

Music will resume at noon Saturday and at 11 a.m. Sunday, and in addition to music, the festival will have special, personalized events for the audience.

On Saturday, published author and musician Adam Gussow will host a harmonica clinic from 10:30 a.m. to noon. As a musician in the band Satan and Adam, Gussow also serves on the Mississippi State faculty.

As founder and president of the Johnnie Johnson Blues & Jazz Society Inc., Stalnaker was dedicated to honoring Johnson in any way he could in the community where he grew up.

“People met him and they didn’t forget him,” Stalnaker said. “He was a class act, and Johnnie deserves to have recognition here at home.”

Musicians who are performing this weekend share the same thoughts, as many of them are traveling great distances to appear in Fairmont, including Satan and Adam.

For the first time in its 11-year history, Gussow will be participating and performing in the festival, which he said is quite an honor.

“I saw Johnnie Johnson a number of years ago in New York and got to jam with him, so it’s an honor to be in the festival for that reason,” Gussow said. “It’s also a really exciting thing for me personally because it’s the first time in years that my guitar man Sterling Magee and I will be together for three days. We don’t get to play together much these days, so it’s a rare occasion.”

Appearing in a YouTube documentary, the band is at “rockstar status” so to speak, and Stalnaker is thrilled they have confirmed their visit to Fairmont.

“I hope people take the time to come out and see these guys because they’re a really true original American act,” he said.

Prominent bands like DelGrosso Del Toro Richardson out of Austin, Texas, who were up for at least five music awards this year, will also be making the journey to Fairmont for the festival, along with other acts like Daryl Davis.

“As always, we try to put on the best of entertainment in Fairmont because Johnnie was a class act, and we want to keep it that way,” Stalnaker said. “We try to bring the best of the best in here, and I think we accomplished that again this year.”

Following the music, an after-hour jams get-together will be held at the River City Grille on Friday and Saturday night.

A number of vendors for wine, soft drinks, ribs, ice cream and more will be on site, and there will be special entertainment, including a bounce house, for children.

All in the name of Johnson, the festival is one Stalnaker looks forward to every year. Reflecting on memories with him, Stalnaker recalled how much his dear friend valued his roots and the hometown that embraced him. And after not performing in Fairmont for almost 60 years, it was a special day when he performed here in 2001.

“He knew he was very blessed to come from a town like Fairmont and still have those relationships with the people back here,” Stalnaker said. “He hadn’t played here in probably 60 years, so it was quite a homecoming for him.”

And for such an accomplished musician, a man who didn’t have a bitter bone in his body, it was a day he would cherish.

“He said that was always his big dream — to come back to Fairmont and play, bring his band back and play for the people here in his hometown. He said, ‘You know, the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame was nice, but man, this is the cherry on top to do this.’”

More information can be found on the Johnnie Johnson Blues & Jazz Society Inc. website at www.johnniejohnsonbluesandjazz.com.

Email Nicole Lemal at nlemal@timeswv.com.