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Marine and Musician Johnnie Johnson Gets Congressional Gold Medal

Frances Johnson, widow of jazz and blues pianist Johnnie Johnson, holds up the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to her late husband on Nov. 28, 2016. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Frances Johnson, widow of jazz and blues pianist Johnnie Johnson, holds up the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to her late husband on Nov. 28, 2016. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis jazz and blues pianist Johnnie Johnson has been posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill presented the award to Johnson's widow, Frances Johnson, in a ceremony Monday at the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis. The U.S. Congress gives out the award, which is one of the highest civilian honors in the nation according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Johnson was a member of the Montford Point Marines, an African-American unit which desegregated the previously all-white U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1941 to allow African-Americans to be recruited by the Marine Corps, though they were still not allowed to attend traditional boot camps. McCaskill co-sponsored legislation to award all Montford Point Marines who trained for duty at the segregated facility the Congressional Gold Medal.

He later started a musical career pioneering St. Louis' blues scene in the 1950s, culminated with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. The Hall of Fame induction called Johnson "one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll," describing him as a towering but "humble" talent that heavily influenced musicians like the Rolling Stones.

Johnson was a pianist for guitarist and fellow future Hall of Fame member Chuck Berry and was the inspiration for Berry's famous song "Johnnie B. Goode."

McCaskill said that Johnson "didn't always get the recognition he deserved because he wasn't quite as showy as some of the musicians he hung out with, some of whom we know well here in St. Louis," referring to Berry without naming him.

The musician died in St. Louis in 2005 and is buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

"Music is a universal language and no one spoke it better than Johnnie Johnson," McCaskill said.

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