Local man moves piano

Pictured are Aaron and Bernie Toenjes at the Missouri History Museum in front of Johnnie Johnson’s piano as part of the “St. Louis Sound” exhibit. The Toenjeses donated the piano to the museum.

A piano belonging to Chuck Berry’s pianist is now on display at the Missouri History Museum thanks in part to a local man and his parents.

The piano belonged to Johnnie Johnson, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in part because of his collaboration with Berry on songs such as “Roll Over Beethoven” and “School Days.” The piano itself is also on the album cover of Johnson’s first solo album, “Blue Hand Johnnie.”   

Gibault Catholic High School graduate Aaron Toenjes shared the story of how he gained possession of the famous piano. 

Around 2008, as part of an attempt to get a co-worker “out of a funk” from a recent divorce, he and others pooled some money to purchase a keyboard. During a Craig’s List search to find a keyboard for sale, Toenjes noticed an upright piano for sale in the St. Charles, Mo., area in the same price range.

The listing for the piano claimed it belonged to Johnnie Johnson. Toenjes admits he did not recognize the name. He asked his father, Bernie Toenjes, about the name. Aaron said his dad was “excited.” After learning who Johnson was, Aaron said he was “skeptical” and wondered why it was for sale in the first place.

Nevertheless, he made the trip to St. Charles to see the piano in person. It was in the possession of Sam Valenti, who was the producer of “Blue Hand Johnnie.” Valenti shared stories about Johnson, including neighborhood BBQs during which Johnson would come over and play the piano. 

Toenjes said he enjoyed learning the history of the piano and brought his father over to see it and hear Valenti tell his stories. After spending time with the Toenjeses, Valenti said they could have the piano for free and threw in some records to boot – along with verifying documents that proved the piano once belonged to Johnson.

Aaron said Velenti knew that they “appreciated” the piano and were not going to “flip it” just to make a profit. Toenjes said his wife told him the piano was “not going in our house,” so his father agreed to keep it in his garage in Columbia.

Aaron said it cost him about $125 to move the piano, and it sat in his parents’ garage for several years until they decided it was time for the piano to find a new home. 

Aaron said he “knew it was special and needed the right home,” so he contacted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see if they wanted the piano.

Representatives of the hall of fame, located in Cleveland, Ohio, said they would be happy to have the piano – provided Toenjes delivered it. Toenjes responded, stating he wanted it to be in Cleveland but did not want to spend the money or make the drive to deliver the piano, and did not hear back from them.

He then contacted the Missouri History Museum, who came to pick up the piano in 2013. The piano is now on display through the end of this year as part of the museum’s “St. Louis Sound” exhibit, which displays significant musical artifacts of local origin.

Toenjes said he is happy the piano has a good home. 

He also noted it’s a nice coincidence that he once had a connection with Chuck Berry because his wife’s favorite movie is “Back to the Future,” which features Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode,” reportedly written about Johnson.

To learn more about Johnnie Johnson and the exhibit featuring his piano, click here.    

Pictured is the cover of the Johnnie Johnson’s “Blue Hand Johnnie.” The piano is now featured in the Missouri History Museum’s “St. Louis Sound” exhibit, which runs through the end of 2021.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Scott Woodsmall

HTC web