Journalist Tony Russell stated in his book The Blues - From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, that "Johnson shared with the other members of the 'Boogie Woogie Trio' the technical virtuosity and melodic fertility that can make this the most exciting of all piano music styles, but he was more comfortable than Meade Lux Lewis in a band setting; and as an accompanist, unlike Lewis or Albert Ammons, he could sparkle but not outshine his singing partner". Fellow journalist, Scott Yanow (Allmusic) added "Johnson was one of the three great boogie-woogie pianists (along with Lewis and Ammons) whose sudden prominence in the late 1930s helped make the style very popular".
Johnson was born in Kansas City, Missouri.
He began his musical career in 1922 as a drummer in Kansas City. From 1926 to 1938 he worked as a pianist, often accompanying Big Joe Turner. Record producer John Hammond discovered him in 1936 and got him to play at the Famous Door in New York. In 1938 Johnson and Turner appeared in the "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. This concert started a boogie-woogie craze, and Turner and two other performers at the concert, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, worked together afterwards at Café Society for a long time; they also toured and recorded together. In 1941 Lewis, Ammons and Johnson were featured in the movie short Boogie Woogie Dream.
The song, "Roll 'Em Pete" (composed by Johnson and Turner), featuring Turner on vocals and Johnson on piano, was one of the first rock and roll records, although there is strong reason to believe he stole that piece from Jelly Roll Morton who neglected to register his works, leaving him without claim to them. Another self-referential title was their "Johnson and Turner Blues". In 1949, he also wrote and recorded "Rocket 88 Boogie", a two-sided instrumental, which influenced the 1951 Ike Turner hit, "Rocket 88".
In the late 1940s, Johnson recorded an early concept album House Rent Party' , in which he starts out playing alone, supposedly in a new empty house, and is joined there by J. C. Higgenbotham, J.C. Heard, and other Kansas City players. Each has a solo single backed by Johnson, and then the whole group plays a jam session together. On this album Johnson shows his considerable command of stride piano and his ability to work with a group.
Johnson used to play at a nightclub in Niagara Falls where he had to climb a long ladder to the piano above the bar.
In 1950 he moved to Buffalo but, despite problems with his health, he continued to tour and record, notably with Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, and on a 1958 Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Europe, despite losing part of a finger some years earlier while changing a tire.
A stroke in 1958 left him partly paralyzed. His last years were troubled by illness and poverty. Johnson made one final appearance at Hammond's January 1967 "Spirituals to Swing" concert, playing the right hand on a version of "Roll 'Em Pete", two months before his death. He died in Meyer Hospital, Buffalo, New York in March 1967, at the age of 62.