Saturday, May 30, 2009

Way Down in Louisiana: "Disagreable," "Weakest Set"

I didn't mind supporting a good cause by purchasing the webcast of "The Domino Effect" (a failed benefit concert designed to help kids in New Orleans) -- but I was pretty ticked when the picture and sound were shut off just as Chuck Berry came on stage.

I heard one double string lick from Mr. Berry and then something like:



Ah well. Love can be cruel. Chuck Berry sometimes sings the Elmore James song "It Hurts Me, Too," about a woman who takes abuse from her man but won't let go of him.

You're so unhappy
You've almost lost your mind
The man you love
He treats you so unkind...

Oh yeah! Sing it Chuck! Your fans know just how you feel!

It turns out, however, that we didn't miss much. (I love his music, but I can live without his Ding-a-Ling.) A story from the New Orleans paper tells how a camera man got bullied and makes it pretty obvious why internet ticket holders got slapped.

B.B. King put on his usual great show. To my knowledge B. B. King has always and forever been great, gracious, generous and professional.

And though I was too discouraged by Mr. Mustard Seed and the blank screen to wait for wonderful people like Keb Mo and my lifelong hero Taj Mahal, I did see the opening act, someone notable that I'd never heard of, Junior Brown, a guitar genius playing a bizarre and wonderful mix of Country-Hendrix-Surf-Swing. Here's a bit of him off youtube-- though it shows only the upper part of his two part guitar in action.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cottage For Sale

This is one of my favorite moments in "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll!" and a good enough reason all by itself to buy that movie or the cd soundtrack.

Down below I talked about how Chess seems to have speeded up one of Chuck Berry's first recorded ballads, 'Together We Will Always Be." Slow it down from C-sharp to C and you'll find he sounds a lot like the guy singing this beauty.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

(Not) Too Pooped to Pop

Some of us were born too late for the digital age. If you go to youtube you’ll probably find something like a hundred films showing Chuck Berry in his musical prime. One of my favorites is this version of “Carol.” When I said you can’t play guitar like Chuck Berry, I wasn’t kidding. This is the song that he famously took Keith Richards to school on in the film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” after Keith suggested Chuck couldn’t play lead and rhythm at the same time. “Well, I did it,” said Chuck. Indeed he did. Chuck Berry can be many things, but in this 1972 clip from London, he is Chuck Berry guitar virtuoso. (The best parts are when the band quiets down and it's just Chuck Berry and his guitar. Watch.)

But youtube is more likely to give you a wiggly, lo fi cell phone video shot of Chuck Berry in his 80s, playing at some bar, with bad sound, (drunken) conversation (from the audience, not the stage,) and whole bars of missed notes on the guitar.

I think the reason people are filming and posting these events is that Chuck Berry shows are still real—even when Chuck’s fingers aren’t working.

Chuck Berry was never fastidious about his fingering. Even at his best if he missed a note he didn’t care because it was irrelevant to what he was doing.

But when I saw him in at Blueberry Hill in January 2009, he seemed to watch his fingers in disbelief. They didn’t do what he wanted. He started most songs without a guitar introduction—something almost unthinkable in olden times. His best guitar bits during that set were the funky rhythm chords like the one shown below. He thumped on his guitar like it was a talking drum-- more Bo Diddley than the Chuck Berry up above singing his refined and growling “Carol.” When he did play lead at BBHill there was something almost punk about it. He played like some of the people who’ve copped from him—thrashing, loud, careless and strong. If I’d pulled out my cell phone and tried to record it I’m sure it would have sounded as "bad" as what I sometimes see on youtube.

Which goes to show: you have to be there.

I have seen Chuck Berry live about 10 times. I’ve seen the guitar virtuouso and the great showman/dancer. But I liked the Blueberry Hill show as much as any show I’ve seen.

And that’s because he was enjoying himself—surrounded by fans, and by musicians who really care about him. (It’s a family affair. His son, Chuck Berry, Jr., backs him on guitar, has his back when fans jump on stage, and reminds him of the lyrics when the 82 year old brain loses track of a line. His daughter Ingrid is often on stage singing backup or blowing her harmonica.) It's thrilling and real—an 82 year old founding father who doesn’t need the money doing it in a small bar simply for the love.

My favorite song that night was a Ray Charles number called “Love in ¾ Time.” I didn’t know it and hoped it was a new Chuck Berry song. Three months later, someone recorded it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In a Wee Little Room, I Sit Alone and Think-- Hey! Is this Weird?

So what makes a grown man obsess over Chuck Berry?

(It’s mostly men, by the way. Check out his fanatic followers at And we are legion, as far as I can tell.)

I used to feel I was quite alone. I was his “biggest” fan. I had “all” his records. I saw him live a bunch of times. I thrilled over a stray picture in Cream or Rolling Stone. I searched out and read whatever was available at the public library. For God’s sake-- I drove an ailing Fiat 128 5000 miles and stalled it in the driveway of Berry Park!

All that, of course, was when I was young and impressionable—a mere teen. (Except for that Berry Park trip. I was an adult, that day.)

But earlier this year I travelled all the way to St. Louis to see an 82 year old Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill. It was 300 degrees below zero the day I got there, and I walked from the light rail station to my truly weird hotel room and then back to Blueberry Hill, freezing my ears and ^&#% and burning through two straight work days just to see the 50 minute show.

When I was a kid I’m sure they worried about me. What is this weird obsession? Is treatment recommended?

I worried a bit myself. I rarely admitted the full depth of my derangement.

When I found I realized, finally, that I was not alone. (I’d suspected it at certain concerts. At Monterrey, and again at the EMP, I ran into people who seemed almost as messed up as I was.) On the forum there are a couple dozen contributors who seem to be in similar shape. One is a genius at finding interesting youtube movies of Berry. Another took photographs of historical buildings in Berry’s life—his early homes, his rock star homes, the Cosmopolitan Club. Several have made the pilgrimage to Berry Park. Many have made the more fruitful pilgrimage to Blueberry Hill. One flew from South America to see him play at B. B. King’s. Lots have myspace pages devoted to the man.

So what makes grown men act this way?

I have no clue.

But I felt a little better when I read in the current Rolling Stone that Bob Dylan somehow found and visited the childhood home of Neil Young. He wanted to see what young Neil saw.

I figure, if Bob Dylan can act that way, so can I.

So can we.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Roll Away the Stone...

Leon Russell just passed through Seattle playing his famous gospel-blues-rock-just-plain-amazing piano at a the Tractor Tavern in Ballard. I'm mad at myself 'cause I missed him. My sister Rooney first introduced me to the blue "Leon Russell" album when it came out about 40 years ago. It had a picture of Russell on the cover looking like a mix between Jesus Christ and George Clooney and was packed with great songs like "Hummingbird," "Masters of War," and my favorite, "Delta Lady." Russell was backed by a wall of sound and a cast of a thousand friends that included people like Bonney and Delaney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. One of his songs was about Jesus; another was about Little Richard. It was the newest thing, and I felt "in the know."

But what did I know? Nothing. If the newest thing is worth it damn, you can bet that it probably took years to get so shiny.

Here's Leon Russell, forty FIVE years ago, looking more like Jerry Lee than Jesus, and playing classical music by our man CB...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Heeeeeeere's Johnny! And Chuck!

A Chuck Berry fan from Iowa put me in the vicinity of this one. I think this may be the show where Chuck was the only guest on Johnny Carson's show. The two always seemed to get along well. Lots of great stories-- and great perfomances on other clips. This is part one of the interview...

Try This At HOME

I have read interviews where Chuck Berry talked about some songs being speeded up by Chess so that he would sound younger. (He was an ancient 29 or 30 years old.) Not long ago I was painting my living room and entertaining myself with old vinyl on a newly restored turn-table. I played the first Chuck Berry album, "After School Sessions." I was feeling like a good student that day, so, for the first time in 40 years of listening I began trying to figure out what keys these songs were recorded in. They all fell into what I consider the normal range-- G, E, F, Eb, etc., until I got to that wobbly old number, "Together We Will Always Be," which, on my turntable at least, was in the odd key of C sharp.

I never bought the Keith Richard line about Chuck Berry playing in odd keys. Half his songs were in the key of C— and for blues fans I'd point out that this is the same key Elmore James used for “Dust My Broom.” There’s nothing odd about F, G, B flat, C, E, or E flat. But in my limited experience (i.e., none to speak of,) C sharp would have been an odd choice.

I decided to do an experiment. My turntable allows me to slow songs down. I turned the knob slowly until the voice started sounding like-- well, Chuck Berry!

I'd always hated/loved "Together we will Always Be." Actually, I used to laugh at it. At best, I thought it was a young singer's attempt to find himself. The voice sounded strained—even a little embarrassed. But the song was catchy, so that if I heard it, it stuck at the back of my mind, driving me crazy.

But guess what? If you slow it down, it sounds GOOD. If you've got some way to repeat my experiment you'll find that Chuck Berry suddenly sounds like the older Chuck Berry who sang "Cottage for Sale" in the movie "Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll." In other words, pretty danged wonderful. And when I got to that point-- where the voice sounded familiar-- the song was in the key of C, a typical Chuck Berry key.

(I through this out for discussion on message board at the website It turns out that newly published outtakes of "Sweet Little Sixteen"show that it, too, was speeded up. And guess what? They pushed it from C to C sharp!)

I pulled out Chuck Berry's autobiography to see if it was one of the songs that he mentioned being speeded up. No-- but he said that “Together We Will Always Be” embarrassed him. He said that he wanted to buy back every copy, because he hadn't succeeded in sounding like his heros Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. p. 149.

Chuck-- it wasn't your fault! Chess did it!

Nobody sounds like Nat King Cole. But nobody sounds like you, either.

And in its natural key, "Together We Will Always Be" makes my hit parade.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mo' Roots

Chuck Berry is always the first to acknowledge his influences-- Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and on and on. I wrote about some of the others down below somewhere. Berry has always very specifically credited Louis Jordan's guitarist Carl Hogan for the famous intro to Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, and (just about every song at a live show!) You can find a nice version of Carl Hogan playing it on a 1946 cut called "Aint That Just Like A Woman," (Louis Jordan's Number Ones, 2005 Geffen Records). Hogan uses single strings for the intro, but you can hear the roots of CB in some of his solo stuff in the middle of the song. I couldn't find that on line, but here's a version from some sort of youtube copycat. The intro (on horns this time) might sound familiar!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mean Old World

Chuck Berry's best selling album ever was a mixed bag called The Chuck Berry London Sessions-- a half studio, half live set that included, alas, "My Ding-a-Ling." (I listened and laughed a hundred times, but I sort of wish it never happened.) (Except that he made lots of money that he should have made for better songs!) But not far from that dumb, funny song was one of Chuck Berry's best recorded blues-- a rock hard version of Little Walter's "Mean Old World," with solid drumming and blistering guitar. I wish I could present it here. It opens with a standard Chuck Berry blues introduction, then some popping snare and thumping bass drum, and then a lot of deceptively simple (but nearly impossible) guitar fingering done around open E and A chords. It's masterful-- Chuck Berry at the height of his guitar virtuosity-- a period I think lasted (on records, anyway) from 1970's Back Home through the London Sessions in 1972.

It's also an example of Chuck Berry's improvisational magic-- he basically never plays the same song the same way twice. "Mean Old World" is one of Chuck Berry's standard blues cover songs. He plays it often. (Another is Elmore James' wonderful "It Hurts Me, Too.") But to get a feel for how little regard Chuck Berry has for sticking to the arrangement compare it to the youtube footage shown below.

The studio version of "Mean Old World" from the London Sessions was recorded in February 1972. This video taped version was recorded in London with a different band just a month and a half later. There are a few similarities in his vocals, but the guitar and the whole feel of the song are completely different.

Some people say Chuck Berry's been playing the same songs for 50 years. ("Someone opened up the closet door, and out stepped Johnny B. Goode.")

Well, if I wrote "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Nadine" or any of a couple dozen of those songs, I'd be playing them for 50 years, too.

But Chuck Berry never acts like an oldies act. The songs are newly created, fresh, every single time he plays them. (When you're done with this, check out "Reelin' and Rockin'" up above. "Wing it, boys!")