Monday, May 11, 2009

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.

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