Monday, August 30, 2010

You CAN go Back Home Again

I wish “Back Home” would come back.

ATCO reissued “Rockit.” “London Sessions” made it onto CD at some point. But “Back Home” didn’t stay home. It was there when I became a Chuck Berry fanatic in 1971, and then pretty much disappeared into the bargain bins. Only a few cuts, like "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge" have survived on various reissues.

(Since this post first appeared the glorious "Have Mercy" set came out.  It has all the "Back Home" stuff, and a few "Back Home" sessions things I don't have much use for.  Still want a "Back Home" CD!)

But last night, in the Wee Wee Hours, I heard "Back Home" again, or a few dazzling scraps of it anyway-- like a faded memory, without even turning on my record player.

I was fussing around on the net and found the site of Robert “Boogie Bob” Baldori, a man who played with Chuck Berry as much as anyone, and who was rumored (in books, and Wikipedia) to be among the personnel on the record. (The album, though graced with fine liner notes by Michael Lyden, doesn’t identify the players.)
There was an e-mail address, so I dropped him a line just to confirm that he played on “Back Home.”

I got a late night response that Baldori had played both harmonica and electric piano on the record, and that other personnel included Lafayette Leake (grand piano) and Phil Upchurch (who I believe played bass on the record. Still checking that one).

Baldori made his mark. “Back Home” is dominated by harmonica like no other Chuck Berry album except “Chuck Berry in London” (not to be confused with The London Sessions,) a mid-sixties record with some good blues. In fact, the harmonicas are what make both those efforts sound like albums, and not just song collections.

Baldori was a member of the mid-sixties Detroit rock group The Woolies. The Woolies had recently had a hit with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” and had toured with Berry for a couple of years after filling in for a failed backup band during a five night East Lansing club date. The Woolies and Baldori kept backing Chuck Berry for years—and the attached photograph tells a lot about the musical connection Berry and Baldori had.

Who Do You Love? Baldori and Berry

What I was remembering very specifically last night was an instrumental called “Flying Home” with wonderful, energetic piano by Leake and a melody provided largely by Baldori's harp. (I now have to dig out the old disk and listen more intently to the bass).

Chuck Berry had already recorded the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton/Charlie Christian song “Flying Home” during his brief string with Mercury records—notably on “Live at the Fillmore.” Along with another instrumental that he recycled as "Rockin' at the Fillmore" it’s a nice glimpse into Chuck Berry the aspiring big band jazz musician.

“Flying Home” is an example of “rhythm changes”—a jazz chord progression originally used in the song “I Got Rhythm” that Chuck Berry talks about in his autobiography. (He said something to the effect that, having learned the blues progression and the rhythm changes he could cover 80% of the songs he wanted to play.)

On “Back Home” the song loses some of its Goodman/Hampton/Christian decoration and becomes a Chuck Berry/Robert Baldori song. I love it.

It is a song of pure ecstatic energy—a perfect incarnation of a day when you can go home again, and the plane’s landing, and your loved ones are there at the gate, and there’s gonna be a long party after which everything will be good from now through eternity. It’s music for passing through pearly gates, or at least airport gates, with beautifully refined and energetic guitar work by Chuck Berry alternating with cascading, exhilarating piano notes by Leake. Baldori tops it all with a new and memorable melody line.

By the way, there’s something about Chuck Berry and piano playing lawyers! Robert Baldori is an attorney. Berry’s St. Louis keyboardist, Robert Lohr, (who does a fine job filling the large, tapping shoes of Johnny Johnson,) is a lawyer, too.
As a member of the bar, this gives me hope--but then I plug in and remember…

Anyway, Robert Baldori’s bright red website can be found at And for a bit of history, some new music, and perhaps a personally packaged memento from the legendary Phil Upchurch try .

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