Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chuck Berry on Soul Train 1973

It must be weird being Chuck Berry, whose career has taken him from small black and mixed race audiences at clubs in St. Louis, to the 1950s era rock halls divided into black and white by rope, to halls today that are divided more by musical taste and largely filled with white people.

And then, once in a while, back again.

In 1973 Chuck Berry was on the teenage dance show Soul Train-- a show where, that year, you'd be much more likely to see Barry White, Gladys Knight, The Jackson Five, James Brown or Earth Wind & Fire than an early rock and roller backed by a bunch of long haired white guys. (For a little time trip, check out the line dance to the O'Jay's "Love Train," from the same show, same year.)

When Chuck takes the stage, just about everybody looks a little nervous about this homecoming, including Chuck, who might be remembering that audiences at The Apollo were a bit tougher on him in 1955 than cross town audiences at The Paramount in Brooklyn. But it works. Little by little the dirty lyrics break the ice, kids laugh, Chuck scoots on the stairs-- and there's something just plain sweet and 70s about the sound of feet on the dance floor whenever the band stops for the vocals.

(In the movie "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll!" Chuck went back to the wreckage of the Cosmopolitan Club and played to a group that were probably friends and family. Or maybe just the Soul Train kids grown up.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chuck Berry LIVE with the Motown Session Musicians and Geffen records recently put out a four cd release called “Chuck Berry: You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966.” It’s a follow-up to the 1950s edition. I’ve only just begun to listen—but for me the collection was worth its hefty $80 price tag just for the live recordings of a 1963 concert in Michigan.

The show has always been talked about. It was taped just days after Chuck Berry was released from prison for a trumped-up Mann act violation. The back up musicians are unidentified Motown session musicians. There was supposed to be a live album, but it was held up because of contract disputes between Motown and Chess. Time must heal all wounds, because here it is at last.

And worth the wait.

I first found Chuck Berry in 1969 or 1970, and I’ve always assumed that his live shows evolved and changed over time. And I’m sure they have. But this 1963 version shows that his best performances have been remarkably consistent—an amazing performer improvising over the bones of his classics.

He arrives on stage yelling “Oh Yeah!” and asking to hear his echo from the crowd. The lively crowd obliges before he jumps into the instrumental “Guitar Boogie.”

He must have been practicing in the penitentiary because the guitar playing is rough but wonderful throughout, exploding with “pent up” energy. My favorite is an extended solo on “Wee Wee Hours.”

The sound quality is not always perfect, but the sound is live and fresh, like it happened yesterday. The backup band (to the extent you do hear it) is the best I’ve heard on a Chuck Berry live album, chiefly because it just swings. On my first listen I was struck especially by the horn section and the drumming. The crowd is audible and lively. You can hear individual comments and requests.

Berry is hoarse during the performance-- but he was hoarse from road wear and tear most times that I saw him. (The freshest I've heard him was at age 82. He's probably travelling less. His voice sounded 32 again.) But throughout this performance he sounds exhillerated to be back in business. Freedom will do that, I guess.

Chuck plays “Almost Grown,” something I’ve never heard live except in the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and does the back up vocals himself! “Wo-woah! You know I’m almost grown!” It’s a performance that completely renewed the song for me. (All I could think of was my teenage daughter.) On “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” the crowd sings along en masse. I always assumed that was a tradition that developed much later in the game than 1963. A lesson for me: these songs have always been loved.

When I saw him live the last time, in January 2009, at Blueberry Hill, Chuck stopped the show to tell a long story about a letter from his brother. When he first pulled the “letter” from his pocket, his son Charles, Jr., rolled his eyes and laughed—a signal that he’d heard this one before. Evidently! The same story got told in Michigan in 1963!

He ends with a tease, mixing “Good Night, Sweetheart” and jumping full force into bits of his bigger hits.

This one live set was worth the price for me. But if that doesn’t do it for you, there are a total of 107 cuts on the disks.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Want Railroad Airhorns, and a Military Spot

And he got 'em! Can't resist posting this photo of Chuck Berry's Car, courtesy of Sky.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Play Guitar Like Chuck Berry

Well, it won't happen.
And you sure won't learn it from a book.

But I just finished reading "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" by author Bruce Pegg, and as someone who has wanted to sound like Chuck Berry for about 37 years now, I had a twinge of jealousy when I read how Chuck showed his friend and band member Billy Peek how to play certain licks. "[H]e'd sit in and I would see him do a lick and I'd go, 'Man!' you know. And he'd take the time, he'd say, "Here, Billy," he'd come over and show me the lick and say, 'Here's what you do.'"

Well, no such luck for me or probably you. But if you are having trouble picking out those notes, the book "Chuck Berry" in the "Recorded Guitar Versions" (ARC Music Group, Distributed by Hal Leonard)seems to give accurate tablature and useful tips for 17 different songs.

You can check it out here:

As I say, I have wanted to sound like him for years. And I've seen lots of bad tablature. This stuff seems pretty danged good.

Monday, June 8, 2009

J. B. Hutto

In the late 1970s, when I first came to Seattle, the bluesman J. B. Hutto somehow got stuck here for a couple of months. I saw him a couple of times at a tiny dive bar in Fremont, and once at an arcade at Pioneer Square.

Sometimes a town just gets lucky.

(Not) Too Pooped to Pop (School Day)

A performance from 2007, with his St. Louis band-- Jim Marsala, bass; Robert Lohr, keyboards; Keith Robinson (I think!), drums; and Charles Berry, Jr., guitar. (Marsala is also playing in the 1979 clips, below).

It may not have the energy of the 1957 version-- but dang-- he's 80 years old here!

When I saw him in St. Louis he got a bit lost during "School Day" and said "I forgot the second verse, but I can still play the mother!"

Yep, he can.

Jean sois bien!

I added a nice clip of Chuck Berry playing "Bio" yo yhe piece about the album "Bio" below. Here's another clip from the same show-- evidently in Nice, France, in 1979. Note Jimmy Marsala on bass-- here and in the 2007 clip up above.

Way up there in Wisconsin after New Orleans

A day after banning cameras and not allowing fans to see a webcast of his performance at The Domino Effect benefit for New Orleans Chuck Berry headed north to Wisconsin where he played the following day. Here's a review-- a better one than he got going grumpy in Johnny's home town.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

This Day in Chuck Berry: June 3, 1973

June 3, 1973, (yikes--- that's 36 years ago!) is listed in “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography” as the recording date for the album “Bio.” I’m sure that doesn't tell the whole story, since the liner notes to "Bio" show there were two different groups of musicians on the record, and two recording studios. Most of the songs were recorded (presumably in New York) with members of the 1970’s group Elephant’s Memory. A couple—“Rain Eyes” and “Got it and Gone”—were recorded with Billy Peek, Ron Reed and Greg Edick in St. Louis. Chuck Berry plays piano on the latter two songs. Billy Peek, of course, played with Chuck Berry for years. I don't know much about the other two, but know that Edick played bass with Ingrid Berry at one point.

Elephant’s Memory probably backed Chuck Berry and John Lennon on the famous Mike Douglas appearance. Maybe that’s how this album came about. Thanks to them, the album has a good feel to it-- not the powerhouse of the early Chuck Berry recordings, or the elegance of "Back Home--" but it's a good sound.

But I'm easy. The album came out near the end of the first phase of my Chuck Berry fanaticism. He could do little that I considered wrong in those days. I owned whatever "Golden Decade" albums had appeared by that time. I had "Back Home" and "The London Sessions." I'd seen him live several times. I'd picked up a number of used Mercury recordings in the bargain bins. I had seen "Let The Good Times Roll" as often as my budget allowed. I'd shaken his hand.

(I haven't always been so easy. Five years later when “Rockit” appeared, I bought it, listened, and took it back for a refund. I considered it crap. I only learned to like that album when I bought an ATCO reissue a few months ago. I must have been in a very Un-Chuck Berry mood in 1979. It happens.)

“Bio” got a review in Rolling Stone. You can find it here.

The record's best feature might have been the inside liner, set up like an old photo album, with pictures from olden times. This was before "The Autobiography" and before the web, and I considered any clue to my hero's roots an important gift. There were interesting old pictures from before Maybellene, including shots inside the Cosmopolitan Club. And there was a great shot of Chuck Berry as a kid, looking down, leaning on the counter of what I am guessing is his photographic dark room, in front of a blurred portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

My favorite song was “Got it and Gone."

Then one day it happened
They called him off to war
Way over there in no man's land
Just him and his guitar
Nobody over there to love him
Nobody ever sent him news
What could a poor boy do at night
But sit and sing the blues?

I saw Chuck Berry perform in Monterey, California sometime in 1974 just months after this record came out. I was standing at the foot of the stage just beneath his sizeable, thin soled shoes. It was a great show-- long and leisurely, with a good backup band that specialized in 50s rock 'n' roll, called Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs. The show also offered my second direct communication with my adopted dad. I was looking out for his career. I didn't want him to just be an oldies act. So I passed him a note that said: “Play ‘Got it and Gone.’”

He read it, repeated it, and laughed.

He didn’t play it-- thus ending that short chapter in my life called: "My efforts to influence the Great Chuck Berry." (As Bob Dylan said recently, when asked if he'd thought about collaborating with Berry: "The thought is preposterous. Chuck doesn't need anybody to do anything with or for him.")

At least picked the right album. The title song “Bio,” a biographical piece built on an Elmore James riff, is one of the only post 1960s Chuck Berry songs to “survive” at Chuck Berry's own performances. (I don't count his Ding-a-Ling. Besides, it is a song he'd played for years.)

I’ve seen him play "Bio" in concert several times, most recently at Blueberry Hill in January 2009. And Berry played it in the opening scene of “Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll,” which was filmed in the wreckage of the old Cosmoplitan Club.

Here is a really nice version of the song:

Another song from the album that I liked was a kicked back instrumental called "Woodpecker." The lead guitar and saxaphone play together while another guitar weaves in a rhtyhm riff. There's laughing and talking throughout. To get a feel for "Woodpecker" without actually hearing it, watch Chuck Berry dance while T-Bone Walker plays guitar in "Every Day I have the Blues," posted below.

By the way, according to Sally Brompton's Daily Horoscope if today is your birthday:

"Your potential is almost unlimited and it's time you started to exploit the gifts you were born with. Yes, okay, you've done well enough in the past but compared to what you could have accomplished it's a drop in the ocean. Never mind, there's still time."

It's been 36 years since "Bio," Mr. Berry. I'm not trying to influence you, but I would like to hear the new stuff you've recorded!