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!