I’m home this week-- or close to my hometown, to South Lake Tahoe. It's a place where I once saw Chuck Berry shake the rafters of an old Safeway store for two long sets. The building is still there. It seems so improbable now that it was home to raucous concerts by the fledgling Santana, a young Sly and the Family Stone, and our man, Mr. Berry.
A lot of Chuck Berry songs are about going home. The best known is “Back in the U.S.A.”
Oh well, oh well, I’m feeling so good today
I just touched down at an international runway
Jet propelled back home from overseas to the U.S.A.
Chuck Berry writes about it in his autobiography. He’d been to Australia, and hadn’t liked the food. (This was the 1950s. He wrote that he hadn’t even found a good hot dog.)
When I was younger I never cared that much for "Back in the U.S.A." because I am a person who’s always interested in going the other direction. Oh, I yearn for New York and Los Angeles as much as anybody, and even enjoy a few nights in Detroit or old St. Lou-- but I like going places where I don’t know the language or the customs, and where the food and buildings are different.
Then again, back home was an exciting place in the 1950s, and a pretty good place to go most anytime.
Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeways?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U. S. A.
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a juke-box jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
It’s a song as energetic and enthusiastic as the Benny Goodman – Lionel Hampton – Charlie Christian classic “Flying Home,” which Berry recorded more than once and included on his “Live at the Fillmore” album. “Flying Home” is a deep vein of Chuck Berry influences. Goodman's guitarist, Charlie Christian, was one of his guitar heroes-- up there with T-Bone Walker and Elmore James-- and Berry also cites Hampton’s saxophonist, Illinois Jaquette, as a major influence. Jazz is a series of stepping stones. You can jump one artist to another as sidement turn into headliners. Hampton worked with Goodman, and then Jaquette did a stint with Lionel Hampton and is famous for his version of "Flying Home."
I bought a Benny Goodman sextet album of live performances from a radio show to hear Christian and Hampton play “Flying Home,” but wound up being most surprised by 8 bars of clarinet (from Goodman himself?) towards the end of the performance—translate it to guitar and you’d come close to one of Chuck Berry’s memorable guitar licks. I'd write it down for you if I knew how!
Chuck Berry reinterpreted the song a few years after he recorded it live at the Fillmore. This time he worked with Johnny B. Goode pianist Lafayette Leake, bassist Phillip Upchurch, and former Woolies leader “Boogie” Bob Baldori. (The sessions must not have been as much fun as some of the music that came from them. Upchurch doesn't even mention Chuck among the many people he lists as having worked with on his own website. But dang, they made a good bunch of songs together, including "Tulane," "Have Mercy Judge," and "Flying Home.") The song has the same “I got rhythm” chord changes as the original, but a distinct melody from Baldori’s wailing harmonica. My favorite moments come from Lafayette Leake, whose cascading piano notes reflect the the exhilaration of an overdue journey home. It’s right and fitting that the song is on Berry’s album “Back Home,” named for his return to Chess. In my mind, it’s the best Chuck Berry “album,” with a cohesive sound, and even a little theme hiding there. Home.
We're not done. “I’ve Got A Booking” has a disgruntled lover heading home.
I’m going back to my hometown
Where I’m better known
I’m gonna leave here by train darlin’
Cause railway is much too slow.
And one of my personal favorites is “Oh Louisiana,” about a sorry lover returning home, this time flying “right over St. Louis, high over Memphis Tennessee” to New Orleans.
Your beautiful delta
And bayous of green
Oh take me back
All the songs are by Chuck Berry and published by Arc or Isalee Music Co.