Friday, October 30, 2009

Chuck Berry in Cordoba-- Bienvenidos!

I have to thank and an Italian fan for this wonderful clip and interview.  (And they say he doesn't give 'em!)  And he's speaking espanol! (Sort of!) Great music, too.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

45 Years Later, Today, And What A Show! (Missed Opportunity)

Here’s Rolling Stone editor Jan Wenner:

"Look, there was a very special moment in the 1950s with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It just all happened at once. It was incredible. Then in the 1960s, the Beatles and the Stones, emerging from England at the same time as America's greatest writer of any kind, Bob Dylan . . . are those moments going to happen again? Those are hard to predict, but a generation later came U2 and Bruce Springsteen. They do keep coming."

Being no scholar of hip hop I can’t say exactly when one of those moments happened in Brooklyn or Queens a few decades ago, but add it to the list if you know. We do know that the tiny town of Clarksdale, Mississippi and other cotton towns in the Delta exploded with music 20 or 30 years before rock and roll burst out. And then there are the other bursts—Detroit and Memphis in the mid-1960s, San Francisco later that decade, and even wet, dark, rainy cold Seattle in the late 1980s or early 1990s. (I was here but only hearing African music at the time.)

Anyway, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame begins its 25th Anniversary celebrations tonight with couple of concerts involving people like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin. Read about it here and here

I wish Chuck Berry was there to participate-- a bookend to T.A.M.I.  I have this funny but completely unsubstantiated feeling (saw an ad once with his name in lights) that he was invited but demanded a fee and therefore won't be on the bill.  Sort of like they say happened at Monterey Pop. 

Ah well-- he does it his way, and it's worked so far. (Some of the people who criticize his insistence on being paid for his work are the same people who demand, say, 100 times as much before appearing at stadium to perform; not to mention lavish spreads in the dressing room, helicopters, chartered planes, etc.  Give me and the man a break!)

But I'd like to see him honored the way he ought to be honored.  This could have been (should have been) it.  And who knows-- maybe it'll happen anyway!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

45 Years Ago Today (The T.A.M.I. Show!)

And what a show! Bo Diddley! Marvin Gaye! The Rolling Stones! Smokey Robinson! James Brown collapsing on stage and wrapped by attendants in an ermine stole-- only to cast it off and begin again! (The Rolling Stones, mere newbies at the time, the mere latest thing, chose to follow James Brown! Baaaaad idea! But give Mick credit for learning some Brown dance moves back stage before going on.) And of course, OUR MAN-- or about half to a third of him, shot bizarrly from up close and below in a misguided effort to feature the go go girls instead of the Go Johnny Go man-- but he got a bunch of songs in, fast, and was part of something that was pretty incredible. Here's a tidbit that I found on youtube.

You can buy a tape of the show on line, with an older Chuck Berry narrating-- but it lacks the James Brown with cape routine that I swear (in my dementia) I watched on television years ago with Stevo and Danny. That's like showing Woodstock without Jimi, Hamlet without a soliloquy, or any of those Rock 'n' Roll Revivals without Chuck Berry to close the show with a bang.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bruce Springsteen Rolling Over Mr. Beethoven in St. Louis

“We always get requests for a Chuck Berry song when we come to St. Louis,” said Bruce Springsteen, at his recent concert there.  A fan held up a sign requesting “Roll Over Beethoven.” Turns out that the fan had the lyrics written out on the flip side of the sign.  Read about it here.  (And see a great picture of the two of them here.

If you're a fan, you've already seen this.  But it's sweet.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

She Believes (In the Public Option!)

Chuck Berry has an interesting family-- Daughter Ingrid, who sings with him; son Charles, who plays guitar for him; Daughter Isalee, who gave her name to his publishing company, and Melody, a health care executive who is featured in this article.  I'm happy to say that she supports a public option!  Go head on, Melody!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Heroes: Elmore James (I Believe!)

I've long lamented the lack of a film or video of Elmore James.  American television and Hollywood evidently didn't have enough vision for something so raw, and maybe he didn't make the European tours that got some of our other heroes recorded on film or video.  But here's a hell of a version of "Rolling and Tumbling."  Look here for a version of the same song by Muddy Waters.  (Bob Dylan's was taken away from or by youtube.)  Here's some history (from the National Park Service!  Hail! Hail!)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heroes: Son House

If the devil didn't teach Robert Johnson, it was this man (and it's a straight shot from Johnson to Chuck).  He taught Muddy, too.  In fact, there's a great paragraph in the Muddy Waters biography "Can't Be Satisfied" where Muddy Waters spots a band member imitating the aged limp of Son House.  Waters puts a stop to it immediately and tells the band to give some respect to a man who was there before all of them.

We've got to do the same.  If you don't know him, here's a place to start.

He even looks a little like Chuck Berry in the shot up there.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Heroes (The Wonder of Youtube)

Youtube is a miracle-- a time machine, and a chance to see people and things I only dreamed about when I was a kid. 

Blues is a journey that's different for every person.  Mine started with Chuck Berry and B. B. King, who took me first to T-Bone Walker, and then further into the blues racks to find my first few dozen records.  As a kid I "discovered" Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, and many of the usual suspects.  It was a good time to become a blues fan.  I remember one record that I bought new for 44 cents with two songs each by James, Howlin' Wolf, Ray Charles, B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Bobby Bland.   How's that for a bargain?

It's actually just about as good-- or bad-- a bargain today.  I just read B. B. King's autobiography.  He talked about how his early records were in the 99 cent bin.  It didn't thrill him.  There wasn't much profit in it.  It must not thrill anyone these days, either, at least if they're living-- but right now, for better or for worse, I've been concentrating on the records of departed saints, buying more old music that's new to me, and often finding it, new and used, at rock bottom prices.  There are a lot of particularly good collections from Chess-- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, etc., and I've been finding great old acoustic stuff as well.  I drive girls to soccer practice and we bounce along to stuff neither of us have ever heard, with mandolins and guitars or maybe electrified harmonicas and a deadly slide (and Leaonard Chess pounding away on the bass drum!)

I forget how I first "found" Mississippi John Hurt.  (I "found" him about 80 years after his mom did, and 40 or 50 years after Okeh Records).  I think I probably just liked his face smiling out of the blues bin, and read the liner notes, and bought the record.  It was recorded when he was old, after he'd been rediscovered.  A little history here.  He has such a gentle sound-- part of the miracle of what we call blues.

A few weeks ago I found a collection of Hurt's oldest recordings, made in 1928, by Okeh.  What amazed me is that he sounds just the same in the twenties and the sixties.

For a few days I'm going to search out some of my old heroes.  I start, randomly, with Mississippi John Hurt, whose appearance on youtube I bumped into almost by accident.  Here he is with Pete Seeger, and a woman I can't identify. 

Like our man, he's got his own website, too. You can check it out here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

149 Shows and Counting! The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill

Three days before his 83rd birthday Chuck Berry did his 149th monthly show at Blueberry Hill. These BBH shows are a legacy that will be remembered.  I was lucky enough to see one of these wonderful shows, thanks to my dear wife, who bought the ticket I'd been threatening to get for years.  (Read about my visit here )  Here's a recent article about the 149th show.  Picture by Doug.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Birthday Dear Charles, Happy Birthday To You

I hope you live forever-- and that I live to be 100!  (Your music's gonna for sure.)

Enough Monkey Business For Me! (I Think I Need This!)

A record you can send me for MY birthday!  I learned about it here:

Too Much Monkey Business – 30 Great Artists

01 - Chuck Berry - Too Much Monkey Business
02 - Elvis Presley - Too Much Monkey Business
03 - Sleepy LaBeef - Too Much Monkey Business
04 - Freddie Cannon - Too Much Monkey Business
05 - Beatles - Too Much Monkey Business
06 - Yardbirds - Too Much Monkey Business
07 - Hollies - Too Much Monkey Business
08 - Kinks - Too Much Monkey Business
09 - Javelins (with Ian Gillan) - Too Much Monkey Business
10 - Wayne Fontana - Too Much Monkey Business
11 - Dion - Too Much Monkey Business
12 - Rattles - Too Much Monkey Business
13 - Applejacks - Too Much Monkey Business
14 - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Too Much Monkey Business
15 - Liverbirds - Too Much Monkey Business
16 - Manzi-S - Too Much Monkey Business (japanese)
17 - Casey Jones - Too Much Monkey Business
18 - Mark LaForme - Too Much Monkey Business
19 - John Wetton & Richard Palmer James - Too Much Monkey Business
20 - Steve Forbert - Too Much Monkey Business
21 - Luca Olivieri - Too Much Monkey Business
22 - Anne Feeney - Too Much Monkey Business
23 - Rocky Sharpe - Too Much Monkey Business
24 - Routers - Too Much Monkey Business
25 - Tom Rush - Too Much Monkey Business
26 - Eddie Hinton - Too Much Monkey Business
27 - Warriors - Too Much Monkey Business
29 - Shakers - Too Much Monkey Business
30 - Calvin James Johnson - Too Much Monkey Business

This version by The Hollies is pretty unecessary until a surprise towards the end that's actually pretty funny.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sonny Boy Williamson

Chess Records, from 1950 to 1960, was a miracle.  (It really does look like a scene from court, here; and the audience looks like a bunch of prosecutors!)

Got Their Mojo Working (Back When Television Was a Vision)

Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson (II), Willie Dixon playing it cool.  Help with the others appreciated.  (Otis Spann on Piano?  Jimmy Rogers?  Help me!)  (Note that help arrived in the form of an "anonymous" tip from a trustworthy source.  See the comment below.  And thank you Fred!)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chuck Berry San Francisco Dues, 1971

My third Chuck Berry album, after “The Golden Decade” and “Back Home,” was 1971's "San Francisco Dues."   Author John Collis considers it Chuck Berry’s most cohesive album. I don’t. I think it has a patched together feel, with most songs recorded in 1971, and a couple of older ones (“Viva Rock & Roll” and “Lonely School Days”) thrown in as filler. As filler goes, they’re good—among the better songs on the album—but they hearken back to the teenage stuff that I thought Chuck Berry left behind when he recorded “Back Home.” Whatever else you think of it, (and I love it,) “Back Home” always struck me as a thoroughly grown up record, with a consistent, refined sound. Even “I’m a Rocker,” which was essentially a staid remake of “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” had a grown up feel that fit the tougher times Chuck Berry was facing in 1970 before his giant “come back” in 1972—“I may be down sometimes, but I come back to rock and roll.” So after “Back Home,” it didn’t really make sense to me that one of the better songs on “San Francisco Dues” was about “Lonely School Days.” (I didn’t know at the time that it was an older song, recorded years earlier.)

As for cohesiveness— for me the stickiest thing on this album is the nearly omnipresent wah-wah, which Collis describes as “quacking” like a duck at times. Bad idea.

The cover art comes from the same photo shoot as the "Back Home" photos.  He's wearing a jacket that showed up on a lot or late 1960s - early 1970s albums, and then again during some of my favorite scenes from the movie "Hail! Hail!"  Those clothes never die or get thrown away.

The newer songs on “San Francisco Dues” are a mixed bag. “Festival” is a little bit dippy—a long recitation of every band Chuck Berry could think of and make rhyme. “San Francisco Dues” itself was has a nice bluesy feel, but the hip lingo of 1967 was a already little dated the day it arrived (in 1971!):

Went on a little trip last night
And the boys was playin' some of them old Fillmore Blues
And every head was right on in there diggin'
Beautiful vibrations, had some heavy grooves
My chick was right on in there with me in heaven
Yes, we were payin' our San Francisco dues

A couple of the songs step it up a notch. “Let’s Do Our Thing Together” has a good beat and decent lyrics.

I'm not a blue-blood or a scholar
Just a hard-workin' boy
And after five long days
A body needs a little joy
Let's do our thing together
Go out and have a balling time
You know I dig you doing your thing
And I'll turn you on when I do mine

And though it’s a little silly, I also like the song “Bordeaux in my Pirough,” a blatant remake of “Jambalaya.” “Bound to Lose” is another semi-blues number, and one that seems to ring true.

Looks like I'll go on through my life
Bound in sorrow, I'm a loser
Right from the start
Now I've lost the only one I really loved
And I'm bound to this pain in my heart

Who among us knows what goes on in the heart or life of Chuck Berry. Not me.  He gives us his songs and his stage presence, not a confession. But some of his truest songs seem to reflect a life that bounces from the good times of “Let’s Do Our Thing Together” to the effect those good times might have had on his family life. There’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” There’s “Have Mercy Judge.”

My favorite song on this album, by far, is “Oh Louisiana,” an unusual Chuck Berry song that I think is up there among his very best. It’s a simple song full of longing and regret, and a shameful attempt to return. Why people don’t cover this one, I don’t know.

Oh, Louisiana, I stayed away from you too long
Oh, Louisiana, how can a true love go so wrong?
She put me in shame and in sorrow
And I come home tomorrow
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea, yea, Creole baby, Cajun queens
Quaint porches and windows, filet de gumbo, the basin beans
Your beautiful Delta and bayous in green
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea-e-e, yea, I'm flyin' on Delta 903
Right over St. Louis, high over Memphis, Tennessee
On southward to the sea, where I long to be
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea, yea, them Yankee nights are cold and long
Oh, Louisiana, she broke my heart and wrecked my home
She shamed me in sorrow, to face my tomorrow
Oh, take me back, oh, Louisiana

And ultimately, dacades later, my other favorite on the album turns out to be “My Dream (Poem),” a long poem spoken a bit sadly over Chuck Berry’s own plunking piano.

At my old upright piano,
With pure ivory keys,
I'll just plunk out some vibrations
Of whatever I please.
Sometimes it'll be classics,
Sometimes lullabies;
But mostly rock n' roll
That I'll surely improvise.
And with my favourite guitar,
I'll be just strummin' away
And bidding goodbye,
To another beautiful day.
A portrait of my angel,
That I love most of all -
I'll have painted from a snapshot
Onto my bedroom wall.
Where the suns warm rays,
And the moon's cold beam
Will cast her reflection,
As I lay there and dream.

You know, I can't deny
That it makes me so sad,
When I think that I've lost
All that I could have had.

It’s another song of loss, regret, and a little hope, and a true love lost, but never gone.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Muddy Berry and Chuck Waters

It was Muddy Waters who told Chuck Berry to go to Chess records.  In the late 1960s Berry was recorded playing Muddy's (and Willie Dixon's) "Hootchie Cootchie Man" at least a couple of times.  The Filmore session with the Steve Miller band had better backing from a better band steeped in Chicago blues-- but this concert's always worth watching if only for Berry's performance.

Here's something from an old post...

Chuck Berry is quoted in a great article in the British newspaper The Independent.

"Look, I ain't no big shit, all right?... My music, it is very simple stuff. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn't blue enough. I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic."

Full story below.


And here's the man himself...

Here's another version, from 5 or 6 years later.  It's from a documentary and includes some great bits of an interview.  It's from before Muddy hit the really big time, (i.e., crossed over, with albums that sold well in the white community) which began to happen more a couple of years later.  It's a tougher sound than Chuck Berry gets out of a song like this.  (Muddy probably wouldn't have done too well with "School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell!")

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Chuck Berry Tribute Shows: The Good, Bad, the Ugly (and a great one!)

I noticed that a guy named Charlie Ray Richards is going to be doing a Chuck Berry Tribute Show way up north of Toronto, Canada on Mr. Berry's birthday-- October 18.  In the publicity shot he's sure got the lean, high cheek bone look of a young Chuck Berry, and he's got the split down.  According to Richard's own website his work is "pure pleasure.  I've never met anyone in my life that wasn't a Chuck Berry fan even if they didn't know it until I sing his numerous hits. The only thing I fear is breaking a string cuz you can't play Chuck's tunes with five of 'em. Believe me, I've tried!"

It turns out I've seen Mr. Richards on youtube, although he wasn't identified as such.  Not exactly the same look as in the still shot!  His group is called Monkey Business.  The videoclip below shows a certain level of skill, some familiar licks, and lots of  good intention-- but it also goes a long way to show how really hard it is to be Chuck Berry on stage!

Meanwhile, I was stiiiiiilllllll on youtube.  And I found more tributes.

FIRST OF ALL, THE WORST OF ALL.   I shouldn't put this on the site, or give it publicity, but SOMEONE needs to tell THIS TURKEY that blackface entertainment was bad 100 years ago, worse 80 years ago, and intollerable now.  The same guy does Buddy Holly, and I'm sure it's all done with good intentions-- (or maybe just the intention to make some cash at a casino) but dang!  Rub off the makeup! And delete the phoney audience sounds!  If anyone is really screaming about this performance it's ME, screaming in pain and anger.

My advice: Peek, shudder, curse, and then press STOP.

Whereas this guy can play-- I think.  (In another clip he's just dancing and singing.)  Who knows-- but the fingers do seem to be doing what they seem to be doing.  If it's really him playing, he's got the end of the first lick that I spent yeeeears search for.

But I saved the best for last....

For more about Charlie Ray Richards and the Chuck Berry Birthday Tribute:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Welcome to England! (And Scotland!)

The newspapers are beginning to notice that Chuck Berry is coming back to the British Isles.

Some nice!

Some not so!

It's a little funny that anyone who is a lesser figure than, say, Jerry Lee Lewis, would have the *&$@s to call Chuck Berry his "Arch-Nemesis."  And even Jerry Lee is his buddy when it's all said and done. 

Is this guy Lex Luther?  But since there's no such thing as bad publicity...

(From the web:  "An archenemy, archfoe, archvillain or archnemesis (sometimes spelled arch-enemy, arch-foe, arch-villain or arch-nemesis) is the principal enemy of a character in a work of fiction, often described as the hero's worst enemy.") 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bob Dylan at WAMU Theater in Seattle, October 5, 2009

I think Bob Dylan has always been a bluesman at heart—and that he’s become a great one in recent years. Maybe that’s too confining. He reaches deep into American music and pulls out everything from Muddy Waters to Hank Williams to Bing Crosby.  He matches Willie Dixon riffs to Chuck Berry rhymes, and sings in a voice that can sound like Howlin’ Wolf, or Jimmy Durante.  It's the bounty of a 50 year career.

Last night at WAMU Theater in Seattle he opened his newest tour and his his set with a 12 bar blues from the late 1970s, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna put my good foot forward,
And stop being influenced by fools.

It’s a song from his evangelical days-- and amusingly, the days when I first started buying Bob Dylan records.  Some people scorned his preaching blues, but I couldn't afford to then or now-- Slow Train Coming was my second or third Bob Dylan album.  I liked it-- though I find it hard to believe he was ever influenced by fools. The only influences I hear are his fellow geniuses. Another blues he played Monday night bears witness.  “My Wife’s Hometown” is done to the beat of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

She can make you steal, make you rob
Give you the hives, make you lose your job
Make things bad, she can make things worse
She got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse
One of these days, I'll end up on the run
I'm pretty sure, she'll make me kill someone
I'm going inside, roll the shutters down
I just want to say that Hell's my wife's home town

The blues infuse just about everything he does. He did a loud, rocking hard version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” a song set on the blues highway that cuts through his own hometown in Minnesota and Clarksdale in Mississippi. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” has the jazzier feel of a 1950s sort of urban blues—something Horace Silver might have played,, or T-Bone Walker, with a big band full of horns.

I'm movin' after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don't know what I'd do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin'
Nothin' but the moon and stars

About half the night Dylan stood stage right playing keyboards. His band includes a powerful rhythm section with Tony Garnier on bass, Stu Kimball on guitar, George Receli on drums. They’ve been together on tour and on recordings for years and provide the sort of rock solid foundation that a group like Booker T. and the M.G.s used to provide at STAX. Donnie Herron adds a host of instruments including a steel guitar, viola, a trumpet and n eager smile. Charlie Sexton plays lead guitar. The band members sat or stood stage left, facing Dylan, watching attentively and responding to whatever nods or musical leads he gave them.

When he wasn’t at the keyboard Dylan moved center stage to play an electric guitar, or his harmonica, or stood leaning into the mike, arms outstretched, and sang. One local writer saw Bobby Darin. I saw Durante.  (Heard him, too!)

When he put on an electric guitar, he held it almost vertically. For a time he seemed to labor with the notes, pushing noncompliant fingers stiffly-- but then he sidled up to Sexton like John to Paul, loosened up, and the notes came rolling and tumbling, Dylan bending this way, Sexton reacting back. There is no doubt who is leading this group of musicians. He gives finger signs, or just leans into his instrument, grinning, pumping out a new theme, and off they all go. He seemed and sounded most comfortable at the keyboard, often set to an organ sound. The last few times I’ve seen Dylan I could never actually hear what he was doing with his keyboards. I wondered if it was just a prop. (Maybe it was just a matter of having larger groups on those visits, and crumbier sound.) Not this time. This time the keyboard was loud and clear, a fundamental part of the band’s sound, sometimes bluesy, sometimes pumping almost like the organ at a baseball game. And although the “WAMU Theater” is a big barn or warehouse, the sound was clear and beautiful, at least from our vantage about 50 feet from center stage. (The only thing not so clear was the view—mostly the back of the heads of the guys in front of me.)

He played a lot of songs from his newest album, “Together Through Life.” “Forgetful Heart” was full of moans and murmers, with Tony Garnier bowing a standup bass and Donnie Herron apparently playing a viola. (I couldn’t see!) They played “If You Ever Go to Houston.”

Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal
Last time I saw her
Was at the Magnolia Hotel
If you help me find her
You can be my pal
Mr. Policeman
Can you help me find my gal

They played “Spirit on the Water,” with its lilting chord changes.

They brag about your sugar
Brag about it all over town
Put some sugar in my bowl
I feel like laying down

And “I feel a Change Coming On”

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don't have one single rose

On the record “Modern Times” “Thunder on the Mountain” has a Chuck Berry feel to it, in part because of Denny Freeman’s guitar solos. Here Charlie Sexton gave it more of a rockabilly sound, and Bob Dylan squealed with delight after “thinking ‘bout Alicia Keys.”

When she was born in Hells Kitchen
I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be

A few weeks ago I wrote about “Jolene” and said I might hear it. And so I did, as part of the encore, (along with two encore standbys, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” where Charlie Sexton channeled Jimi Hendrix.  Someone caught it on video:

There were a lot of other songs. You’ll find set lists aplenty—and soon, a bootleg (They come out for every show.)   He played  “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Lay Lady Lay.” I didn’t take notes, and there were two songs I didn't recognize. But I appreciated another chance to see and hear one of our great ones-- one of our truest originals and one of our best copycats and recyclers. I took my older daughter to see him in about 2005. I took my younger daughter to see him last night. Maybe someday I can take my little boy. I hope so. I’m like Chuck Berry in that regard. I hope he lives to be 100, and  that he keeps doing what he does.

Monday, October 5, 2009

More From John Davidson-- An Interview. Pretty Good One!

Memphis Tennessee on John Davidson

Maybellene in Chile! (1980)

Chuck Berry in Chile-- 1980

A Review Of Bob Dylan's October 4, 2009 Show at The Moore Theater in Seattle

I go see him tonight-- alas, at a more questionable venue.

Someone Will Surely Help You If You Try, But You Must Try Hard (How to Play Like Chuck Berry AND Muddy Waters, Volume 3)

(You probably can't, and I definitely can't, but I learn stuff trying!)

I’m not the most focused individual. I hop from thing to thing. I start a book, and then drop it for another. I listen to one performer for a few days and then switch to a different one. I have three guitars, and I abandon them one after another. For a while I try finger picking. Then for a few days I might return to the hopeless task of jazz chords. And then I pull out another guitar and return to my feeble version of the blues.

But what I lack in focus, I make up for in endurance. I keep trying. (Yesterday I "ran" a marathon.  I wasn't prepared. I messed up the two long runs in my training. I didn't think I'd make it-- and I didn't make it to the finish line quickly.  But I finished nearly 8 minutes faster than my last marathon, so I was happy.)

My interests have also endured. I found Chuck Berry and B. B. King 40 years ago and I’m still interested today. I found the stars around the same time, and still love them. I started trying to play the guitar 35 years ago and I’m still trying. And still learning!  One tiny bit at a time.

I probably first tried to copy the intro to Johnny B. Goode 35 years ago soon after I learned a couple of blues licks. I got pretty close, too. I also learned a close approximation of the very similar intro to Roll Over Beethoven. But I knew that I never got Johnny (or any other Chuck Berry solo) quite right. I wasn’t ringing like Chuck, and there were always a couple of notes that I couldn’t find for my life.  In the intro to Johnny it was a couple of notes just before he begins the string of slurs.

But back to the lack of focus-- the flitting about. For the past few weeks Chuck Berry has not really been on my mind. I’ve been reading the biography of Muddy Waters and listening to a lot of his early music from the Stovall plantation and from Chess. The biography is great because it includes good descriptions of the songs, including some interviews with the creators. There’s a part where Muddy is quoted telling Alan Lomax how he tuned his guitar on the song "Country Blues," the first that he recorded with Alan Lomax.  Once I read it, I ran to the stereo. I tuned my guitar the same way.  And I had a breakthrough.

I have never really been able to play slide guitar—but I always wrongly assumed one tuning was as good as the next for slide, and so I always tuned it to an open E. Suddenly, at age 53, I realized that different songs are built on different tunings. Once I knew how Muddy tuned his guitar, the notes made perfect sense. Within a couple minutes I figured out what he was doing during the verses. Within a couple of days I was able to do a reasonable (if weak) facsimile. (I was not, and will never be, able to do a reasonable or even a bad facsimile of Muddy Waters’ singing.) It wasn't much, but it was my first complete slide guitar song, and my first real Delta Blues song— about 35 years after I bought a “how to” book on the Delta Blues! And it was a good song to learn, because it was a two-fer—a nearly verbatim musical remake of Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.”

(Here's someone who plays it a lot better than I do.)

But after a few days I realized I’d been neglecting other styles, so I put on a Chuck Berry record and tried to play rhythm. And when I got to Johnny B. Goode I tried the intro again, and got stuck on those weird, unattainable notes at the end of part one. And then I resorted to my own advice—I took a look at the ARC music Chuck Berry songbook that I wrote about on __. And there it was—a weird drop out of the root fingering where I’d tried to stay all these years. I’d finally got it—with help.

I should have known. One of my favorite Chuck Berry interviews was about 20 years ago in Guitar Player Magazine. I liked because the interviewer, Tom Wheeler, mentioned how people tended to simplify Chuck Berry’s sound when trying to play like Chuck Berry. I knew this from my own explorations, but I never bothered to play the notes Wheeler referenced in the interview. I now realize they were the exact notes I’d been looking for all these years. And although I needed help to find them, I take a certain pride in the endurance it took to do it.

Here's an excerpt from the interview that shows how to get to those notes.

Oh What a Thrill!

Another spirited 1980 performance-- this one a rare (for me) occasion to see Chuck Berry play one of his later songs in public.  The song's called "Oh What a Thrill," from the album "Rockit," whjich was just about to be released at the time.  The only "newer" songs he seems to play regulary are "House Lights," from the same record, and "Bio." 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Maybellene-- 1980

The guy was going crazy that year!  Sorry I missed it.  What I like here is that he's playing Maybellene the old fashioned way, with that country western alternating bass just like on the record.  It's the stabilizing influence of Jimmy Marsala.  And watch that duckwalk!

1980s TV

I was out of the country from 1980 to 1983.  I missed out on all of these.  By now Chuck Berry's legend is taking hold.  He's had a mega-hit with that song whose name must not be spoken.  He's been launched into outer space.  His place in history is secure.  He looks pretty content-- certainly a lot happier than in that Mike Douglas clip.

Try to lay this burden down! (The feeling is sick, body and soul!)

Also from the Mike Douglas show.  I say,

Send Brian!

Send Chuck! 

Send a blanket to cover those shorty shorts!


(Sorry!  But it goes to show that what Chuck Berry does is waaay harder than it looks.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

The first time, ever I saw his face...

Was on this show, the Mike Douglas Show-- but it wasn't this time.  I'm guessing by Sonny and Cher's disco hairdoos that this is during the same period though, a no-man's land after his late 1960s boomlet and before he struck it big again with the London Sessions.  He has a sad, "why am I here?" affect that might explain why, when I first saw him on Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett, I was interested but not really affected.  It took a live show (even sadder-- but definitely compelling) to get me drawn in, and it took the original records to make me a fanatic.  Once I heard those it was all over.  But Chuck Berry kept working through thick days, and the thin ones like this.  (I'm sure I saw this.  I saw him on Mike Douglas several times before the famous John Lennon show.)

I'll say this for Mike Douglas-- he was a nice guy, and he had a lot of really great musicians on his show.  I saw Chuck Berry on that show at least four or five times, including the big one with John Lennon,and I saw B. B. King there, too.  Good thing about Mike Douglas-- he talked to his musical guests as if they mattered.