Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving from Taj Mahal

I couln't think of a Chuck Berry angle, but every Thanksgiving Seattle is blessed by a week or two of Taj Mahal at Jazz Alley, a huge and classy jazz dinner club downtown.  He's there now.  Sometimes I go see him there in November, but this year-- although I'm thankful as all get out-- I'm too busy.  So here's a song about food and family from Taj. 

I always have considered Taj Mahal one of my personal heros and one of my modern instructors in the blues.  This song is pretty easy to pick out in the chords D G E and A.  Just move your fingers around a little and slied the A up from the bottom fret.  You won't sound like Taj, but you'll know a good song.

And someday, if I don't feel too foolish, I'll tell the story about when I think a young Taj Mahal walked up and listened to a young me play a Chuck Berry song on the streets of San Francisco.  But I feel too foolish to do that now.

So happy Thanksgiving, y'all.  And if you don't have turkey, try some buttermilk corn cakes with fish fried nice and brown.  Or go see Taj at Jazz Alley.  It's allllllwwwwaaayyyyys good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Don't Want Your Botherations, Get Away! Leave Me Be!

Imagine a single day’s work where you create:

“Roll over Beethoven,”

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man,”

the ballad “Drifting Heart,”

and then you top it off with “Too Much Monkey Business.”

All of these songs were recorded at Chuck Berry’s third or fourth professional recording session. Still a rookie, but already telling Beethoven to hit the road. And making good on it.

“Too Much Monkey Business” has always been a special one for me. In his autobiography Berry said he wrote it to describe “the kinds of hassles a person encounters in every day life” and says he “would have needed over a hundred verses to portray the major areas that bug people the most.”   I just knew it was funny as hell, with perfect rock poetry. 

Weirdly, he doesn't seem to play it often.  I wish he did.

It begins with Chuck’s lead guitar ringing just about exactly like a bell.

Deedlee-dee, deedlee dee,
deedlee-dee, deedlee-dee,
deedlee dee, deedlee-dee,

Then comes Willie Dixon’s jazzy acoustic bass, answered by Chuck‘s chords and Johnnie Johnson’s rippling piano. The song doesn’t have the boogie woogie rhythm work that Chuck Berry became so famous for (almost none of the early songs have it); the roots here are jazzier, with strummed chords. But when the band jolts to a stop to make room for the lyrics it’s pure rock and roll.

Running to and fro
Hard working at the mill
Never fail in the mail here come a rotten bill

Chuck’s 29 when he sings that first verse, but his voice sounds older—not too different from the 82 year old I saw Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. A little meaner, too. And it makes sense. Unlike “School Day” or “Oh Baby Doll,” this isn’t teenage stuff—it’s real world frustration, 16 Tons to a backbeat.

Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
For me to be involved in it.

He doesn’t use his famous fine diction here—“business” is pronounced “bidness,” or just “bi’ness,” “here” is “hiya.” The singer’s pissed off.

Salesman talking to me
Tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it go and try it
You can pay me next week—Ahh!

This is one of the places where Mick Jagger, an accomplished Berry scholar, first hears absence of Satisfaction:

(Man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be,
But he can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no)

And of course, Bob Dylan cites it as an inspiration for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

It’s a radical song too. It’s 1956 in America and Chuck Berry is singing about:

Blond has good looks,
Trying to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, settle down,
Get home, write a book. Hmmf!

In 1956 it was against the law in some states for Chuck Berry to marry a blond, and frowned on in all the rest. Of course, maybe it’s not Chuck.

But we know it is.

It’s Chuck Berry the same day he recorded “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” another radical song, and he’s rounding third and heading for a home he admits had always tantalized him. And somehow, in a way, predicting his own future-- since in just two months (according to his book) he’d meet the good looking blond who would share much of his life and ultimately help him write his book. (Maybe his chronology was off a bit in the Autobiography.)

But since it is still 1956, Chuck cools things by switching quickly to a safer schoolboy persona.

Same thing, every day
Getting up, going to school
No need of me complaining
My objection’s overruled—Ahh!

The next verse is about a pay phone breakdown. These days it would probably be about a cell phone call breaking up.

Pay phone something wrong
Dime gone will mill
Oughta sue the operator
For telling me a tale.

Watch him sing this verse 13 years later at a Toronto rock festival filmed by D. A. Pennebaker. The tale still gets a laugh of recognition. But in Toronto he updated the next verse to Vietnam.

Been to Yokohama
Been fighting in the war
Army bunk, army chow
Army clothes, army car

I first heard the song during the Vietnam War. The complaints sounded a little too mundane to me. But how many popular entertainers dared protest anything about an American war so soon after the McCarthy hearings?

The final verse he’s back at work at another job. Since I used to buy a dollar’s worth frequently, it made me a little uneasy. But in my day it was self service.

Working in the filling station
Too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check tires
Check the oil, “Dollar gas!”

Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
I don’t want your botherations
Get away leave me be!

The song ends with a guitar solo that everyone who thinks he or she plays “Chuck Berry” guitar should study. Most people figure they’ve got it down when they can play the five note blues scale on double strings and add T-Bone Walker’s slur—but Berry, who came of age in the swing era, mixes blues with double note major scale melodies, (with heart stopping rhythmical flips and turns thrown in for good measure on later songs).

It ain’t monkey business, that's for sure.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Work In Progress ("In a Wee Little Church")

It's not enough to listen, or to think about it for a year, or read, or blog.  I try to play it, too.  I finally figured out how "Johnny B. Goode" really begins, and how to play the rhythm guitar on "Nadine," and I'm getting better at "Maybellene."  And I think I've figured out his instructions for the "turnaround." 

And every 10 or 15 years, like the clockwork of his convictions, I take out the acrylics and try to make a painting. 

My skills have not improved much since kindergarten, but that doesn't stop me.

This one is still in the sketch phase-- but I got past the part that scared me-- getting CB himself roughed into the picture within the picture.  I modeled it from memory of the shots on the back of "Back Home."

Two of my favorite things are Italian gothic and Chuck Berry.  So I put them together.  (It occurs to me now that I should have put a nighttime scene outside the door, and a sky full of stars.  The triumvirate would be complete.)  Someday soon I'll light some of the candles on that table.

Why, I don't know.  Too much time on my hands, I guess.

P.S.  Suddenly the mind is buzzing.  Jacob Lawrence did a whole series telling the history of the Haitian General Toussaint l'Ouverture.  I may do a series to the song cycle of Chuck Berry.  Maybellene waiving from the top of the hill.  Alone in a wee little room.  Johnny by the railroad tracks.  The long legs of Nadine disappearing into a yellow cab.  Johnny's mother at the kitchen door.  Tulane jumping the counter.  The view from 903.

Lordy!  I could be famous!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I was looking forward to it even though I wasn't going to be there.  And far away friends bought plane tickets.  Ah well.

Here's another one.

And another.

C'est la vie, I say.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bessie and the Zinc Buckets

ACTUALLY, Sunday night at The Tyne Theatre in Newcastle, in northern England there will be some excited musicians from a group called "Bessie and the Zinc Buckets."  Read about 'em HERE.  And HERE.  (Apologies to whoever's picture I used here.  But the bass had to be seen.)  Or check them out on Myspace HERE.

I don't know why I'm so excited about a bunch of shows I can't go to.  But I am, and I'm jealous!


Wait!  No!  He plays the day before!  At the Tyne Theatre! 

But how??!!  And why have all of our U.S. rock heroes gone to England?! 


But see for yourself (and get tickets to Chuck's show) HERE!

Anyway, maybe they will finally meet?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Riding Along in WHOSE Automobile???????????

David St. John is a British comic and singer.  You can find out more about him, or maybe even book a performance, by clicking here.  But there was a time when David St. John was just a young kid, perhaps a bit like like the boys and girl standing and waiting by the convertible door in this picture from what I assume is mid-1960s England.  (It sure isn't mid-1960s Central California.  We didn't wear ties, or sweaters, or tweed.)  But in at least one important respect David was different from these polite Britains.  You note that they are standing outside the car, hands in pockets, silent, keeping a respectful distance while the photographer and Chuck Berry did their thing. 

Not David.  He was respectful, I'm sure-- and probably awestruck.  But that didn't stop him.  After a Chuck Berry concert in 1965 David escaped the auditorium through a side door, found the idling limo, and ...

But that wouldn't be fair of me.  David tells it much better.  And you can find it right here!

David is, of course, still out there.  "I'm now 61 and an established professional comedy entertainer all over the UK. Stand-up gags, impressions and some vocals although I also cover longer times with the music including many Chuck classics of course!"  David used to be in local bands, and still plays music.  "I do play electric 12 string guitar, which I started to learn a bit late in '72 when leaving bands so needed back-up. Still play blues harp and some keyboards, drums but for fun."  As a kid he was in all the right places.  Around the same time that he jumped into Chuck Berry's car and got a ride and an autograph he also found his way to a famous tavern in Liverpool!

David is planning to see Chuck Berry in downtown Birmigham.  (England, that is.)  "I'm counting the days to the Birmingham concert and have a seat near the front! I doubt if I'll be able to jump in Chuck's car again, like I did way back in the Sixties!"   That probably wouldn't be wise. (16 year olds get it easier than 61 year olds when highjacking a ride.) But I hope he gets to say howdy-do and shake a wise and legendary hand.

But read the whole thing here on the forum.

Weirder Teen Television

A reader gave me this one.  WOW!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ahmad B. Goode, Too!

Backed up by a jazz band, layin' on the wood,
Mixing Ahmad Jamal in my Johnny B Goode.
Sneaking Errol Garner in my Sweet Sixteen,
Now they tell me Stan Kenton's cutting Maybelline! 
Oh baby!

Lyrics, "Go Go Go" by Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry's got no kicks against modern jazz.  Or the older stuff.  Count Basie's band backed him up at an early, but weirdly rhythmically challenged concert that's on the "Complete 1950s Recordings" (they must have had kicks against rock and roll!) and he played the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. 

But who's that mixing into Johnny B. Goode?

Years ago I was lucky to be able to see Ahmad Jamal at Seattle's Jazz Alley back when it cost two drinks and a tip and that's all.  (They had good dinners, too!)  He was one of my favorites.  Here he is as a mere child!

Errol Garner?  Never got to see him, or Stan Kenton.  But thanks to the miracle of youtube...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

His Hips Are Getting Weaker When He Tries To Do the What????

"Too Pooped to Pop" is a guilty pleasure-- one that I would have stricken from my "Golden Decade Volume One" album in favor of "Promised Land," or "You Never Can Tell," or "No Money Down." But it's one that sticks to the inner brain like glue.

Casey is an old man who wants to be a teen
He goes to all the dances and they call him "Cha Cha King."
He cha-chas when the band is playing rock and roll
He tries to keep in time but the beat leaves him coooooooold
Beeeeeecause heeeeeee's:
Too pooped to pop
Too old a soul
His hips get weaker when he tries to do "The Stroll"
Every time his feet get a movin' one way
Here comes a new dance and he's gone astray...

Feeling like Casey these days?  The following link will take you to a lesson on doing The Jitterbug Stroll.  But if you're like me (premature Caseyitus) you'd better just watch the teenagers.  Here you go:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Off Schedule Train!

Dominic, who commented on Nadine, supplied this one via his youtube playlist.  Only 29 people were shown as having seen it.  You can be Number 30!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nadine! Nadine! Nadine! Nadine! Every Time I See Ya Darling You're Up To Something New!

Thank you Doug and Jan for this beauty!

I've always said, it's never quite the same.  Here (17 years earlier) he picks up the pace and volume a bit.

Back when the song was released they thought the girls were more interesting.  (But that ain't Nadine back there!  Nadine, I'd look at!)

In his eighties he's virtually rapping!

Sidemen Up Front! Bob Baldori

Baldori played harmonica on "Back Home," and he and his band The Woolies backed Berry several of the "San Francisco Dues" pieces. That means he helped make some of my favorite Chuck Berry songs:  "Tulane," "Have Mercy Judge," "Flying Home," and "Oh, Louisiana."  Those four songs would make for a songwriting career, by the way.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New London Sessions!

Chuck Berry has always had a strong connection to England. He toured there in the early 1960s. The musicians of the British Invasion championed his music. He recorded two of his albums for Chess in England—Chuck Berry in London (about half of which was recorded there) and The London Sessions. Some of my favorite live performances were captured in London by BBC in 1972 and fill these pages via youtube. There are pictures of him in the new Geffen set from the 1960s surrounded by adoring English boys. At least three recent books about Chuck Berry were written by English fans—Bruce Pegg (who evidently lives in the U.S.), John Collis and Fred Rothwell.

And he can still do a good tour there, with a bunch of theaters, and excited fans.

I’m jealous of those fans. I figure if I were in England, I could see two, maybe even three of the shows. A train ride here, a short drive there. And what seems especially cool, is that Chuck Berry is going to get some practice in during those weeks in England.

Here in the states the shows are becoming more and more rare, and when I saw Chuck Berry perform last January at Blueberry Hill it was a great, fun show—but the guitar work? A little rusty.

But then I see tapes of him playing there last September, coincidentally after playing B. B. Kings in New York just a few days earlier, and what a difference. The licks were flying pretty high. It didn’t sound exactly like the guy in those BBC tapes, but it sure sounded good.

So I’m betting that some of the crowds in England are going to be treated to something pretty special—a Chuck Berry show with his own band and with that little extra something you get by playing every day.

Buy those tickets, boys and girls. Reward him with your love and applause you lucky &$^%(5es.

You really are lucky as hell.

P.S. to Charles, Sr. Since you’ll be in a groove, this might be a good time to stop in at a London studio and record something new with the band and your two band mate children. A nice family style album, with Charles Jr. on guitar, Ingrid on harp and vocals, piano by Bob Lohr, and bass by Mr. Marsala and rhythm supplied by Keith Robinson.

And YOU. One last time. At least!

Sidemen Up Front! (Billy Peek)

You'll catch a moment or two of Chuck Berry on this one. And Ike Turner.

Billy Peek toured and recorded with Chuck Berry in the 1970s. Chuck used to teach him licks, and Ike played at his high school prom! Lordy! (Like I said-- history is everywhere!)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

MORE than a Sideman (But Not the Songwriter)

Sing these two lines:

“As I was motorvating over a hill”

“She remembered taking money earned from gatherin’ crops.”

It just occurred to me that the main verses of “Maybellene” and “Bye Bye Johnny” have the same melody. Who’d have thought—especially when the basic feel of the two songs are so different? “Bye Bye” chugs along like a freight train, “Maybellene” bounces along on an alternating bass line, and they both take different routes on their distinctive choruses—but those main verses are nearly note for note identical.

It’s just an interesting observation.

I discovered this while thinking about Chuck Berry and “melodies” and the somewhat crazy claim that Johnnie Johnson was a co-author of Chuck Berry’s hits. Bruce Pegg does a good job addressing the “controversy” in chapter 15 of his book “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry.” As usual he’s a thorough scholar, a gentleman, and fair.

I guess that Keith Richards is the one who first suggested that Johnnie Johnson was the real author of Chuck Berry’s music, or at least the prime mover. Richards’ comment came during the aftermath of the 60th birthday concerts. He seemed exhausted and a little drunk and the idea—something he’d probably hatched during his time with Berry and Johnson at the rehearsals—just came out. He based it in part on Berry’s songs being recorded in what he called piano chords—“Johnnie’s keys!” The idea took root, however shallow, and even Johnnie Johnson seemed to buy in for a while. He wound up filing suit against Berry.  It was dismissed.

There’s no doubt that Johnnie Johnson was a prime force in the early recordings and in Chuck Berry’s early sound. He was a great piano player. But Richard’s statements were mostly nonsense.

Chuck Berry seemed to get a chuckle over the notion of “piano chords” in an interview in Guitar Player magazine back around the time that the movie “Hail! Hail!” came out.

Berry:  He, about these keys-- did you catch want Keith was talking about?  Piano keys, and all that?

GP:  He observes thatseveral of your classics are in E flat or B flat or other "unusual" keys for guitar.

Berry:  I wonder if he knows what he's saying!  Man, the symphonies are in B flat or E flat!  Those keys, they've been around!  He said, well rock guitar players play in A!  Come on, baby!  You can tell that Keith must be a modern rock player [laughs].

The Rolling Stones were basically a guitar band, and only a guitar band guitar player could be as insistent as Richards about “guitar keys” like E and A. Berry himself grew up listening to standards and big band jazz, which were played in all sorts of keys. He wasn’t afraid of B flat or E flat. (Neither is anyone else, as far as I can tell.)

I noticed that lots of B. B. King’s songs on a recent album were in A flat. Who’s key is that?

I suspect Chuck Berry put songs into the keys that 1) he was used to, and that 2) fit his voice and the melody. If anything, call them singer’s keys! And he was enough of a guitarist not to care much which key he used.

But beyond the chords, there’s the “melodies.”

Chuck Berry has number of songs with very distinct melodies—“You Never Can Tell” comes to mind. But a lot of his songs are built on old blues licks and blues tunes that are old as the Mississippi Delta. “School Day” has riffs (and therefore a melody) that Robert Johnson might have played, and probably did. Blues musicians slice and dice and mix and match words and notes and licks and lyrics and even names of songs until it’s virtually impossible to know who originated what.

(Recently I was read a simple but brilliant observation in the book “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters.” A young blues musicians is asked if he “wrote” the melodies of a song. His response: “Hey, it’s blues, all the melodies were written before I was born.”)

On many of the 12 bar blues based songs that Berry sings the “melody” seems almost insignificant to him. These days he practically speaks the songs. In old outtakes you can hear him experiment with minor variations of the “melody” throughout the day as the song takes shape. In live versions there are often subtle variations. It’s the same with the guitar breaks and intros. The blues, at its best, is alive with improvisation, and improvisation is something that Chuck Berry has always insisted on. The versions of his hits that we accept as gospel are simply the ones that were put out as a single or that made it onto the records we own. We’ve gotten used to them, and copied them, and tried to duplicate them—but Chuck Berry has moved on, playing each song a little bit differently every time.

If I were to single out any aspect of Chuck Berry’s tunes as unique to Chuck Berry it would be those elements of the songs that don’t come from the blues—and specifically the country tunes like “Maybellene,” “Thirty Days,” or even “Johnny B. Goode,” a “country song” written over 12 bar blues chords. But I call that unique to Berry only because I don’t know country well enough. Here’s “Ida Red” by Bob Wills—song with the same name Berry wanted to use for “Maybellene.”

The truth is that Chuck Berry wrote his own songs, doing what every musician has always done, borrowing bits of what came before and throwing in sounds and influences from his own world, including the sound and influence of Johnnie Johnson.

Then he did what only a few artists are able to do: he took these old things and created something brand new that changed our lives.

None of which is to minimize the contribution of Johnnie Johnson. What he put on those records, and into Chuck Berry’s professional musical education is huge. You can’t catch him.

And Berry has always been the first to credit him. Author John Collis quotes a 1997 letter Berry wrote supporting Johnson’s nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Watch Berry sidle up to Johnson during various jams presented in “Hail! Hail!,” or their easy musical communication when a contemplative Berry starts strumming old standards. Berry clearly loves the guy, and kept working and collaborating with him throughout Johnson’s lifetime.

Johnnie Johnson was a big part of it—but Chuck Berry wrote the songs.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's a Family Affair (Part Three)

Photo by Kevin Reynolds.  (For more great photos see Kevin's website and look under "Music.")

This site celebrates Chuck Berry-- his music, his influence and his influences. I don’t want to dwell on aspects of his story that get covered ad nauseum elsewhere-- especially his legal troubles.  But Berry’s legal problems have been a big enough part of his story that I can’t ignore them completely.  I sometimes think about them when I think about why I'm such a fan.  I'll admit: most of his criminal troubles don't bother me at all-- except for the one that was so patently unfair.  That one bothers me because it was unfair-- a racist attempt to silence him and knock him off stride.  But there's at least one alleged incident that bothers me, assuming there's truth to it.  How does a fan deal with that (and still nominate him for a medal of honor!?)

His troubles with the law hurt him badly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, knocking him completely off the charts for a time despite releases like “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Come On,” “I’m Talking About You” and “Jaguar and the Thunderbird.” But there's a yang to every yin.  Later in the 1960s I think the same incarceration had the opposite effect, giving him “street cred” as a survivor of hard, unfair knocks. I’m sure that the first time I heard about Chuck Berry I also heard about his prison time, because my informant was Stevo, who’d spent some time behind bars himself and had some respect for a good ex-con. In the late 1960s and early 1970s everybody knew that Chuck Berry had been shafted by a racist legal system and had come out rocking and playing the blues even harder. It was part of his legend, and by that time no one had a problem with it.

He says himself that “every 15 years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake,” and that it’s “the naughty-naughties” that get most of the coverage in articles and interviews. Most of the mistakes are pretty well known, and honestly covered in his Autobiography.

It started with a youthful armed robbery and car-jacking (he and his friends politely left his victim near a phone booth and then took off down the two-lane blacktop; guess who the poor guy called?) He went to reform school. Autobiography, Chapters 4 and 5.

The next legal problem was bogus and racially motivated—two arrests, three trials (one overtly and triumphantly racist), a successful appeal, and ultimately one conviction for violating the most bogus law ever devised by man to put away a man considered uppity. He went to prison, at the height of his success. It says something big about the man that he went on a recording rampage prior to his lockup; that in prison he wrote some of his greatest songs, practiced guitar, studied business and accounting; that he was released on his birthday, and made one of his best and most energetic live recordings (with the Motown session players) just a few weeks later. Then he left the country. (Carl Perkins said he was a changed man after that term. So, later, did Johnny Johnson.  Then, who wouldn’t be?) He revitalized his career with some of his greatest hits—“Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and some of his greatest songs: “Promised Land,” and “You Never Can Tell.” Autobiography, Chapters 11 and 12.

Berry's third encounter with the legal system was more legit. He took pay under the table.  He didn’t pay taxes. They figured it out. He went to prison again. He took a typewriter and wrote a book that revitalized his career yet again. And he admits it all in his Autobiography, Chapters 17 and 18.  (The photo of him at Lompoc putting on a show for and with his fellow inmates is courtesy of Sky.)

Then comes the stuff that actually bothers people.

It’s sort of funny that the tribute song I wrote about Chuck Berry when I was 15 was called “Bathroom Rockstar,” because Chuck Berry’s most recent (though now ancient) legal problems allegedly involve bathrooms and bathroom acts. They came after the Autobiography. The allegations are all over the internet and are in two recent biographies. One seems to be a personal issue that became public because it was videotaped. The other involved allegations of hidden cameras in the women’s room of his old restaurant, The Southern Air.

I have no idea if either of these stories are true, or to what extent. I don’t care about the first. It seemed to involve two people, not including me, hopefully consenting. I therefore refuse to investigate further. But the story of the women’s room, if true, was a sad violation of other people’s rights. (Somewhere way back there—and certainly before 1973-- I remember reading an interview with Chuck Berry where he said the key was “not to infringe.” He used Berry Park as an example. He said something like: “If you’re alone in Berry Park, you can do no wrong. But if you are there with other people, you have to be more careful. The key is not to infringe on other people.”) But to the extent I understood the retellings, it seemed bound up in other false accusations, and the whole thing was such a convoluted mess that it’s impossible to know what happened, and hard to really care. All I know for sure is some form of the story comes up once in a while when Chuck Berry gets mentioned.

My response to his messes?

That he’s family.

All of us, in our smaller families, have screwed up, or have watched helplessly as our loved ones have done so. It doesn’t change how we feel.

Chuck Berry isn’t part of our blood family, of course—at least not mine-- but he’s definitely part of our spiritual and cultural family. He’s the Father of Rock and Roll, the son of Henry William Berry and Martha Banks Berry, the father of devoted kids, married 60 plus years, a man surrounded by his family at home, on records, and on stage, and who generously includes all of us in his larger family.

I remember well him walking rapidly back and forth across a stage, feigning shocked double takes as the crowd sang “Go, Johnny Go, Go!,” and beaming kindly as he said: “All my children! Listen to all my wonderful children!”

And as Sly says, "Blood's thicker than the mud." 

Even when it ain't really blood, it's family.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sidemen Up Front! (Allstars!)

According to my Golden Decade records, Volumes 1 and 2, Otis Spann played piano on Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me," "No Money Down," and 'Downbownd Train," back in 1955, but author John Collis and Berry himself both say no-- that it was probably Johnny Johnson at that session, along with Chess stalwarts Fred Below and Willie Dixon. Ah well.  If it was Spann, then the trio had already played together on Muddy Waters' "Hootchie Cootchie Man" (the musical ancestor of "No Money Down.") Here Muddy stands back and strums rhythm while Spann takes a starring role.

Read more about Spann right here.

More Whole Body Synching From Way Back

Chuck Berry may not have liked to "lip synch," but when he was forced to, he put himself into it body and soul.

Monday, November 2, 2009

With Hurry Home Drops In Her Eyes

Here's a nice little article in the New York Times...

Riding Along in his Automobile!

A couple months ago I wrote a piece that included a bit from Fred Rothwell's book, "Long Distance Information," where he describes his brief encounter with Chuck Berry. When I wrote that post, I thought of this picture, which I'd seen months before on myspace, but I couldn't find it.

Rothwell had just missed getting a ticket to a show in London. Then:

“[I]n the corner of my eye I spotted a long cherry red Mercedes hidden in the shadows of the flyover. The limo had dark glass but the side window was down and through it the familiar face of Chuck Berry could be seen busy videoing the fa├žade, no doubt very pleased with the ‘Sold Out’ sign.”

Rothwell ponders what to do or say, (“I got my chance, I ought to take it”) when suddenly “the glass slid down noiselessly to reveal a smiling Mr. Berry. ‘How come you are in the right place at the right time?”’ he asked.

My thanks to Jan, in Germany, for searching his files for this great shot of what looks like a very Euoropean car. I hope that all of you in Europe see some great shows later this month (and that you tell us all about them!) (I know those fingers are going to limber up over the course of the tour-- you're very lucky, you know.)  And I hope that for some of you the window slides down and that you meet the maker of rock and roll as we know it!  (But please-- use your seatbelt Mr. Berry!) (They unlatch pretty well nowadays.)