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.


Anonymous said...

Bob Wills and the Texas Cowboys! Hilarious!!! Your reference to Bruce Pegg set the things into perspective. However, the BB King point tells the real story. These guys or the "original guard" played music how they were taught, by the seat of their pants and by the spur of the moment.

It's strange how the mumblings of someone obviously mad because things did not go his way during a historic moment in time became fact. But then again, isn't that one of the ways myth becomes truth?

Anonymous said...

"Truth" is a theme that seems close to Chuck Berry's heart, too. (Which is a little scary for people like me who aim for the truth but don't mind winging it a little with quotes and information drawn from memory!) He often explains that he stopped doing interviews because the truth got twisted, tossed, or was just ignored. But yeah-- here a mumbled comment seems to have taken a life of its own (before withering away.) Anyway, Johnnie was great. RIP Peter

cleaner100 said...

Richards is a legend, but this "piano keys" thing made no sense. A number of Berry's songs are in 'C', and there are even a small amount in G. The advanced guitar player such as Berry certainly could have played in the flat keys. What you said about him using keys to fit his voice was right on. In that time, flats were typical in pop/rock. The most original quality about Berry's songs, by far, was the lyrics. Even the tune of "You Never Can Tell" was taken verbatim from the intro of "Stone Cold Dead In the Market" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.