Sunday, January 31, 2010


When I first discovered Chuck Berry he was not exactly at the peak of his success, but he was hanging in there, as usual. I first saw him in 1969 or 1970 on The Mike Douglas Show. I think I saw him at least three or four times on that show, and I respect Douglas a lot for actually sitting down and talking to the man. (Some “talk shows” treat musicians like idiots—they let them play but not talk. I want both.)

Then, of course, I saw him live, probably the same year, at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. If you’re a Chuck Berry fan you’ve probably seen the poster floating round on the internet for Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan at the same auditorium in 1957. I bet that show was thrilling. It certainly wasn’t one of the 45 minute shows people sometimes stupidly complain about—the poster says it’ll go on till 1:00 am, way past Sacramento’s bedtime. And it had to be one of Sacramento’s most diverse events ever—at least during the city’s first 150 years. (These days Sacramento’s population makes you proud to be an American—every shade and nationality of person). It had to be dazzling. Which would go a long way to explaining the blueful look on Chuck Berry’s face as he sang to four or five hundred people scattered through the same hall 13 years later. We all loved him, but there weren’t very many of us.

Chuck Berry was still well known among people a little older than me. I was the youngest of seven children. My oldest brothers and sisters grew up with his hits. I was born after Maybellene and the first Chuck Berry songs I knew well were Beatle songs. (Live and learn). I was always pleased when my brother Stevo told me that “No Particular Place to Go” had been a hit when my mother packed six of us into a 1963 Chevrolet Impala station wagon and drove us 2500 miles to see the seventh (or first, depending on your perspective.) Being youngest (yes, definitely the seventh son) I spent all 5000 miles in the rear facing third row seat half mile or so from the single dashboard speaker rattling around the front of the car. If I ever heard “No Particular Place to Go,” or “Nadine” or “Promised Land” when they were hits it was subliminal.

(The real wonder is that we were driving 2500 miles from the promised land of California to Warrenton, Missouri, a town about ten miles from Wentzville and Berry Park. We passed through Wentzville on the way to see the Arch in St. Louis.)

So I am from a younger generation than the original Chuck Berry fans, and when I became obsessed myself I was alone in my age group—at least among my small circle of friends and acquaintances.

But then two things happened. First (I think) Chuck Berry was invited by John Lennon to appear on the Mike Douglas show. By then I was a “long time” fan of at least two years (15% of my life!”) I was thrilled to see a Beatle fawning over my idol.

And then The London Sessions—a mammoth hit that made everyone my age know who Chuck Berry was. Suddenly my weird obsession was mainstream.

The amazing thing about Chuck Berry’s career is that it has just kept going and going. Sometimes the records sell, sometimes not so well, but he keeps putting it out there at pretty much the same level for all comers. True, the first 30 or so songs were at a level of quality that’s pretty much unsustainable. But every song has been a good one, and just about every album has had a least a couple of songs as good as the first 30.

And he’s been out there playing the whole time—putting on a live show of real music that is becoming increasingly rare.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Hope She's Okay

Keep a good thought for Etta James, who is ill.  (One of my favorite things is Chuck Berry, in the outtakes of "Hail! Hail!" crawling on his knees to Etta after she does a blues number.  "I didn't know you!" he cries.)

Bon Soir, Cheries-- Je Dois Partir! (Bientot! D'abord je dois ecouter "Have Mercy!"

It was before videos, and of course I went to see "Let The Good Times Roll" about 10 times, even taking my mom once.  In addition to the music, which was very good, it was a chance to see my hero wander through the backwoods of Berry Park, scraping paint from an old bus that he'd bought in San Jose.  I loved it.  And I saw shows end this way at least four times in the early 1970s (although never with Bo Diddley on stage!)-- him singing in French, then translating, then launching "Johnny," then feigning surprise as we all sang and clapped madly, then backing off stage, bowing, the guitar held in front of him like an offering.  (Later the ending became "House Lights" with its refrain of "Do you want us to quit?") 

No Chuck, we don't.  We never do.  You always leave us wanting just a bit more-- which is, I'm sure, the key to your longevity!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the "Wee Wee" Hours They Get Their Mojo Working

Bob Margolin, Daryl Davis, Pinetop Perkins and Nappy Brown all come together in the spirit of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters!

Bob Margolin talks about Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Delay Time

For seven years, from 1973 until 1980, Bob Margolin lived his dream by playing guitar with the Muddy Waters band.  Muddy had him stand to his right so he could lean in and watch Muddy play.  I first became interested in Margolin while reading "Can't Be Satisfied," the biography of Muddy Waters, sometime last year.  One quote and one story stood out for me.  I reproduced part of the quote below-- a long, slow, climactic description of Muddy Waters performing the song "Two Trains Running" that shows the effect of truly great art on our lives.  The other story had to do with a guitar lesson, hollered and sung from the kitchen by the master himself.  It turns out that both stories came from a single source-- Margolin's own article about knowing Muddy, called "Can't Be Satisfied."  The title comes from Muddy Waters first record at Chess (the same song Margolin was playing in the living room when Waters yelled his corrections).

Like Robert Lohr, Bob Baldori and Daryl Davis, Bob Margolin surprised me be agreeing to share some of his thoughts about the music he loves and his working with his hero with a tiny blog.  Each of these musicians is from a second, internet savvy generation of blues musicians, each was touched by real greatness, and each one is pretty great himself.  It's amazing that they each see fit to share the experience.

On your website you say that you started out playing Chuck Berry music as a kid, and that got you to the blues. Can you describe that journey?

I listened to Rock ‘n’ Roll music on the radio since the late ‘50s when I was a kid and I sure liked it better than the classical music or Broadway musicals my parents listened to. I started playing guitar in 1964, when I was fifteen. I took lessons but quickly stopped because they taught me how to read music and play mostly standards. I could learn how to play Chuck Berry music by listening to his records and finding the notes on the guitar. His style featured lots of what guitarists call “double stops,” – two notes played at the same time, usually with one finger hitting both strings. It showed me the harmonic relationships of the notes. It was pretty easy to find them. Eventually I wanted to play Blues, which was a lot like Chuck Berry songs but on a slower groove and without the double stops.

How old were you when you started playing in serious blues bands?

I was in bands from 1965 on, and some of them played some Blues songs. In a psychedelic band from Boston that I was in called The Freeborne, I wrote a bluesy style song for the album we made in 1967. I was in some bands you could call Blues Rock, but the first serious all-Blues band I played in was Luther “Georgia Boy” “Snake” Johnson’s. Luther had been in Muddy’s band, moved to Boston to start his own band, and ran it like a minor league Muddy Waters Band. This was in late 1971 – early 1972. We played six sets a night six days a week with a 3-set matinee on Sunday and it was intenseley educational as well as an interesting experience.

Then one day you find yourself in the biggest of all blues bands. How did that happen?

Naturally I get asked this often, and I tell the story the same way each time because it doesn’t change. I had been in bands that opened up shows for Muddy Waters, who was the musician who inspired me the most. I’d met Muddy on those gigs, and he was encouraging because I was trying to play the “Old School” Chicago Blues that he played. In August, 1973 he started a week-long run at a club in Boston and I was there to see him early on the first night. It turned out he had fired a guitar player the night before and so I popped up in the right place, right time. But I also already loved his music, had some experience playing it, and was ready to make the most of the opportunity to do my job well and to learn about playing Blues directly from the musician I admired most.

Had Muddy Waters been one of your heroes before you met him? And if so, what was it like to be working with him?

Absolutely. When I first heard Muddy on a radio show I was moved by his disticnctive vocal tone and I thought his slide guitar player was great too. Came to find it was Muddy playing electric slide. Naturally I didn’t often play slide when I was in Muddy’s band, that’s what he did, but I listened and tried to learn. I tried to use the situation to give Muddy what he wanted on the bandstand and learn as much as possible for my own musical development too.

There is something a little miraculous about growing up and working with your hero.

Naturally it doesn’t happen that way for many. I appreciated it fully from the second the possibility arose to right now. Though I have lots of musical interests and influences, I try not to let Muddy down.

Did you meet or play with any of the other giants from Chess Records?

I was in Muddy’s band, not anyone else’s, but often legendary musicians like Willie Dixon or James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and Big Walter Horton would sit in with us. Beyond Chess, there were a lot of Blues-loving rock stars that jammed too: The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, The Band...

There are great blues musicians all over—but I find it amazing how many wound up at Chess in the 1950s. Have you got an explanation for that?

There was a Chicago Blues Sound that most of the Chess artists represented. But then again Etta James’s Chess hits had strings and orchestras in them. And Elmore James and Jimmy Reed were not on Chess, though their music is classic Chicago Blues.

Did you see Cadillac Records? Did it ring true to you at all?

I found Cadillac Records to be enjoyable because the characters and music were familiar to me, but because I know a lot about the Chess Records story and knew some of the players personally, I found it jarring when a detail of the film didn’t ring true. In particular I don’t think the film captured Muddy well. Muddy had a dignity and charisma that didn’t come through.

In your article “Can’t Be Satisfied” you talk about what you call Muddy Waters’ “’Delay Time,’ his extremely ‘behind-the-beat’ rhythmic approach.” Can you put that in words for us, or give us an example from one of Muddy Waters’ recordings?

On really slow Blues songs, the length of the delay would really be exaggerated. Rather than singing or playing right on the one-two-three-four beat, the note would come a little delayed. In the course of a fraction of a second the listener subliminally misses the note, begs for it, and then is satisfied. It’s a very sensual and sexual way to play music.

What are some of your favorite musical moments after the Muddy Waters days?

It’s tempting to name famous people we played with, but truly, the biggest thrill was just to play Blues with Muddy Waters and use what I learned from him to support him as much as I could.

You’re a really good writer with wonderful stories to tell. Any thoughts of a book?

Yes, I’ve been working on a book that will have some of my Blues Revue columns, some old and new photographs, and some Blues Fiction that I’ve written. It’s conceived and coming along well as I choose what to include and how to organize it and write transitional stories and captions.

Anything else?

I love how Blues music brings all kinds of people together – nationalities, ages, gender, income. There are so many things that divide us, it’s a social as well as a musical thrill to see so many kinds of folks loving Blues music. For me, I still feel like I’m practicing a religious rite when I play a Chuck Berry song, for the worth of the music, its history, and it’s importance as a gateway for me.

Thank you.

You can find out a lot more about Bob Margolin at his website

(Stay tuned for Margolin and Daryl Davis playing "Wee Wee Hours" while waiting for Pinetop Perkins to, well... you'll see.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


One of the things that amazes me about doing this website is the way so many people have shared their love and respect for Chuck Berry with me (and you).  Doug from Iowa keeps sending videos I'd never find by myself.  Musicians Bob Lohr, Robert Baldori and Daryl Davis each shared stories and thoughts about working with Chuck Berry.  Two professional photographers in England let me use great pictures they'd taken.  Other Peter shared his story of being a fantatical Chuck Berry fan.  Author Fred Rothwell agreed to be interviewed and told how he began writing about Chuck Berry.  So I shouldn't be too surprised by the continuing acts of kindness.  The other day I read about a concert to benefit North Carolina blues singer Sheila Carlisle and saw that Muddy Waters' former guitarist Bob Margolin was performing.  I remembered Margolin for an amazing quote in the book "Can't Be Satisfied" about hearing (and helping) Muddy Waters perform the song "Two Trains Running."   It turns out that the quote was taken from an article by Margolin in Blues Revue.  Margolin wrote:

"At the end of the verse where he sang,

       Well they say she’s no good, but she’s all right

Muddy suddenly broke double-time and began to chant:

       She’s all right, she’s all right
       She’s all right, she’s all right

...over the band’s jumping, one-chord pattern. But every time Muddy sang the line, he sang it more intensely. He put progressively more power and meaning into the same phrase, over and over. For ten minutes, he built steadily until it seemed like we would all explode. When he cut his arm down and ended the song, we were all dropped back onto the ground, to pick up the shattered pieces of our little lives and go on as best we could."

It's one of the best stories I've ever read about being in the presence of truly great art.  The story can't be beat.    You can find it right here!  along with a story about a guitar lesson from Muddy Waters. 

When I saw Margolin's address at the bottom of his website I wrote him an e-mail.  He sent me the picture of my hero Chuck Berry that you see above.  Margolin took it in England in 1979.  You get the feeling it had been a pretty good show.

As I say, the generosity is amazing.  Thank you.

Blueberry Hill, January 10, 2010

Joe Edwards always does something nice to start the show.  And then a wonderful show starts!

The colors are like a painting.  Best looking still video I've got!

Chuck Berry and John Denver Together

This is a weird, fuzzy, somewhat unexpected and dreamlike sequence where John Denver and Chuck Berry perform for the Today Show audience in 1986.  It's a pretty game performance since there seemed to be no microphones and the two stars had to use clip-on lapel mikes from Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel-- and then the weathercaster shows up on stage with a puppy.  Kind of nice, though.  Thanks again to Doug.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Why We Should Insist on Health Reform

When I googled Chuck Berry news this evening, I found stories about someone wonderful that I'd never heard of.  And they're throwing an old fashioned fund raiser for her because our people know how to take care of each other, even if our country can't manage to take care of its own.  Sheila Carlisle is a blues singer from North Carolina who, evidently, has worked with B.B. King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, Delbert McClinton, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.  She's ill.  She's uninsured.  Former Muddy Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin is playing at the fundraiser.  (I think it was Margolin, in the biography of Muddy Waters, who is quoted giving one of the most profound remarks about greatness that I've ever read.  I've meant to quote it here someday.  I will soon.)  You can read about the benefit Here.  You can read more about Ms. Carlisle Here.  You can read about Margolin Here

Here's Sheila Carlisle doing a little Robert Johnson, Carlisle Style.  (Max Drake on slide guitar).

A Chuck Berry Show at Shepherds Bush Empire, June 9, 2002

I asked Fred Rothwell for his memories of a memoriable Chuck Berry concert, and he sent this review.

The Empire Rocks Back

Chuck Berry at the Shepherds Bush Empire 9th June 2002
by Fred Rothwell

It is hard to believe but Chuck Berry has not had a studio recorded release issued since the Atco album 'Rockit' came out in 1979. There have, of course, been numerous live recordings of his concerts in the intervening years, most of them of a dubious provenance, and one very weird duet with Jamaican 'rude boy', Shabba Ranks which needs to be heard to be believed. He has, however, kept active; a regular level of one-night stands played with pick-up bands has kept his chops on form. Berry's contractual stipulation for the band is 'they must be professional musicians who know Chuck Berry music' – no problem there then as the terms 'guitarists' 'rock and roll' and 'Chuck Berry' are synonymous. He also plays a regular monthly club date at the 'Blueberry Hill' in his hometown of St. Louis to great acclaim and this gig at the relatively small Shepherds Bush Empire is about as close as we are likely to get to a club atmosphere this side of the pond. To add to the anticipation, Chuck has a whole CD's worth of new compositions in the can and waiting to be released. Titles such as ‘Lady B. Good’, ‘Jamaica Moon’ and ‘Hell Bound Train’ don't perhaps need much second guessing as to how they will sound but one's called ‘Dutchman’, ‘The Big Boys’ and ‘Loco Joe’ are more than intriguing. So, would we be treated to some new stuff or would we get the tired old retreads from those bygone days of old?

At the contracted time of 9.30 to little fanfare but a tremendous cheer, Chuck appeared on stage followed by just three musicians, piano, bass and drums - no rhythm guitarist so he was going to have to double up on his trusty Gibson. He did, however, have the assurance of his long-time bassist and European travelling companion Jim Marsala. Without any introduction Chuck cranked out the well-worn guitar intro to 'Roll Over Beethoven' and we were up and rockin'. No matter how familiar the introduction, or how many times you might have heard it, to see those enormous hand slide effortlessly up the fret-board and hear those notes ring out is nothing short of magical. 'Beethoven' was followed in quick succession by 'School Day' - 'that song is forty years old you know' -, 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and 'Nadine' all performed almost by rote as though he wanted to get them done and out of the way. The audience didn't notice or care, they were surfing on a nostalgia wave, singing Chuck's songs for him. Chuck pretended to be surprised, but he looked genuinely pleased and it seemed to spur him on.

At his time of life Chuck needs to pace his shows so, thank you god for the blues, which he judiciously interspersed between his rockers. And what a great selection of blues to choose, Elmore James' 'It Hurts Me Too', Jimmy Reed's 'Honest I Do' and his very own 'No Money Down' all got an airing, albeit the last song was chopped short with the comment, 'I don't want to play no more blues'.

By the time the 'Carol / Little Queenie' combo hit the stage he was all limbered up and raring to rock, his guitar firing on all strings and ringing like the veritable bell. 'Let It Rock' has always been a highlight of Berry concerts and here it came again, the train hurtling down on the railroad workers who, no matter how many times you hear it, always scramble out of its way! Chuck was really up for it on this song and he was inspired sufficiently to attempt his show-stopping duckwalk. It wasn't so long or so low as of old, but it was a recognisable waddle nonetheless and was greeted by an enormous roar from the enthusiastic throng.

During the usual 'you name it we play it' request spot, after a brief discussion with Jim Marsala, he performed a short version of 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' with the comment that he hadn't sung that in fourteen years. The treat of the treats, for me however, was his lilting version of Ray Charles' countrified waltz '3/4 Time', in which he sings of making love in 3/4 time, or 6/4 time or even 12/8 time, in fact any old time!

It was then back to the classics with 'Rock And Roll Music' but sung here with some new lyrics reflecting on a life well spent in rock and roll. "Sometimes it's loud and gets out of control/ Can't even understand the story told/ But if you love it, you ain't never too old/ To cut the mustard with rock and roll!" and again later on, "Some people say rock and roll is dead/ It's forty years since that remark was made/ I'm here to show it's live and well/ And all American like ringing a bell.”

His contract was for one hour and by now the time was drawing nigh, but Chuck doesn't need no watch to tell him this, he's been at it so long it's second nature to him now. The final coupling then was a surprising 'Around And Around' followed by the usual extended closer, 'Reelin' And Rockin' complete with risqué lyrics and riskier female dancers on the stage to assist Chuck with an easy exit, guitar held outstretched, bowing and backing off stage left.

And there he was, gone: probably away in his Mercedes limo before the cheering and foot-stamping subsided; no encore (the word is not in Chuck Berry's vocabulary), no Johnny B Goode, and no new songs. At this stage in the game, should we expect more? Despite my hopes for some new material, I think not. To attend a Chuck Berry concert is to witness a rock and roll ritual, in which both performer and audience know what is wanted and what is expected and I do believe both parties left the theatre with satisfied minds.

Chuck Berry’s reputation precedes him. How many times have you read about Chuck Berry the jailbird before Chuck Berry the rock and roll legend, or Chuck Berry, Mr Ding-a-ling instead of Chuck Berry, rock and roll poet supreme? How many people have been short-changed by his lack lustre performances in the past? Well, if you passed up on this gig because of his past misdemeanours, you missed a treat. Chuck Berry is an old man, in October he will be 77 year old, but for a man of his age he is still remarkable fit and, on the basis of this gig, can still rock the socks off young pretenders half his age. His paunch may have grown a little, his thinning hair is now hidden beneath a seafarers cap, and his long legs are not as 'crazy' as they used to be. But, believe me, he still has that ingredient, vital to all good rock and roll - the ability to instil excitement into an audience through his wonderful music, which will never, ever grow old.

Fred Rothwell – author of ‘Long Distance Information – Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy’

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Oh Well Oh Well I'm Feelin' So Good Today!

I bought "Have Mercy," didn't care how much I paid
Jet propelled to me from Hip-O's vaults to the U.S.A.
"Tulane", "Lou'sana", Oh how I yearned for you!
Stuff I never heard-- like a version of "It Hurts Me Too."
"Around and Around" done live and one called "Annie Lou!"

Find it all HEEEEEERRRRRRRREEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is gonna be dynamite!  It looks like they are finally giving us virtually the entire concert that produced the live segment of "London Sessions."  And whatever I might feel about the merits of "Ding-A-Ling" being Chuck Berry's only number one hit, he was in fine form that day. 

But now I have to WAIT!  For U.S. Mail!  Dang!

(Thanks Fred Rothwell for the timely tip.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Roll Over!

Daryl Davis told us how Chuck Berry appeared from behind the curtain at the start of his New Year's Eve show at B. B. King's.  Here he is, doing it.   How many times do we get to see Chuck Berry play these days?  Not that often.  And it's another good chance to see and hear Davis, too.  He's got a bit of that Johnnie Johnson magic, filling seamlessly between Chuck Berry's licks.  Thanks Peter, and Doug.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Carol! Carol! Carol! Carol! Oh Carol!

Thanks Iowa!  (Where he finds, 'em, nobody knows.)

Give To Haiti

You can give $5 now by texting the word "yele" to 501-501.  (Learn more about Wycliffe Jean's organization at

Rockit-- (A Prodigal Son Returns Thirty Years Later)

By 1979 I had drifted so far from Chuck Berry that I gave the new album “Rockit” one listen and then took it back to the store for a refund.

By then my interests had changed quite a bit. At record stores I was mostly buying serious jazz records—Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis. I still loved the blues, but didn’t necessarily buy it on records. I saw B. B. King play at a couple of big local clubs. An Elmore James disciple named J.B. Hutto was based in Seattle for a time and I saw him play at a couple of smaller taverns. The only blues record I can definitely remember buying in those years was by Clifton Chenier, the Zydeco king, who passed through town at least once or twice. As for Chuck Berry—I’m sure I saw him once or twice on late night talk shows, but that’s about it. I doubt he passed through Seattle during those parts of 1977-1980 that I was there, because I would have gone to see him, I’m sure. And maybe that was part of the difference. From 1970 through 1974 I saw him five different times. From 1975 until 1982, not at all. (That 1982-- or maybe 1980-- show was at a Lake Tahoe Casino. It’s probably worth a post of its own. It was a good performance that I didn’t write home about. At the time I equated Chuck Berry with crowds of shaggy hippies and teenagers. At the casino he came out dressed to kill in a white suit. He was backed by a good band. We sat at comfortable, horseshoe shaped tables with white linen. We were served. We were surrounded by people who were the appropriate age to be Chuck Berry fans—people who probably grew up to the original hits. The performance was somewhat rehearsed. Except for the rehearsal—probably required by the club—this show probably came closer to the roots of Chuck Berry than anything I’d seen to date. I’m sure at the Cosmopolitan Club he played to adults. I’m sure many or most of his performances over the years were in a polished club-like setting. But it was too elegant for me at the time. We walked out disappointed, and since I was the Chuck Berry fan, I was somewhat embarrassed. That’s not what his shows are “usually” like I told the people I was with—all family members. But I didn’t know what his shows were “usually” like. I knew what a few of them were like during the early 1970s. As usual, my reaction to the show says more about me than Chuck Berry.)

So I buy “Rockit” and return it. But the record is a stubborn one. It’s probably ATCO. Unlike most of those other 1970s records from Chess, it keeps finding its way into stores. They issue a CD version. And then, years later, they reissue the CD.

Moreover, the reviews are good. A hundred times I read on the internet that Chuck Berry’s last studio album, “Rockit,” is “surprisingly good.” I feel my own shame. I can’t remember if it was good or bad. Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I bought it.

So finally, having started this blog, I realize I have to buy it again. And it’s available on line in a 25th anniversary edition.

And guess what—it’s good.

Here’s a record Chuck Berry made on his own, at home at Berry Park, with Johnnie Johnson at the keys and Chuck Berry doing his own guitars. There’s no Esmond Edwards doing whatever it was that Esmond Edwards did to Chuck Berry records. (Mostly, it would seem, he provided a bad vibe in the studio.) There isn’t any song I’d consider a “great” Chuck Berry song, but there are lots of really good Chuck Berry songs; and unlike the 1975 album, they are ALL Chuck Berry songs. A couple of them rise above the others, at least for me.

But before I talk about the songs, lets talk about the sound. Chuck Berry probably produced this record; the story is that he mailed it in to ATCO. And he captured the sound of Chuck Berry much better than the muted, mushy mix of the 1975 album, where extraneous and distorted guitars were squeezed in over an airless mix.

Chuck Berry music has got to sound live. There’s got to be atmosphere. Some of the old stuff was recorded in bathrooms at Chess to get the sound of guitars bouncing off tile.

Here he adds just enough reverb to his voice and guitar to give the sound a spacious feel. (I wish the drums and bass had the same thing.) And in the background, Johnnie Johnson’s piano, with both hands miked so that you can hear his left hand rhythm work as well as his right side tinkling. The sound of this record may not stand with the best stuff, but it’s good, and miles above “Chuck Berry” and the Mercury recordings.

Two things Chuck Berry probably didn’t feel he could talk about much or very directly in the 1950s: the law, and the old Jim Crow south (I’ve always thought he got a few sly licks in on “Promised Land.” On this record he must feel a bit liberated, and talks about both subjects often—though always in a comical way.

“Wuden’t Me” is a story about a man in the south.

Old boy he ran a little stop sign in the south
And he got in deeper trouble with his mouth
They wouldn't let him phone or make a bail
Just let him sit there in that Delford County jail

He winds up escaping and chased by “grand dragon” hounds into the cab of a truck driven by a KKK member. (And all of this before Mr. Berry started working with Daryl Davis!)

The song “I Never Thought” also goes down south and includes trouble with the law.

I asked a policeman the time, he swung and crowned me with his stock
I managed to walk away so glad it weren't twelve o'clock
You know I never thought a thing like that would ever really come to be
'Cause I don't bother nobody and don't nobody bother me

More cop trouble in “Move It.” It starts with a ’53 Ford breaking down on the highway.

Couldn't see nothing wrong, line of cars long
Traffic bogged down, trying to drive around
Officer Lamar, walking towards the car:
"Move it! Come along move it!
You can't stop it here, now move it! Move it!"

In the song “California” my humble and blighted home town finally makes its way into the long list of geographic locations sung about by Chuck Berry. (He had previously described Sacramento in his Autobiography as a city of geriatrics. I think he might have remembered that first concert that I saw him perform at, with a ghostly crowd of four or five hundred people in a cavernous hall.)

“House Lights” isn’t a song as much as show closing device. It’s one of many such novelties that Chuck Berry has tried to record over the years: “Goodnight Sweethearts” used to close the shows I saw in the early 1970s. “My Tambourine” was not-very-listenable version of “My Ding-a-Ling.” “House Lights” stands proud in such company.

The album has a remake of “Havana Moon” that gets high marks for me for weirdness. I always loved Havana Moon, but it was one of the songs that never gets played much live. I like that he tried to revive it. This version, with its weird background vocals, (all Berry), reminds me of his original version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” or even “Almost Grown.” As a kid I never wanted the background singing mucking up my Chuck Berry songs, but I’m almost grown myself, and have changed my mind. I like it. And I like that he tried to bring back a great song with new chords and a new sound. (I tell you, he’s Bob Dylan’s big brother.)

The album ends with a poem, “Pass Away,” of surpassing weirdness and wonder. I don’t want to listen to it often, but it’s a window into Chuck Berry that I love to hear once in a while. I remember someone—probably his son—remarking somewhere that “he’s got hundreds” of these. Another mark that he’s doing all this out of love, since the commercial value has got to be small. I sure wish he’d substitute some of his poems for his ding-a-ling at some of his live shows. People would like it.

And a bonus on “Pass Away” is the slide guitar in the background—a nearly note for note for one of his 1950s slide guitar songs, and very similar to what he plays at the end of “Hail! Hail!” That’s another thing I’d like to see him pull out of his bag of tricks live.

I guess I’m becoming sort of demanding! But there’s so much there, and yet so much emphasis is put on the same 15 or 20 songs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Give to Haiti

It seems irresponsible not to provide some sort of link.  I have no preference for the group you decide to support.  Here's a random one.

Pooped, Too Little Pop

As I drift towards the end of this blog I have to do one of the hardest things. I have to describe falling out of love with Chuck Berry's music back in the mid-to-late 1970s.  At least for a while.

I first became a follower in 1970. From 1970 until 1974 I bought as much of the old stuff as I could find, and all of the new stuff.  It helped that I got so see him live five times during that period, and that each show was great.

But by the end of that decade, I was pretty much done with Chuck Berry. In 1980 I moved to Africa and found a whole new world of music in West African Highlife and Soukous from the country then called Zaire. When I got back home that new interest stuck, and I let an entire decade of music slip past without even listening. When the telephone poles around me were plastered an inch thick with fading 8 ½ by 11 posters for groups like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, all playing at local clubs downtown, I was reviewing Jamaican and African records and seeing concerts by Tabu Ley Rocherau, Mbilia Belle, and Sonny Okossuns. I didn’t feel cheated, I promise you.

Except for a few late nights when he would show up on shows like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, It was a vacation from Chuck Berry that would last until 1986, when the book appeared, and the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!”

Things first started to fade for me when I finally got to hear the 1975 album “Chuck Berry”-- a blackish blue record with neon letters (called “Chuck Berry ‘75” in Europe).

I actually bought my copy in Europe, although it must have been a U.S. import. I was going to school in Italy in 1975, and visiting a friend in Paris when I found the record for sale at an expensive, all night store on the Champs Elysee.

We were heading out looking for a late night bottle of wine. (No 7/11s in Paris in those days.) We drank the cheapest, rottenest wine available, but the only place open that night was a fancy chrome place called “Le Drugstore” that sold everything from wine to women’s clothing. It was supposedly modeled on the American notion of a drugstore, but a different America than I had ever seen at that point. (My version of the American drugstore was considerably less chic—fluorescent lights, gum, band-aids, laxatives and asbestos ceilings. French pharmacies seemed infinitely more interesting to me as a teenager because French Pharmacies always found an excuse to put a huge poster of refined and lithesome naked girl in the window in an effort to advertise products I could never identify.)

“Le Drugstore” was a gaudy, expensive place with lots of chrome, glass and unfrosted light bulbs. (It’s still there: From my point of view there was no rhyme or reason to it, and the wine was so expensive that we ended up with something awful—a weird bottle of rose, or something like that, purchased at five or ten times what we’d normally pay because it was the least expensive bottle in the place. (No plastic wine bottles at “Le Drugstore.”) But while we were there I went to the record counter saw it: a new Chuck Berry record, with neon lettering up front, and a picture of Chuck Berry and his daughter on the back!

So I bought it. I paid a small fortune—two or three times what it would have cost me in the states, and probably 30 times what we usually spent for a bottle of wine.

But I had to have it. Right then and there-- even though I had no place to play it.

My only musical device at the time was a $12 black and chrome plastic cassette deck (probably purchased at a large American drugstore electronics counter) with a single 1.5 inch speaker-- and it was a 15 hour train ride away from Paris.

So I carried my new Chuck Berry album, unheard, from country to country, until I finally got back home to the U.S.A.

Then I played it, and thought: (drab, listless raspberry sound).

It just didn’t do it for me.

It still doesn’t.

But I’ve still got it, direct from Paris, 35 years old, bent and tattered, grooves worn flat despite the disappointment. I’ve played it once or twice recently and it crackles with wear and tear. I must have listened more than I remember.

Understand, I was born and raised on later day Chuck Berry records. They weren’t as jam packed with classics as the older stuff, but they always had their moments. “Back Home” had “Have Mercy Judge” and “Tulane.” “San Francisco Dues” had “Oh Louisiana.” “Bio” had “Bio.” “London Sessions” had vitality and life, his cursed “Ding-a-Ling,” great guitar playing and a world class rendition of “Mean Old World.”

This one? Didn’t have much.

I remember wondering the day I bought it where the Chuck Berry songs were. It looked like some sort of oldies album—nothing but covers. I like to hear Chuck Berry interpret other people’s work. “Time Was,” “House of Blue Lights,” “Cottage for Sale,” “I’m Through With Love,” “Love in ¾ Time”—these are some of my favorite things.

But generally speaking, my favorite Chuck Berry songs are Chuck Berry songs—and there aren’t many on the album called “Chuck Berry.” (Even some of the “Chuck Berry” songs aren’t “Chuck Berry” songs. “Don’t You Lie to Me” is credited to Berry,” but here’s a version from 1940 that sounds eerily familiar!)

(I found this version by "Los Fritos" by accident.  I don't know who "Los Fritos" are, but I like the name, y la musica es muy buena.)

But back to 1975: There is something flat about the sound on “Chuck Berry.” Los Fritos sound a lot more alive to me. 

It doesn’t have the “tinny” sound I hated on the Mercury LPs, but it’s a bit clinical. There’s something a little dead in the mix.

What surprises me now is to learn who some of the musicians were: Elliot Randall, Wilber Bascomb and Ernie Hayes are all well known session musicians. You’d never know it from listening. The drums are too crisp and contained. The bass is too electric. The extra guitars, mostly played by session musician Elliott Randall, (and probably added after the fact,) are too busy, or have too much distortion and wah-wah. Once I’d I googled these folks I wanted to learn more and got out Fred Rothwell’s book. I like his suggestion. When the songs are rereleased, subtract that extra guitar.

The music on “Back Home” sounds live and exciting. The music on “London Sessions” is good hard rock. “Bio” has a happy sort of shuffling feel.

This stuff sounds muted, as if the life was squeezed out of it during a remix. My advice: Turn up the reverb, turn off the wah-wah, simplify it, and maybe you'll find what's hidden there.

A couple of songs have some of Chuck Berry’s wildest singing ever. Not that wild singing really suits him.  It tells me that maybe it wasn’t working in the studio, either, so he tried to rev things up with crazy vocals that sound like he was trying to channel Little Richard.

It makes it interesting, anyway.

My favorite song on the album was Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do?” Even now I’d put it on my own Chuck Berry Blues compilation. It's a little sleepy, though, and I like Jimmy Reed’s version wayyy better.  Jimmy's version makes sense of hidin' and peepin'.  This one makes sense of yawnin' ans sleepin'.

But I like it.

It’s also nice that Chuck sings a couple of old Chess songs like “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “My Babe.”  Willie Dixon and Walter Jacobs were friends and co-workers of Chuck Berry; cool that he sang their songs, and interesting that he recorded “Love to You” for a second time. He must have liked it. 

But the first version was probably better.

Ultimately I think that the reason this record didn’t do it for me back in 1975 and doesn't really do it for me now is that there isn’t any really good reason for it to exist. Chuck Berry usually records lots of Chuck Berry songs. Here he didn’t. And he certainly didn’t record one of his great ones, or even a great cover.
The result, I think, is like a very odd live set, with Chuck Berry and some uninspired session musicians (on a few songs it’s local musicians from St. Louis; they do better, in my book) playing a mix of oldies, R & B, novelty and folk songs. If I take it that way—a very odd live set—I can enjoy it as a curiosity.

And I definitely like to hear Chuck Berry play piano—it’s a distinct style that you know is born of a simple love for music. It reminds me of stuff my brother Stevo, a drummer, used to do while standing at my mother’s baby grand.  And it's got a definte bounce.

Some people say Chuck Berry only plays for the money—but that piano tinkling is proof that isn’t true. It’s obviously a skill developed in his spare time, for love, not money.

(Although, I have to say, Mr. Berry, I’d pay big bucks to hear you do it live!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

David Rudder: Haiti

David Rudder is a great musician from Trinidad, who wrote a great song about Haiti.  Listen. 

Maybe we should cancel a couple of wars and just help Haiti rebuild.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Just let me hear some of that... (A rerun from April)

What it boils down to, I think, is the magic of rock and roll—- whatever energy gets an audience up and moving, or made the 14 year old me flip out in the upstairs room where I first played Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade.

In Chuck Berry’s case part of the magic is improvisation.

Musicians who’ve backed him always mention the lack of rules. No set list. No rehearsal. No warning about the key. Songs just start. If the musicians aren’t his regulars they scurry to determine if it's C, G or E flat. And the key might change mid-verse. In “Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll!” Chuck tries to change keys in the middle of a well rehearsed song. Keith Richards refuses and Chuck accepts it, laughing, but spitting out a few flat notes on his guitar just to be Chuck. But even though the band doesn't change keys, the show becomes an improvisation. Says Richards: “Weeks of rehearsals, out the window. Wing it, boys!”

And that's where Richards identified the secret ingredient he and the Stones were looking for when they sought, for years, to imitate Chuck Berry.

Wing it!

The songs are never the same. Even when he was making them. Listen to the alternate takes of some of Chuck Berry’s biggest hit records. Even the “tune” changes between takes until it settles into the version we’ve come to know.

This isn’t a surprise. As far as I can tell, the “tune” changes in some tiny way every time Chuck Berry sings. So do the lyrics. So do the guitar solos. So does the band. So do the arrangements.

It's something he shares with Dylan. The songs remain alive. They change. They are reborn every time he plays them.

Blues and jazz are improvised music, and Chuck Berry is pure improvisation.

For years he traveled without a band and took a fair amount of criticism. The contract called for “three(3) professional (AF of M) musicians, capable and familiar with Chuck Berry’s music, to serve as a back-up group which must consist of only a “show” drummer with drums, a pianist and a grand piano, an electric bass fuitarist with a bass guitar…”

I saw it work and not work terribly well. Mostly it worked.

(Loosely quoting Richards again, in "Hail! Hail!" he said that Berry gets away with it because of the power of his personality. He mugs, jokes, grins, and plays the hell out of his guitar to cover up a drab backing band.)

The biggest problem with the pickup band approach was that Chuck Berry could only play the mega-hit 12 bar blues based songs, with Memphis thrown in for good measure. In ten or so live shows I never saw him perform “No Money Down,” with it’s hootchie-cootchie riff, or the Caribbean styled “Havana Moon.” And he never played the ballads when I saw him—just blues or blues-based rock and roll that he could (usually)count on the musicians knowing.

Nowadays it’s a bit different. He’s got a core group of musicians who know him and love him, including his son, Charles, Jr. They can play what he wants, when he wants it. When I saw him at Blueberry Hill last January it was the first time I ever heard him play "You Never Can Tell." (He also filled time with a five minute skit involving toilet paper and letter from his brother.)

But I’ll bet one hasn't changed despite the band.

When he walks out on stage: "Wing it boys!"

Hail! Hail!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Daryl Davis Interview, Volume Three

One of the things that interests me about Daryl Davis is that he seems to have made his own dreams come true.  He's also had the courage get to know some of his nightmares. 

First the dreams.  He wanted to play piano behind Chuck Berry.  And so he did.  He studied boogie woogie and blues piano.  And guess who came to his house for dinner?

I’ve read that Johnnie Johnson and Pinetop Perkins would come by your house when they were passing through your part of the country. True? And can you tell us a little about your experience with those two?

These two gentlemen were my major piano influences. Pinetop Perkins will be 97 years old in July of 2010. He was a protégé of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith who played one of the first Boogie Woogies ever recorded in 1927 and 1928 called Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie. Thus the namesake, “Pinetop.” Pinetop Perkins has played with just about every significant Blues artist in the world. The public would often hear his piano playing on records but not know his name because they didn’t often list sidemen back then. He became a public persona when he became Muddy Waters’ pianist and was often featured during Muddy’s shows. That’s when I met him.  (Check out Pinteop Perkins HERE.)

Johnny Johnson, was born in July a decade later than Pinetop and was also influenced by Pinetop and other great Blues and Boogie Woogie pianists of the day. He borrowed from their styles and combined that with his own innovations to create a style truly his own. When I met Johnnie, he was playing with the late great Blues guitarist, Albert King.

Pinetop and Johnnie became great friends of mine and each adopted me as their godson. They would often stay at my home whenever they were coming through town to perform with Muddy, Eric Clapton, Bob Weir, or for concerts that I would put together that would feature me playing dueling pianos with them. They both are like family to me and I would visit their homes when I was in their cities of residence. They would always spend time schooling me at the piano. These were invaluable, priceless experiences that can never be gotten from a book or the formal training I received in college. I am eternally indebted to these gentlemen. I still do gigs with Pinetop every opportunity I have and played gigs with Johnnie often as well before he passed in 2005. I was a pallbearer at Johnnie’s funeral and the featured pianist when his band did a tribute to him at the Old Webster Jazz Festival in St. Louis a couple of years ago.

So why Johnnie & Pinetop? There are other pianists as well who influenced me as well, but these two became my family. I am a big Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino fan. I wanted to learn and play their styles. Well, Rock’n’Roll and Rockabilly piano came from Boogie Woogie, Blues and Country. So I sought out every pianist I could find. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to one day play piano with Chuck Berry and who better to seek out than Johnnie Johnson and the people he listened to. Thus Pinetop Perkins.

The Muddy Waters Band went out on their own under the name The Legendary Blues Band. The main attraction and persona was Pinetop Perkins. Some years later, when he decided he wanted his own solo career, he gave me his spot in the band and I became a member and toured with them for 3 years. That was truly the world’s greatest Blues band and I learned a great deal. When I first met Pinetop, I couldn’t play at all. Even though I received many compliments with The Legendary Blues Band, I don’t believe anyone could fill Pinetop’s shoes.

Johnnie Johnson was always very gracious and would invite me to various shows he was doing and have me sit in with him. I played Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ 50th birthday party with Johnnie Johnson. I got to see Johnnie play with Chuck Berry on occasion. That was magical. There was nothing like it and there will never be another pianist that can fill that slot with Chuck the way Johnnie did. Again, that was an education that would prove invaluable when I would back up Chuck.

You spent a lot of time abroad as a child. Did that affect your musical taste? How?

Yes, I’ve been to 50 countries on 5 continents and plan to see more. Indeed it did affect my musical taste. I like to think that I have pretty broad tastes in music and I certainly have a vast collection of different artists and genres. But like many people, the music nearest and dearest to your heart, is the music to which you were exposed as a child.

I was born in Chicago in 1958. So as a baby I did hear the Blues. My parents were in the U.S. Foreign Service and as a young child in the 1960s, we had many assignments overseas. Here is where it gets interesting.

Around the time that a child would cognizantly tune into and appreciate music, say at the age of 5, it would have been around 1963 for me. This country in addition to its own musical genres being played on the radio, would play American music that was about 5 years out of date with the times. My peers back home here in the States in 1963 were listening to those current sounds. I’m talking Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Beach Boys, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, James Brown, all the Bobbies (Rydell, Vee, and Vinton) etc. But because we were only getting music that ran behind by five years, I literally grew up hearing Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and The Comets, Carl Perkins, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters, Fats Domino, etc. This was pretty much the case in most of the countries to which we were assigned. Whenever we would return home after the assignment, I was out of sync with the musical tastes of my peer group back home and was told I was behind the times.

Well they say, “What goes around, comes around.” It seems to be true. In the seventies when American Graffiti and Happy Days came out and a decade later in the 1980s when the Stray Cats came out, guess who was already in tune with the music? Me!!! So, with that line of thinking, I was ahead of my time.

Tell us a little about the book you wrote.

Whenever I went overseas as a child, I would attend international schools. The American International School or some other international school in that country. My classes were filled with Italians, Germans, Nigerians, Japanese, Russians, French, you name it. If those countries had an embassy there, their kids all went to the international school. That’s how I grew up. At the same time, back home here in my own country, my peers were going to either newly integrated schools, or still segregated ones. I’m talking about the early to mid 1960s right now. There was not the diversity that we have in classrooms today in 2010. It was only Black kids and White kids or Black kids or White kids, depending upon which school you attended, the integrated or the segregated.

I had never experienced racism before until I returned home. One of those times was 1968. I was age 10 in the 4th grade in Belmont, MA. I was one of two Black kids in the entire school; myself in 4th grade and a little Black girl in 2nd grade. Consequently, all of my friends were White.

Some of my guy friends were members of the Cub Scouts and invited me to join, which I did. We had a march on Scout Day from Lexington, MA to Concord, MA to commemorate the ride of Paul Revere. Out of all the scouts in this march, I was the only Black scout. Somewhere along the parade route, I began getting hit with bottles and rocks and debris from the street, by White spectators on the sidewalk. Me being naïve and having never experienced anything like this thought, “Someone doesn’t like the Scouts. Maybe their kid didn’t make the cut or something.” It didn’t dawn on me that I was the only Scout getting struck until my Den Mother and my Cub Master came back in the line and shielded me with their bodies and escorted me out of the danger. I had no idea whatsoever why I was being targeted and when I asked my leaders, they didn’t respond to my questions. They just kept saying, “Keep moving Daryl. It’ll be alright.”

When I got home, my Mom & Dad, who were not at the march, cleaned me up and put Band-Aids on my cuts and scrapes and asked me how I had fallen down and scrapped myself up. When I told them what happened, they sat me down and for the first time in my life explained racism and told me why I was being hit. I didn’t believe them. I truly thought they were lying to me. It was incomprehensible to me at the age of 10 after growing up with every race in the world to think that someone who had never seen me, never spoken to me, and knew nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the color of my skin, and these were my fellow Americans. It made no sense and I didn’t believe my parents.

My disbelief was short-lived as more things began to happen. Martin Luther King was assassinated that year and racial tension increased all over the country. A little White girl in my grade named Charlene Colt called me a “nigger” for no reason. That was the very first time I’d ever been called a nigger to my face. Today, Charlene is an attorney in the Belmont area and I contacted her 30 years after she insulted me. We were now both 40 years old and I thought we could talk about the incident. It has stayed with me my whole life and I wanted to put closure to it by knowing she certainly didn’t feel that way 30 years later. In retrospect, I figured it was just a 10-year-old child spewing venom that she had heard from some adults. I tracked her down and called. She refused to speak with me, saying to never call her again. I guess some people just don’t change. It’s a shame she still has racist sentiments.

I have other stories that I’ve detailed in my book, but the Cub Scouts, Charlene Colt and this next story were some of the key factors in writing it.

In 1983, I was playing in a Country band. I was the only Black guy in the band and more often than not, the only Black guy in whatever venue we were performing. One night we were playing at an all White truck stop lounge in Frederick, MD. By all White, I don’t mean Blacks couldn’t come in there, I mean they didn’t come in there by their own choice. It was usually a good choice on their part, as they were not welcome. But nonetheless, here I was, the only Black in the joint. After the first set, the band took a break and I was headed to a table to sit down with my bandmates when a White guy walked across the dance floor and put his arm around my shoulders.

He told me he really enjoyed our music and that he had seen the band before but had never seen me and wanted to know where I had come from. I explained that I had just recently joined this band. He shook my hand and introduced himself and remarked, “I’ve heard a lot of piana players but this is the first time I ever heard a Black man play piana like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was taken aback and had no idea why he would think that to be odd. So I asked, “Well where do you think Jerry Lee learned how to play?”

He told me that Jerry Lee had invented that style of playing. While I acknowledged that Jerry Lee certainly had an identifiable style, that he certainly did not invent it and that he had learned much of it from Black Blues and Boogie Woogie pianists. He refused to believe this even after I told him that Jerry Lee Lewis was a personal friend of mine who even told me himself where he had learned to play. He didn’t even believe I personally knew Jerry Lee.

He invited me back to his table to have a drink. I don’t drink but agreed to have a soft drink with him. He had a buddy sitting at the table. We shook hands and I sat down across from both of them. When the waitress brought my drink, he cheered my glass by clinking it with his and announced, “This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a Black man.” The first thing I thought was, “This guy is having a night of firsts.”

Again, I had no idea what this was all about and I found it extremely odd that given the fact that he was probably in his 40s that he had never in his life sat down with a Black guy before. In my 25 years on this Earth at that time, I had sat down with literally thousands of White people and had a beverage, meal, conversation, what have you. How is it that he had never done this? I asked him why. He didn’t answer me. His buddy elbowed him in the side and said, “Tell’im, tell’im.” I said, “Tell me.”

Just as plain as day, he said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” Well, I burst out laughing in disbelief. He went into his wallet and pulled out his Klan card and handed it to me. It was real. So I stopped laughing.

He and I over a period of time became friends and some years later I decided to write a book on the Klan and my experiences. I do not subscribe to, or advocate for, any views of separatism or supremacy, Black or White. I believe we all are equal human beings. I later interviewed this Klansman and his Klan leader extensively. I would set up meetings with KKK members and leaders all over the country without telling them that I am Black. They all were shocked when they met me. Many, after getting over the shock would interview with me. Some declined and some tried to physically attack me. All of these stories along with some surprises are in my book titled, KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS. Up until my book, all books on the KKK were written by White authors who obviously would have an easier access to the Klan. They White authors were journalists openly interviewing Klanmembers, or joining the Klan undercover and writing about it, or former Klanmembers who quit and wrote their stories. There had been two books written by Black authors that dealt with the Klan but each author detailed how he escaped a lynching, one author in the 1930s and the other author in the 1940s. My book is the first book by a Black author who sat down face-to-face and interviewed his would be lynchers.  (You can read about Daryl's book HERE).

Anything else??

You asked in a subsequent email if that was me on the show at the Roxy in LA back in 1983. You are the 7th person that I can think of who has asked me that. That is not me, but he is a good pianist who did a fine job on that show. I think Jimmy Marsala put together that band using LA musicians. I used to know the guy’s name. If you need it, I can ask Jimmy for you.

(After asking, and before I got the response I realized I could find the answer in my Rothwell. [Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy, by Fred Rothwell.] The piano player in the Roxy concert film is William D. Smith. Peter.)

Daryl Davis: Musician

Just in case you forget who Daryl Davis is....

Every video he's teaching a bit of history before knocking socks off.

Here's his website.

Happy Birthday Danny.  You, too, Daddy.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lord Have Mercy On My Little Tulane! (A Go Head On Rerun!)

This site gets its name from the song “Tulane,” from the album “Back Home.” “Tulane” has always been one of my favorites, and it has become a sort of minor cult classic, often called one of the last great Chuck Berry masterpieces. It was mentioned recently as juke box background music in a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about Van Morrison. It was recorded a time or two in the 1970s by other artists. There are takes on the song by pub bands on youtube.

“Back Home” was my second Chuck Berry album, after the great original “Golden Decade” double LP. I was lucky to be introduced to Berry with the “Golden Decade,” and not one of the Mercury records that were widely available at the time—especially Mercury’s “Greatest Hits” release. If I'd found that one first I doubt I would have become a Chuck Berry fanatic-- but I found the “Golden Decade” and listened to it hundreds of times in an upstairs room where I kept my battered old drum set. (I was a weak drummer. No way I could keep up with those beats! I played along with slower rock like The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and stuff by The Rolling Stones.) I listened to the Golden Decade so much and so often that when I took a job picking honeydew melons in the hot California sun I sang it to myself, in order, all 24 songs, including scats of all the guitar solos, to pass time I spent squatting and cutting and stooping and cutting those melons. I’d run through all four sides, and sometimes start over.

I once repeated this feat, aloud, in the back of the car while my mother, two sisters and I drove some back roads between Oregon and California. Somewhere between Grants Pass and Crescent City I sang everything on the album from “Maybellene” to “Back in the U.S.A.”  My mother and sisters must have been extremely road weary, or very kind, or perhaps just a little stunned and frightened, because they let me do it for however long it took. (My singing voice is weaker than my drumming.)

I loved everything about that record, and especially the sound, which I used to describe as sounding like it was recorded in a garbage can. I’ve learned since that some of the songs were actually recorded in the bathrooms at Chess just to capture the sound that still kills me.

(I didn’t play the guitar yet, but I made plans to start. I used to go to Uncle Bob’s Music Mart in Orangevale and lust over the old Silvertones. I had a plan to form a band called Fuzzy Martin and the Statics. We’d play Chuck Berry and whatever else we could handle on cheap used amps and guitars from Uncle Bob’s. It’s still a good concept. I had a drum set custom made for the band—a broken down set of Kents that my brother-in-law gave me with a cracked and dented cymbal that sounded like a bullwhip when I hit it.)

But in the midst of this lust for the high energy and low fidelity of those early “Golden Decade” hits comes “Back Home,” my second Chuck Berry record. And “Tulane!”

By the time I buy this record, new, at Tower, I know Chuck Berry’s sound. And here it is again, but renewed, different, matured, with an electric bass instead of a standup acoustic, and with a refined guitar that the fine liner notes by Michael Lydon say has “the bitingly fine quality of etched steel”—a perfect description of Chuck Berry’s best guitar work from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The album begins with “Tulane” and its bookend, “Have Mercy Judge.” If “Tulane” is Chuck Berry’s last masterpiece, (until the new ones come out; that song "Darlin'" sounds like it might be pretty danged good), “Have Mercy Judge” is his second blues masterpiece after “Wee Wee Hours.”   (Or maybe third, after "Deep Feeling.")

“Tulane” tells the story of Tulane and Johnny who run a novelty shop but keep the best stuff under the counter. When the police come:

Johnny jumped the counter but he stumbled and fell
Tulane made it over, Johnny fell to the yell
Go ‘head on, Tulane! He can’t catch up with you!
Go Tulane! He ain’t man enough for you!

Tulane, like Nadine and Maybellene, before her, is a woman on the move, unafraid, always a step ahead. Johnny keeps talking and yelling instructions, but Tulane’s already gone! Next we here from Johnny, he’s in jail—a stony mansion—awaiting trial.

There's no video of "Tulane" (as far as I know he never played it live) but someone was nice enough to put it on youtube. 

And there are plenty of amateur, semi-pro and strange 1970s-1980s versions.  This version isn't strange-- the guy does it alone and gets the intro down cold!

Chuck Berry ignited a minor controversy among his biographers by writing in his own Autobiography that he wrote “Tulane” (along with Nadine and a few other songs) while serving time in the early 1960s. The writers have doubts because the song has a 1960s feel to it, especially if you assume the “cream of the crop” novelties are drugs. The song came out in 1969 or 1970, so the drug theme seems to fit the times.

I have no reason to doubt Berry’s memory. As a musician he was probably living the 60s lifestyle a lot sooner than the rest of the nation-- and who's to say that the cream of the crop constituted drugs?  But it also occurs to me that Berry might have been talking about “Have Mercy Judge,” a great song featuring Tulane that song fit given that Berry was serving time after his third trial for trumped up Mann Act violations. 

Have mercy, I'm in a world of trouble now
I'm being held by the State Patrol
I am charged with traffic of the forbidden
And I almost finished doing my parole
Now, I'm on my way back down town
Somebody help me, have mercy on my soul

I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
Lord, I know he won't have no mercy on me
'Cause he told me not to come back no more
He'll send me away to some stoney mansion
In a lonely room and lock the door

Ow! Have mercy on my little Tulane
She's too alive to try to live alone
And I know her needs
And although she loves me
She's gonna try to make it
While the poor boy's gone
Somebody should tell her to live
And I'll understand it
And even love her more
When I come back home

This is a song it would be nice to see Chuck Berry put into his live act, where he routinely plays his own "Wee Wee Hours," but otherwise sings great blues written by others, like "Mean Old World," "It Hurts Me Too," and "Every Day I Have the Blues."  Sing your song, Mr. Berry!  Sing your song!  ("Tulane" would be a good one, too!)

All Aboard!

Here's a good article about visiting Blueberry Hill and the Delmar Loop in St. Louis.,hoekstra-detours-st-louis-berry-delmar-011010.article

Saturday, January 9, 2010

More From Daryl Davis

You’ve played with Chuck Berry for a long time now. Can you describe what it’s been like to work with him over such a long span of time?

Never a dull moment. I look forward to each and every time I work with him. As I’ve already indicated, he’s very spontaneous and energetic. This increases your sensitivities and sharpens your intuitions and instincts. When you rise to this challenge, your musicianship is tested and you find yourself learning and applying all simultaneously. It’s a wonderful experience. I’m as excited at age 51 as I was when I first played with him at age 23. I first met him at age 14. A lot of people have their own “Chuck Berry stories,” some of which are exaggerated and negative. I have had nothing but great Chuck Berry stories. I have a ton of them, but here are three.

(1)  When I was 14, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were coming to Colefield House at Maryland University, which is about 20 minutes from where I live. I was excited as it was going to be my first time seeing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis in person. To this day, I still have my ticket. Even though the show wasn’t to start until 8:00 p.m., I got a ride up there around noon. At that time of day, there was no backstage security, people were bringing in lights and speakers and setting the stage. So I walked on in like I belonged. The backup band was there waiting for Chuck to show up for the soundcheck and to rehearse them. Little did they know and neither did I, that he doesn’t do that. I was there for the same reason, thinking he would be there early and I wanted to meet him. I kept myself out of everyone’s way, but stayed near the band because that’s where I figured Chuck would go when he arrived and that way I could meet my idol.

The band was very friendly and excited about playing with Chuck Berry. This would be their first time and they had never met him. The day was beginning to wear on and no Chuck Berry. The band was getting nervous. They didn’t know what to do, so they practiced a bunch of Chuck Berry songs for their sound check. It got to be evening time. Security arrived and took their positions. Since I was already backstage and looked like I belonged, no one made me leave. Jerry Lee arrived but still no Chuck Berry. Now the backup band was freaking out and the promoter was getting nervous wondering where Chuck was and if he was going to be a no-show like George Jones or Sly Stone. I got to met Jerry Lee and he was extremely nice.

Jerry Lee went started his set. Back then of course we didn’t have cell phones, so there was no way to track Chuck Berry down. The promoter was trying to figure out what he would tell the crowd to keep them from causing pandemonium and how much money he would lose in refunds if Chuck didn’t show.

About 5 minutes before Jerry Lee finished his set, Chuck walked in the backstage door. He didn’t speak to anyone except to ask someone where the promoter was. I seem to recall that the person he asked was in fact the promoter. They walked off to the promoter’s office. I stayed on the floor on the side of the stage towards the back with the band. Chuck came out of the promoter’s office and went back outside. Within seconds he returned with his guitar. The rumor floating around backstage was that he went outside to his rental car to retrieve his guitar from the car only after the promoter paid him and he not been paid he would have driven off.

He walked toward where I was standing a few feet from the band. As he passed me, I didn’t say a word, I just watched him. He laid the guitar case down on an amp crate and opened it up. The bandleader approached him with the rest of the band and said something to the effect of, “I’m Bruce Springsteen and my band is your backup band. We’re really looking forward to playing with you.” At the time, few people outside of Asbury Park, NJ knew who Bruce Springsteen was. Chuck shook hands and Bruce went on to tell him that they had been going over some of his repertoire earlier and asked what songs he might want to play that evening. Without pausing or missing a beat, Chuck said, “I think I’ll play some Chuck Berry songs,” and walked on stage and plugged in his guitar. It was a great concert. When he came off stage, he packed up his guitar but had forgotten the cord. The audience was screaming for an encore. Chuck walked back onto the stage and the crowd thinking he was going to play another song cheered even louder. He pulled the cord out of the amp waved to the crowd and duckwalked off the stage. He walked right by me again and again, I didn’t say a word. I was just in awe. He went out the door and got in the rental car and drove himself to wherever he was going.

(2)  I played with Chuck on a show at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC many years later. There was a little girl in a wheelchair in the front row who was just as enthusiastic as everyone else was at this sold out show. When the concert was over and theatre emptied out, I was packing up Chuck’s guitar on stage and one of the sound crew techs approached me and told me that the little wheelchair-bound girl had MS and her guardian who had brought her wanted to know if Chuck would possibly sign an autograph for this young fan. I had done a number of shows with Chuck at this point in time and I made it my policy not to approach him for favors. He gets enough requests from fans without the band asking him for autographs. Not that he is inapproachable, I just wanted to respect his privacy. If I knew in advance that he wanted to sign autographs which he sometimes did, I would direct those people who ask me for such favors where to go to see him. But this little girl had just been so enthusiastic despite her affliction and disability, I wanted to make an exception.

I went to Chuck’s dressing room and asked him if he remembered seeing the little girl in the front row in the wheelchair. He said he did see her. I explained that she would like an autograph. He said it was no problem. I asked him if he wanted to sign a piece of paper for me to take down to her or should I bring her to his dressing room. He asked me to lead him to her. I explained she was still out in the theatre and he said it didn’t matter to him. So I took him back down and through a side door that led out to the seats in the theatre. A big smile as wide as the Mississippi River stretched across this child’s face. Chuck knelt down beside her and talked with her and her guardian for about ten minutes. I then escorted him to his rental car and we went and he and I went to have dinner in Chinatown in Washington, DC.

Many celebrities would never have done such a thing without the press being on hand to capture the moment in the media and take advantage of the kudos it would generate for this celebrity to be seen spending time with a a fan who was afflicted with a disability. Chuck Berry did not even think in those terms. What he did was out of the kindness of his heart and his genuine regard for a fan he had never met before. I was extremely impressed and that tops anyone’s Chuck Berry story. That’s the Chuck Berry I know.

(3)   I had arrived early to an arena to play with Chuck. He had told me that he wasn’t bringing his bassist on this trip and would therefore need mine. So, I knew it was up to me to make sure everything on stage was set the way Chuck liked it. The band and I arrived early and soundchecked and took care of all the preliminary things in preparation for that evening’s concert. Opening the show was Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and the great Leslie Gore. They both had come to the arena to participate in their sound check. A gentleman who was hired by the concert promoter to be a signer for anyone in the audience who may be deaf or hearing impaired, stood on the side of the stage doing sign language to the lyrics of each singer’s songs during the sound check and would be doing it in that evening’s performance as well.

When I finished what I had to do on stage the signer ran up to me and said, “Hello Mr. Davis. I am told that you are Chuck Berry’s musical director.” He introduced himself and explained his function and asked if it would be alright if he stood on the side of the stage out of the way and signed to Chuck’s songs. I explained to him that only Mr. Berry would be able to approve that and when he arrived, I would explain and present him with the request or I would direct him to Chuck and he could ask him the same. Because he was told that I was the musical director, he assumed I had Chuck’s set list for that evening. I explained that Chuck didn’t use a set list. He said he knew a lot of Chuck Berry lyrics but it would be helpful if he had an order in which Mr. Berry would perform them. I told him that not even I knew what songs Chuck would play that evening, but he would most certainly do many of his popular ones.

A little while later, Chuck pulled up in a rental car and I greeted him, took his guitar and was walking him to his dressing room. Right as I was explaining what the signer wanted to do, he comes running up to us, shouting, “Mr. Berry, Mr. Berry.” They shake hands and he explains to Chuck what his function as a signer is at the concert and asks if Chuck minded if he stood on the side of the stage and did his signing. Chuck said it was not a problem and he would be welcome to do that.

Then Chuck looked at me and gave me a sly smile. I didn’t know what this was all about. He then put his fingers up to his chin like he was pondering something and said to the guy, “You say you’re a signer?”

“That’s right,” said the guy. “I sign the words to the songs for the deaf and impaired people who may be in the audience this evening. Chuck again told the guy that it was fine for him to be on stage signing and then Chuck snickered and elbowed me in my ribs laughing and we proceeded down the hall to his dressing room. I still didn’t know what was so funny. So I asked him. Chuck said, “That man says he’s a signer and he’s going to sign the words to my songs to the audience.” Still wondering what was so funny about that, I said, “Yes, he is a signer. I saw him doing it with Peter Noone and Leslie Gore during the soundcheck.” Chuck replied, “Yeah, I know, but I wonder how he’s going to sign to My Ding-a-Ling? His wit never ceases to amaze me. Chuck is always thinking and is always one step ahead of everyone else. Pure genius!!!

This is a big question—but can you describe how you think Chuck Berry fits into American and world culture?

There are thousands of great musicians, but every so often a musical genius is born. Such a thing happened on October 26th, 1926. The fruits of his creative genius extended far beyond the invention of Rock’n’Roll. They also played a major role of social impact in our society which is even felt today.

As you are aware, our country has a vile history of racism. The subject is often considered taboo to talk about, but I believe in telling it like it is, applauding our country’s achievements but also condemning and correcting their detriments.

Back in the day, music venues like most places were segregated by color. That’s if they allowed Blacks in there at all. Some places did not allow Black patrons. Those that did, only allowed them in certain sections of the venue. There would be ropes running along the seating sections with signs hanging which read, “Colored Seating Only” or “Seating For Whites Only.” When you went to see a concert in the 1940s, for example say Frank Sinatra, you sat in the section as designated by the color of your skin. You did not “cross sit” (that is to sit in the other skin color section) or you would be arrested. That was the law. People pretty much for the most part, obeyed the law.

That law was still enforced in the 1950s. However, with the advent of Rock’n’Roll, White kids and Black kids could not sit still and ended up bouncing out of their seats, knocking over the rope barriers and dancing in the aisles together. That Boogie Woogie rhythm with that heavy backbeat that Chuck put in there was just that infectious enough to cause that kind of race mixing with blatant and wanton disregard for the law. Little White girls were dancing with Black guys. Oh my goodness, the world was coming to an end!!! This genre was to be called Rock’n’Roll was being called anything but. Jungle music, race music and nigger bop, were the most common names assigned to the genre by its detractors. Mayors and other city officials began banning Rock’n’Roll concerts from their towns to prevent this lewd, lascivious behavior that would lead to miscegenation. At concerts that were permitted to take place, police were instructed to arrest any youth engaged in not only cross sitting but cross dancing as well. The rule of the day was “Don’t Cross The Line,” the color line.

It wasn’t Chuck Berry’s lyrics to his songs. It wasn’t that he got on the microphone and encouraged this behavior. It was his music that compelled these actions that the kids did with impunity and without compunction!!!

At the same time while soon to be great and legendary Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were trying to accomplish the bringing of Black and White adults together through speeches, sit-ins, boycotts and marches, Chuck Berry and his contemporaries were achieving it naturally through his music. It was the beat of that music that caused all the trouble. Like he says in his song, Rock’n’Roll Music, “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it, if you wanna dance with me.” Chuck had provided a venue for the youth of the day with differing pigmentation, to come together and experience each other and come to the realization that it wasn’t cancerous. Getting this information to minds of the young people of that era was a major brick in the cornerstone of the progress that was yet to come. Chuck had succeeded in performing would also be called crossover music, appreciated by young members of both races.

Chuck Berry and his contemporaries playing that music and influencing the attitudes of youth of that era who would later be voting adults, laid a major piece of groundwork at the time that would pave the way for someone like Barack Obama to become President of the United States.

Chuck’s musical contributions are well-known and well-documented, so I don’t think I need to list them here. I feel it’s equally important to point out the positive societal and racial impact his music had by the rebellion it caused with America’s youth. You asked about his role fitting in to this country and world culture. His songs have become national and internationally recognized anthems, recorded by artists all over the world and in every style of music. You left out one thing. Not only is Chuck recognized in this country and the rest of the world, he has now become galatic due to his song Johnny B. Goode being sent into space in a time capsule from Earth on both Voyager I and Voyager II, for any aliens traveling the universe to learn about music from planet Earth.

How do you think he sees his own role?

First of all, I could never pretend or even portend to speak for him. Therefore I cannot speculate with any confirmed accuracy as to how he sees his own role. In my own personal opinion from my experiences with him I can tell you this. He is a very humble man. He does not come across like many egotistical people do once they reach celebrity status. Chuck treats everyone with genuine respect and like any of us, enjoys his life at work and would like to enjoy his life outside of work. By this, I mean, when he’s not performing on stage, he likes to be like anyone else and go about his business without being under the constant microscope that comes with the celebrity persona. Like any of us when we get off our job, we like to enjoy our privacy without bringing our work home with us. I believe that he knows his songs have become anthems for many people around the world. He is amazed to see people who were not even born singing every word to his lyrics at his concerts and other artists still recording his songs 50 years after they were first recorded by him. Given all of this, he knows he has played a role in shaping musical history, but he is also humble enough to quickly point out that he was influenced by certain artists who preceded him and give credit where credit is due, unlike many others who have not given him the credit that he was due.

(You can see some great footage of Daryl playing piano with Chuck Berry on Davis's webiste.  Click Here!)