Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The Amazing Daryl Davis, Volume One!
That night I looked up Daryl Davis on the internet and youtube, and there he was, playing boogie woogie and rock and roll and teaching a little musical history on the sly. (Check it out HERE.)
Well, I’ve had good luck so far with Chuck Berry’s keyboardists. First Bob Lohr gave a dynamite interview. Then Bob Baldori did the same.
So I wrote a few questions for Daryl Davis.
And you thought piano playing lawyers could expound! This is only Volume One!
You backed up Chuck Berry at B. B. King’s on New Year’s Eve. I’ve seen video clips of the performance, and he seemed to be in great form. Can you tell us about the show?
Chuck is in GREAT form. He is 83 years of age and doing things of which most people that age only have distant memories. Getting older is inevitable. It is not a choice, unless of course you choose the alternative. However, maintaining your physical fitness is a choice and one that Chuck Berry has always wisely made. Thus, his ability to look and prance around like he was a couple of decades younger. He eats right, doesn’t drink, gave up cigarettes and never did drugs. He is the antithesis of the lifestyle most often associated with the genre of music he created. For the longest time, up until recent years, people would remark on how decades later, Dick Clark still looked about as young as he did on American Bandstand. Chuck’s got him beat by decades!!!
I reside in Silver Spring, MD, just 15 minutes from our nation’s capital, Washington, DC. Normally, I’ll drive up to New York to play with my band, The Daryl Davis Band or Chuck Berry, or another artist. But I figured it would be too crazy to try to drive in Manhattan, let alone Times Square on NYE. Knowing that equipment was being supplied by the club, I didn’t have to bring a keyboard and my drummer Adolph Wright, didn’t have to bring drums. So we rode the train up to NYC. Chuck’s regular bass player, the great Jimmy Marsala, was coming with Chuck, so my bass player stayed behind this time. We got off at Penn Station and walked a few blocks to B.B. King’s. You could feel the energy all through the air as people were hustling to Times Square to stake out their spots to watch the ball drop.
We got to the club about a half hour ahead of our scheduled sound check. Chuck was not there yet and I didn’t expect him to be. Usually, when my drummer and bassist are on the gig, we take care of sound checking for him and making sure his Fender Dual Showman amps and speakers are correctly placed on the stage and all the dials are set to where he likes them. Then I’ll check his microphone and monitor levels and run a few songs. If his bass player Jimmy is on the gig, he takes care of all that.
When the sound crew was ready for my drummer and me, I sat down at the piano and played Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie, then went into the Blues song After Hours while they adjusted the monitor and house speaker levels. When I finished, I heard one of the sound crew people behind me applauding my playing. I turned around to thank him, only to see that it was Chuck Berry clapping his hands for me. We both started laughing and greeted each other. I had spoken with Chuck on the phone a couple of days prior and played with him a couple of months back when his St. Louis based pianist Bob Lohr was kind enough to let me sit in and play some piano with Chuck when I dropped in on their gig Blueberry Hill in St. Louis back in October.
Jimmy tuned up Chuck’s guitar and Chuck actually strapped it on and did the sound check with us. That’s a rarity!!!. But that’s also one of the many things I love about Chuck Berry. He has his routines but, don’t ever try to predict him. That’s when he’ll do the unexpected. Always expect the unexpected, and I mean that in a good way. He likes to be spontaneous and try different things on the fly. He will definitely improve your musicianship. I love it, I love it, I love it!!!! He asked me if I knew the melody to Auld Lang Syne. I said I did. He chose a key and we rehearsed it.
When the sound check was over I went outside to people-watch for a little while. When I came back in, Chuck was sitting on my seat on stage, playing the keyboard. For those of you who don’t know, Chuck Berry can Boogie Woogie on the piano. After all, Boogie Woogie is what influenced him to create Rock’n’Roll. I bent over beside him and took over the left hand while he soloed with his right hand. The doors to the club were about to open to let the public in, so we ended our duet and retreated back to the dressing room.
We were scheduled to perform two shows; 8:00 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. A few minutes before show time, I peeped out from behind the curtain that shields the audience from the backstage area. The place was packed and the people were ready to party and there was a strong vibrant energy in the air.
Moments later, Jimmy, Adolph and I, took our respective places on stage. From the sound booth about halfway back in the audience, the sound man made some general announcements and when he saw that we were ready and his voice filled the air, “Ladies and gentlemen, CHUCK BERRY!!!”
The crowd roared and hidden in the wings unseen by the audience the guitar resonated that familiar intro just like ringin’ a bell, “Bah doo dah, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee,……..” Chuck teased the audience by continuing to play for about 4 bars before emerging onto the stage and into the audience’s sight. When he appeared, the decibels of the roar rose as did many of the crowd who stood up and cheered as he continued the most famous guitar riff in the world. They were all his. All his children, Black, White and everything else, all ages who grew up listening to his music or came to know it through their parents or grandparents. The spell had been cast and he had them in the palm of his hand.
Chuck has an uncanny ability that comes with years of experience in the art of pacing himself. He would mix some Blues songs and slower numbers in between some of the uptempo rockers so that no matter how many fast songs he played, he could still burn a solo without it sounding tired or lackluster. The audience would call out Chuck Berry song titles and he would accommodate them.
Time flies when you’re having fun. It seemed like we had just started because the excited roar of the crowd never wore down, but it was an hour later and time to close that show. Even though I’ve played countless dates with the man for almost 30 years, I could still feel the energy he generated, vibrating inside me as I walked off the stage wondering, “How does this 83-year-old man do this? I’m 51 now. Will I be able to do this when I’m 83?”
Two hours and 15 minutes later it was time for the next show. I once again peeped out from behind the curtain at the audience. Even though they had turned the house and it was a whole new audience, it was like déjà vu. The house was packed and the people were ready. That strong vibrant energy was abound. The energy level was cranked up a bit because we were now 45 minutes away from 2010!!! Again we all took our places on stage and Chuck began the show once again from the wings, driving the crowd into a frenzy with that guitar riff that says, “This is Rock’n’Roll!!!” With the energy he put out, no one would have known he had already played a one-hour high energy show two hours prior. I’m still trying to figure that one out. The only answer I can come up with is that it’s all in how he paces himself and takes good care of his health.
Chuck’s spontaneity usually displays itself in his choice of songs. He doesn’t use a set list. He just plays whatever song he decides on the spot to play when he finishes the one he’s playing. During this particular set, Chuck’s spontaneity displayed itself in his choice of instruments. During one of his songs, he walked over to me and motioned, “Let’s switch instruments.” I stood up and took his guitar and began playing Chuck Berry licks. He sat at the keyboard and played it. The crowd loved it.
Then, like the first show, it didn’t seem like any time had passed at all, but we were doing the countdown. At the precise moment, Chuck looked at me and we went into Auld Lang Syne. We closed this show as we did with the first, by having women come on stage to dance. Chuck jammed on an extended version of Reelin’ & Rockin’, trading fours with me and then Adolph. He exited the stage the same way he appeared, playing the guitar as he went out of view of the audience. He soloed for a few verses backstage while we accompanied him and about 30 girls danced on stage. Then he ended the song and 2010 was ready to begin.
I hung out with Chuck and Jimmy for while before he departed to his hotel. We wished each other a Happy New Year and Adolph and I walked those few blocks, making our way through all the drunks on the street, back to Penn Station to catch the train home in the wee wee hours.
None of the original Rock’n’Rollers still living, had played this New Year’s Eve except for Chuck Berry. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, did not perform anywhere this New Year’s Eve. On the train ride home, it hit me, “I just played the last real original Rock’n’Roll concert of 2009!!!!”
I was pleased to see him play “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play that song. Does he ever pull out some of the less common songs when you’re with him? Ballads, or newer material?
Actually, I’ve played Brown-Eyed Handsome Man with him a lot of times over the years. He may not do it every gig, but it hasn’t been all that rare when I’m on the gig. One song that he did the other night on New Year’s Eve that I’ve only played maybe 2 or 3 times with him was No Particular Place To Go. A lady in the audience shouted it out and boom, he went right into it.
Two other songs he didn’t do the other night and he rarely does in my experiences are Back In The USA and Too Much Monkey Business, but I have played them on a couple of occasions with him.
Every so often, he will pull out songs with me that he doesn’t normally do. When he is comfortable with his backing musicians knowing they can follow, he is at ease to stretch out from the stock of I-IV-V 12-bar songs, once he’s given the audience what they’ve come to hear.
I read that you began playing piano at age 17. How long after that did you do your first job backing up Chuck Berry?
Yes, I started out a little late. They say 17 is rather old to be starting out in music. So I had to learn to play fast. That’s why I play Boogie Woogie. It’s fast.
I graduated from high school the next year in 1976 at age 18 and graduated from Howard University with my degree in music 4 years later at age 22. My first gig with Chuck was the following year in 1981.
First of all, how is that even possible?!?! And what was it like for you?
I knew that Chuck relied on the promoters of his shows to supply him with a backup band. I had seen Chuck perform a number of times before I ever played with him. In fact, I’d seen him perform before I could even play myself. I studied him religiously, not just on record but also on stage. I was well aware that he did not always play his classic Chuck Berry songs “just like the record.” He liked the freedom to play them like the record or to deviate and improvise upon them, and he should have that right. After all, he wrote them.
The mistake that many of the backup bands make who I’ve seen work with him, is that they have only studied his Greatest Hits records and expect him to play it “just like the record.” Boy, are they in for a surprise!!!
What gives musicians like Jimmy Marsala, Bob Lohr, Bob Baldori and myself the advantage, is our understanding of Chuck’s need to not be restricted to conforming to playing something the same way he played it back in the 1950s. Chuck Berry will improve your musicianship 100% if you take the time to understand that Rock’n’Roll is no different than Jazz or Blues in the sense that it is a spontaneous feeling upon which one may improvise and interpret differently each time the same song is performed, unlike Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which is restricted to only Beethoven’s interpretation and any improvisation is strictly forbidden.
Use the Chuck Berry records as a basic template to understand the song progressions and Johnnie Johnson’s phenomenal piano lacings in and around Chuck’s vocals and guitar riffs. Watch the live shows to know that he doesn’t like a walking bass line on most of his songs. He prefers only the root note of each chord played in a specific rhythm on the bass. His cues are made with his legs. When he raises his leg and kicks it down to the floor, if you are playing, then stop. If you’re not, then start. Certain things he does in the way he holds the guitar, indicate that he wants you to solo on your instrument. These and other little things are all things you can’t get off a record or CD or out of a book. It comes with experience and the ability to tune into the psyche of the artist whom you are backing.
Funny story. When I was a little kid, my favorite song was Memphis, by Johnny Rivers. I heard it when it first came out and loved it. It was always being played on the radio by Johnny Rivers. Later, I discovered Chuck Berry when I saw him on TV. I had heard his music on the radio before but never retained his name before seeing him. He became my favorite performing artist. So my favorite song was by a guy named Johnny Rivers and my favorite artist was this guy named Chuck Berry. I was blown away when I found out shortly thereafter that my favorite artist was the one who actually wrote and first recorded my favorite song. Last year I played with Chuck Berry out on Long Island, NY and guess who the opening act was? Johnny Rivers!!!