Monday, January 11, 2010
The Daryl Davis Interview, Volume Three
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.
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.
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.)