Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Long Distance Information: An Interview With Chuck Berry Scholar Fred Rothwell

My favorite book about Chuck Berry, besides Chuck Berry's own Autobiography, is Fred Rothwell's "Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy"  from Music Mentor Books.  It's funny, well written, respectful (though not afraid to tell the truth about a bad recording) and always informative.  I've heard most Chuck Berry songs 32,000 times-- but after reading Rothwell's book I've heard new things in them.  (For example-- now I recognize when Matt Murphey is playing backup guitar.)  It helps that Rothwell appreciates many of the same records I do, and cringes at a few of the same ones, too.  But when Rothwell does become critical he usually does it with respect and humor-- good tools to have at your disposal when you're writing about someone of Chuck Berry's stature.

A few days ago I sent Rothwell a list of questions.  I wasn't sure what would happen.  Then, today, I got the answers.  Enjoy.  Then cruise on down to Music Mentor Books  and get yourself an education.

How old were you when you first "discovered" Chuck Berry? And what happened when you did?

I'm now 61 so I missed the first flush of rock and roll but as a teenager in the early sixties I fully embraced the exciting new British beat boom. It was such a breath of fresh air compared to Cliff and the Shadows and the dreary fare served up by the BBC. At the time very little American music was heard on mainstream radio and I wasn't aware of black rock and roll let alone blues. I loved to listen to the unusual sounds played at travelling fairgrounds and I do recall first hearing 'Sweet Little Sixteen' though the noise of the mighty waltzer ride.

However, it was the Rolling Stones that first caught my imagination, I loved their strange music and stranger image. I didn't have a record player but I did have a Grundig reel to reel tape recorder and in my ween-years I had taped lots of Elvis from Radio Luxemburg, the only station available at the time playing interesting music. When the Stones hit, poor Elvis was over-taped with the new sounds. I didn't have a clue about the blues at the time but now realise I had a pre-disposition for them from an early age as Lonnie Donegan was a big favourite and the one track that survived from my Elvis cull was 'Reconsider Baby'.

I started to check out the composer credits of the songs on the Stones LPs, names like Moore, Morganfield and McDaniel revealed the exotic artists Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and amongst them was the frequently recurring C Berry. Strangely, I didn't like the Stones versions of Chuck's songs, 'Come On' was a great story song and the harp was something new but it sounds embarrassingly bad to me now. Likewise I didn't dig 'Carol' because of the hand-claps and it seemed like the Stones were imitating the Beatles version of 'Roll Over Beethoven' which I didn't like either. However, 'Bye Bye Johnny' and 'Around And Around', both on Stones EPs were something else, in fact, I prefer there recording of 'Around' with its phenomenal piano by Ian Stewart to Chuck's which I don't think he fully realised.

So Chuck's music sort of crept up on me rather than hit me upside my head. If any one record lit the fire it was 'No Particular Place To Go' a UK hit in 1964 with its wonderfully humorous story, great vocals full of expression and passion and above all that superb ringing guitar. Even so, by this time I was hooked on the blues and soul music and Chuck's music was just one string on my musical bow. I didn't buy a lot of records and when I did it was blues and soul rather than rock and roll so the first Berry LP I got was the Golden Decade double, after which I was obsessively hooked.

When did you realize you were writing a book about his music?

I had a desire to be creative, to contribute something to the music I loved and to enthuse others. My first efforts was to co-compile 'The Complete Muddy Waters Discography' with Phil Wight. Phil had started compiling it and asked for information in Pickin' The Blues' (the fore-runner of Blues & Rhythm magazine) about a Muddy concert from about 1968 that had been broadcast and I happened to have taped on my trusty Grundig. I suggested we work together on the discography and when published it was a critical success – revised and re-published twice since.

I really enjoyed the detective work involved in compiling a discography, unearthing some minor fact that had been over-looked before gave my anorakish soul a jolt. So what better than to tackle my favourite rock and roller. However I needed more than just the dry bones of discography and decided to put some meat on the bones with my views about Chuck's music, the antecedents and influences of Mr Berry songs and his enormous influence on rockers worldwide. I also wanted to keep the work pretty light hearted (described by one critic as 'unprofessional' ) in the spirit of the music and Chuck's demeanour (I know many view Berry as a grumpy old scrote but I've always felt his music resounded with humour and wit in the manner of his idol Louis Jordan). My good friend George White had just started his Music Mentor publishing imprint and asked if he could have a go at publishing it. At first I declined because I wanted it published by a 'real' publisher. However, after sending a draft to several likely companies who all liked what I'd done but felt it was too specialised, I returned, cap in hand to George. And, boy am I glad I did because he did a superb job of editing and producing the finished book (driving me have mad with his exacting demand for absolute accuracy).

How long did it take you? And how did you get all that information?

I can't really remember how long but I'd guess about ten years. I had a full time, responsible job and I'd work on it as I felt and not let it become a chore. If anyone needs something to ease the stresses of everyday life, I'd recommend creative writing or detailed research into something that really interests them as a perfect antidote.

Again, where I got the information from is a bit hazy. I know there was a discography in the 'Golden Decade Vol 2' double LP which was a starting point. I also gleaned a lot from Howard DeWitt's book 'Chuck Berry – Rock And Roll Music' not so much from the main text but the excellent discography in the appendix by Morten Reff. During the development of the book I became firm friends with Morten and he was the single most important source for the book. As you know Morten has gone on to write his own Berry books and I avoided putting stuff in my book that would spoil his. What was really gratifying was I made lots of contacts with people interested in the music I love and from this several friendships have developed that have spread beyond the bounds of the music itself.

But of course what is absolutely necessary is to listen, listen and listen again to the music and don't assume anything written is correct without hearing it yourself – and then double check.

Did you ever get to look at original records from Chess or Mercury or the English equivalents?

I've never been a vinyl junkie and have always been more interested in the music in the grooves rather than the grooves themselves. I have a very modest Chuck Berry record collection but a huge amount of Chuck's music on CD including loads of stuff from collectors around the world on CDR. In fact, I have ninety nine and a half (but that just won't do) of everything laid on wax by CB including stuff even Chuck will have forgotten about. I guess my rarest LP is 'Chuck Berry – Tokyo Session' a Japanese issue on the Eastworld label (check out the great cover in Morten's book). So I don't have many original records but whenever something needs checking on a label, I know a man that does – Mr Reff.

What do you do with yourself when you are not researching and writing about Mr. Berry?

I retired from my full time job about five years back (yes I know – lucky bugger!). I was the technical director of a housing association and I've spent my whole life in building construction and surveying and since retirement I've dabbled in property development (a man after Mr Berry's heart!). I also dig gardening (gardening! that's not very rock and roll I hear you say – yes it is, it's the new R 'n' R).

But of course, music is my main thing. I'm currently working on 'Dynamite – Ike Turner's Recorded Legacy' an annotated discography of the 'Bad Man' himself. Hopefully this will be published by Music Mentor sometime this decade!!! I'm also toying with a Johnny Guitar Watson discography but that is at embryo stage. I also review blues and R&B CDs for 'Blues and Rhythm' magazine and write the odd article for 'Now Dig This' magazine – both worthy publications.

You sometimes write like you might play guitar-- are you a musician yourself?

No I cannot play a note, nor sing a jot. I was once in a R&B band in my teen years and lasted exactly three days before they chucked me out. I met someone recently who said I couldn't possibly review music if I couldn't play (he was a classical buff) and I do sometimes wish I knew more about the technicalities of music. However, I don't suppose many of my musical heroes knew much more about the technicalities and finer points of music but they can still make my hair rise when playing the music I love.

What is it about Chuck Berry's music that got you? Can you describe it?

To paraphrase the man himself, Chuck Berry's music is my life-blood. The more you listen the more you want to. It is a dangerous but beautiful obsession that gets better with age – my kids say I'm in a musical rut but I believe I'm in the groove! I never tire of Chuck's opening riff on Johnny B Goode and it always makes me sit and pay attention no matter what the situation. But better still are the glorious boogies he and Johnnie Johnson cooked up on tracks like 'Down The Road Apiece' or 'Little Queenie'. And he didn't need Johnnie to produce the goods – check out 'St Louis Blues' from his 'Berry In London' album or 'I Love You' from his 'London Sessions' LP. Then, of course, there are his wonderful lyrics. In one single 1956 session he wrote and recorded three masterpieces of rock and roll poetry, 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Too Much Monkey Business' and 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', any one of which would have secured his name in twentieth century popular culture.

How often have you seen him perform? Can you describe some of your memories?

I missed all his tours of the UK in the sixties to my eternal regret, I guess I wasn't that interested. I was a dedicated follower of fashion and most of my money went on clothes. I first saw Chuck in 1973 after his big hit at the Rainbow Theatre London and since probably 5 or 6 times since. Chuck's reputation is notorious for performing lack-lustre and short sets but I haven't experienced any all the times I've seen him. Sure, there have been no encores but if you know this is how it is, then there is no disappointment. I saw him play at the Capitol Jazz Festival, an open-air gig at Alexandria Palace, 22 July 1979. The papers later reported he'd caused a mini-riot by not encoring. Not so, it was the MC who didn't know Chuck's routine and wound up the crowd so much that they threw Coke cans at him. Muddy played the same day and I have a recollection that Chuck came on stage (but didn't play) and shook Muddy's hand (this could however be me just fantasizing). The last time I saw Chuck was July 2002 and I wrote a review for Now Dig This magazine in which I summarised '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'.

You tell a great story about meeting Chuck Berry. Have you thought about what you'd do if you get a second chance?

Last November, I had been invited to 'hang out' with Chuck and his band by Bob Lohr but unfortunately it was not to be as the tour was cancelled (maybe it'll happen in March) so I'd given some thought to what I'd ask the great man. I hoped to find out more about the totally atypical recording 'Go Shabba Go' Chuck made with Shabba Ranks in 1994. Where and when it was recorded but maybe more interestingly, why! Did he record his part separately from Shabba and the band and how it all came about. I have a poster of a concert from the fifties showing Chuck and Louis Jordan playing the same bill. I'd love to ask Chuck about his memories of Louis and what Louis thought of his music. Similarly I'd like to hear Chuck's memories of Little Walter and Elmore James. There is a rumour that Chuck recorded with Memphis Minnie when he first cut for Chess and Chuck has the tape. I'd want to find out if this is true and if the tape still exists. There is so much I'd like to find out that I fear I'd bore the guy and get turfed out!

In addition to the book, you've written some wonderful liner notes to the Hip-O Select packages. Can you tell us about your latest project for Hip-O Select?

Working on the Hip-O box sets has been a dream come true. I've been privileged to hear everything Universal has in its vaults from the original Chess studio tapes and help sort through them, catalogue and select the best stuff for release. You always hope for more but with Chess being sold and re-sold before purchased by Universal means some recordings have gone missing and very little documentation about the sessions has survived. Each week I would await the UPS delivery with great anticipation, wondering what new surprises were in store. The tapes are a complete jumble with recordings from different sessions mixed together and many duplicated tracks.

As you know two, four CD sets have been issued and the third is imminent. Titled 'Have Mercy' it covers Chuck's return 'back home' to Chess after three years at Mercury up until his last recordings as Chess finally disintegrated. Look out for unissued live cuts from the Lanchester Festival and some beautiful blues cuts including a very intimate 'Annie Lou' based on Robert Nighthawk's 'Annie Lee'.

Andy McKaie, Hip-O's main reissue man had originally planned a 14 CD box set of all Chess and Mercury recordings but for commercial reasons this didn't work out. The alternative has been to issue the 4 CD sets and we will soon have all the Chess stuff on 12 CDs. I'm hoping that the Mercury recordings will follow as a 4 CD set and this'll be 16 CDs worth in total exceeding my dreams by two.   Not quite 700 little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz, but who's counting?

Note from Peter:  I asked Fred to tell us about a favorite concert.  He sent a review of a 2002 show.  Check it out on a later post in the next day or two.


Carmelo said...

Great interview! Fred is the man!

Peter said...

He is indeed. And if you liked this interview, check out some of the others from Chuck Berry's friends Bob Baldori, Darryl Davis and Bob Lohr. Like Fred, they were all extremely generous with their time and thoughts.

By the way, thanks for bringing me back to that post. The poster from the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium always makes me happy, because that's the first place I saw CB, 13 or 14 years later. Cool old building that is full of history.

AltriSuoni said...

Thanks Peter. I've sent you an email. Let's keep in touch.

John McDonnell said...

Thanks for this story. Chuck is a legend, and his songs are timeless. I wish him many more years of health and productivity.