Friday, February 26, 2010

Chuck Berry in Hawaii, Part One

So I just got back from Hawaii, and I've decided to do a few pieces on Chuck Berry and Hawaii, so I googled some, and found this cool entry"

"The day ended with a Fourth of July celebration on the beach -- a magnificent dinner followed by a surprise performance from Academy member Chuck Berry. The student delegates cheered with delight as the Father of Rock and Roll mounted the seaside stage, placed for the occasion on a gleaming white sand dune, framed by a beautiful Hawaiian sunset. Still vigorous and mischievous in his 80s, Berry tore his way through some of his signature hits, "Roll Over Beethoven," "Round and Round," and "Rock and Roll Music." Academy members and student delegates soon crowded the illuminated dance floor, twisting and twirling to the original rock classics, played by the man who wrote them and first made them famous. Rolling Stone magazine has recently named Berry's tune "Johnny B. Goode" the "Greatest Guitar Song of All Time." When Berry and the band ripped into this number, the crowd overflowed onto the stage, and the bandstand was soon jammed with gleeful dancers. Just as the song reached a furiously rocking climax, spectacular fireworks erupted over the sea, lighting the sky with brilliant colors. When Chuck Berry finally left the stage, to a well-deserved ovation, the patriotic strains of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" filled the air, and a marching line, led by Frank McCourt and Sally Field, jubilantly circled the stage. For visitors to the United States, the occasion provided an incomparable insight into the irrepressible American spirit; for U.S. citizens, it was as glorious a Fourth of July as one could ever hope to see."

That excerpt and photo come from this site:  When Chuck Berry is followed by Frank McCourt, and when Bill Russell and Desmond Tutu are in attendance, too, life is pretty interesting.  (I don't think this club would let me be a member!) 

It seems, at first glance, like an amazing organization.  I'll have to learn more.  And I'm glad that our man is a member.   Search and you'll find that he has appeared there frequently, including this time with another favorite of mine.

Anyway-- when I've caught up with other stuff, I'll go back to Blues for Hawaiians, and Surfing Steel, and see what Mr. Berry has to say about Hawaii.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Blues for Hawaiians - Surfing Steel

In continuing my examination of all things Hawaiian, I finally have to disagree with Fred Rothwell.  In his liner notes to "You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960 - 1965" he calls "Surfin' Steel "a superior version of 'Deep Feeling' from three years earlier." 

He's half right, half wrong. 

First, there's nothing superior to "Deep Feeling."  "Deep Feeling" is up there with anything Chuck Berry ever did.  I remember a friend who heard "Deep Feeling " on a blues radio show in the early 1970s.  This friend didn't really know Chuck Berry and was a bit contemptuous of my interest.  Then he heard "Deep Feeling."  Then he heard who played it.  And he changed his mind.  "Deep Feeling" really is deep.  For Chuck Berry blues it's matched only by "Wee Wee Hours" and "Have Mercy Judge," and the three cuts would have made Chuck Berry a somebody in the blues world all by themselves.

But I finally really listened to these two "Hawaiian" "Surfin'" songs, playing them one after the other instead of miles apart on different disks and I can report that "Surfin' Steel" is:

A superior version of "Blues for Hawaiians."   "Blues for Hawaiians" is almost like a demo-- with the piano doing simple chords throughout, and a screech of reverb in the middle.  "Surfing Steel" is more refined, and structured a little differently.  But they are pretty much the same tune.

But when it comes to the blues, both cuts pale compared to the shatteringly deadly version Chuck Berry plays at the end of "Hail! Hail!"  ("Blues for Missourians?")  as the cameral flies in over the dirty swimming pool into the empty clubhouse. 

My view: while "Deep Feeling" and "Mad Lad" stand apart, the other three (including that stark live one that ends "Hail! Hail!") are versions of the same tune.  (And those strawberries-- pre-genetic engineering!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Blues for Hawaiians

I'm on vacation-- and learning how not to blog every day.  But yesterday we stopped at the Hanalei Community Center and saw/heard Doug McMaster play Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar with his wife accompanying him on ukelele.  If you're in Kauai on a Friday or Sunday afternoon, you should plunk down $20 and check it out.  This is a beautiful, homespun version of guitar that shares a lot with fingerpicking by people like Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton and the open tunings of people like Muddy Waters.  Believe it or not, there's a bit of commonality with our man Chuck Berry, too, with lots of double string picking on the "lead" parts.  Anyway, it's beautiful stuff-- and McMaster is well named, since he's certainly mastered it.  Check out their website here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chuck Berry's Missing Album: Got it and Gone!

One of the problems with Chuck Berry albums is that they tend to be a hodgepodge. In the early days, when the backup musicians were all Chess stalwarts, that didn’t make a big difference. But later it did. San Francisco Dues had a couple of older songs thrown in that didn’t quite fit. Bio had music from two different bands—a group of local St. Louis musicians, and musicians from Elephant’s Memory.

Now that I’ve heard what was actually recorded (on the wonderful "Have Mercy" package), I would love to step back in time and fix a few things—starting after The London Sessions.

Instead of mixing and matching on Bio, I would have issued an interim album between London Sessions and Bio. It would have been a bit of a mish-mash—but I think it would have been a game changer of sorts. The list? 

(Side One) (Remember, this was going to be an LP)

Got it and Gone
Annie Lou*
Me and My Country*
South of the Border (live)*
Sue Answer

(Side Two)

Roll ‘em Pete (live single edit)
Blues #1*
A Deuce

(The songs with an * were never released until now.)

This would have been a good follow-up to London Sessions.

For people who first learned of Chuck Berry from that half live album, there’s one half-live song—“Roll ‘em Pete.”

For people who liked the sexy humor of “Ding-a-Ling” and “Reelin’,” there’s a funny, live version of “South of the Border.”

For people who want to hear Chuck Berry do something completely different, there’s the solo version of “Annie Lou.” As I’ve said, I think this finger-picked Chuck Berry blues would have expanded the conception of who and what Chuck Berry is. 

For grown-ups generally—“Blues # 1,” a dynamite instrumental with two keyboards that both duel and complement each other. I’d love to know who’s playing. My guess is that it isn’t Johnnie Johnson on the acoustic—there are none of his frilly rills. And the electric piano is biting. Is this Baldori and Leake teaming up again? Who knows—but it’s good enough that Chuck Berry spends most of the cut happily playing sideman.

My album would have put “A Deuce” with the songs it was recorded with, instead of squeezing it onto a much later album. It would have a good rocker in “Got it and Gone.” It would have the funny “Sue Answer.” And it would have the interesting “Me and My Country.”

Only Chuck Berry knows exactly what this song is about. It almost sounds like the song he wrote to tell the world he was about to start cheating on his taxes! (He doesn’t want to buy, beg or steal, but he’ll do what he has to to give her what she wants). But it starts out absolutely nailing it with the lines:

I love my country
Its aims and intent
I believe in the system
As they have it in print

That’s a pretty profound line, since it’s easier to believe in the U.S. Constitution as written than the way we often abuse it.

Anyway—it’s close to being a really good song, and although I have a bit of trouble following its logic, it’s good enough, and interesting enough, that it should have come out. And the two blues DEFINITELY should have come out.

So there. And then, with Bio, you put on the two perfectly serviceable songs from the Elephant’s Memory sessions that were never realeased until now--"One Sixty Nine AM," and "Roll Away"-- and you have an album as cohesive as—Back Home.

Ah, but nobody asked me.  Which means I got to experience the pleasure of delay time.

Rhythm & Blues for Hawaiians

I'm going there, so I probably needed this...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Course...

I've been paying attention first to all the stuff we've never heard-- but the real beauty of this collection is that it brings back the material from albums like Back Home, San Francisco Dues, The London Sessions, Bio, and Chuck Berry, and puts it all up for reconsideration.  I've always loved those albums.  They were part of my original "discovery" of Chuck Berry.  But recently I played them more in memory than on disk because my copies were battered, worn and a bit troublesome (I hardly use a turntable anymore).  But today I drove around town listening to "Flying Home," and "Fish and Chips," and "Oh Louisiana," and it made my commute that much sweeter.  Even some of the songs I thought I no longer cared for ("Festival?"  "I'm a Rocker") were suddenly new again.  (When have I heard them in my car?  Some of these-- never!)  A few weeks ago I said I didn't like the album called Chuck Berry that much.  But I'm reconsidering-- especially having heard some of the stuff that was recorded but wasn't put on the record-- like "Jambalaya," and "Dust My Broom."  My brain is rolling all over this stuff.  I ponder the way I would have packaged it.  (I would have put two more songs with Elephant's Memory on Bio and slid some of the small group stuff to another record.

In other words-- Have Mercy is a blessing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Don't the Music Intrigue You When the Drummer Gets Proud

Wow!  Double Wow!  Just moments ago the Drummer from Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs-- the "fifties" band that backed Chuck Berry at my own personal favorite Chuck Berry concert back in 1974 just added to my old post on that show with vivid memories of his own.  (You know he's good because he survived the Chuck Berry "no-setlist, you-guess-the-key"experience with good memories, dignity intact,  and even got a handshake from our man mid-beat!  And he tells me there are PICTURES from that show on the Butch Whacks website!  Wow!  Find his comments, and my original post by clicking right here!  Thank you Mr. Moore!  Please-- be in touch!  (And lo!  And behold!  Here are the pictures!)

(Maybe a little tiny!)

More About Have Mercy

After 40 years and a couple weeks I finally got my copy of “Have Mercy” and I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet. I haven’t had time. But I keep jumping here and there, sampling the stuff I’ve never heard, and listening to a few old favorites. Here are some notes from memory.

First—the package is great. There are notes by Fred Rothwell, and several photographs I’ve never seen, including a couple “new” ones from the cravat and paisley jacket photographs that once graced the centerfold of the original London Sessions album. (There’s one of them here where I’d wager he’s just coming up from the "splits" photo shown on the cover. He's snapping his right fingers.)  But my favorite might be a color shot of CB in headphones that hearkens (me) back to my original Chuck Berry centerfold—old black and white shots from inside The Golden Decade showing CB at work in the studio. There’s something sort of cool about seeing Chuck Berry sitting down with his guitar. It’s a vision of Johnny B. Goode, himself-- and I think he should add it to his stage show—a chair, a tree, a railroad track, and a few quiet moments of ballads and blues suitable for an elder statesman of rock and roll.

Which brings us to “Annie Lou.” Fred Rothwell game me a preview of this one, describing it as an intimate blues number—but I had no idea how much I’d like it. The song itself is run of the mill blues—not “Wee Wee Hours,” not “Have Mercy Judge,” not “Stormy Monday” or “How Blue Can You Get.” But the performance is special, if only because it’s a look at and a listn to a Chuck Berry we never get to see or hear. You can’t second guess a genius, but I wish he’d have slowed down his shows once in a while to pull something like this out of his hat, or a few ballads, or whatever moved him. In this cut he plays blues the old fashioned way—alone, just him and his guitar—and it’s beautiful. He was always just a step from the Delta anyway. The opening riff of “Wee Wee Hours,” with its bass bottoming out on a low D, is pure Muddy Waters Delta Blues done East St. Louis nightlife style. Here the nightlife is gone—and if it isn’t delta blues, it’s Wentzville livingroom blues, the sort of thing that I imagine Chuck Berry fingering when there are no fans around. It’s, to me, the reason to buy this collection.

Of course, there are a few duds. Sometimes “complete” means too much. Chuck Berry always seemed to want to set up the joke of “My Ding-a-Ling” by playing it straight as album filler. Thus the old “My Tamborine,” and thus, I guess, the studio version of “Ding-a-Ling” from the sessions that brought us “Tulane” and “Have Mercy Judge.” Have mercy, indeed. It’s one thing to hear “Ding-a-Ling” on the lengthy live cut from the Coventry concert that became London Sessions, but it’s torture to hear it in the studio. I didn’t make it through the entire cut before starting a tradition that will endure by hitting the forward button.

But there are other songs from those sessions that are worth hearing. A couple versions of the instrumental “Gun” show that they picked the right one for the album. One is too fast. The other is too slow. The album cut is just right.

And there’s a song called “untitled instrumental” that seems like an early version of the song that would become “Some People.” There’s an uncredited organ that I assume is played by Bob Baldori—a rare thing on a Chuck Berry record, and nice to hear. And although I don’t think too unkindly about the lyrics to “Some People” (he probably wrote them between sessions) the song works well as an instrumental.

Another “new” one from the Back Home sessions is “That’s None of Your Business.” It’s a good song with a vaguely weird and cluttered arrangement. I think if they had tried a few more times they might have had something—but it’s not my business to say.

That’s all for now. I’ve got to get to work. And I’ve got to listen a lot more. But there’s a lot more to listen to: a couple of decent cuts from the sessions with Elephant’s Memory. An early version of "Poem" from San Fancisco Dues-- this one called "My Pad" and done without accompaniment.  A surprisingly clunky bunch of live songs from the Coventry concert that produced a couple of classics. Some interesting, previously unreleased songs from the sessions that became the 1975 album Chuck Berry, including, notably, Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” I wish they’d been included on that album.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Annie Lou... FINALLY!!!!!!

So it finally arrived, and I went straight for pay dirt—a blues “Annie Lou” performed (I think!) solo by Chuck Berry.

Annie Lou
You know how much I love you, Annie Lou
Annie Lou
You know how much I love you, Annie Lou
What makes you treat me, treat me
The way you do?

Maybe it was just a warm up, or a demo. But this one should have been released. It would have broadened the conception of who and what Chuck Berry is.

There’s nothing here but a quiet guitar—I think just one—and a quiet voice (you know the one).

I once wrote that it is a straight shot from Robert Johnson to Chuck Berry. Well—here’s proof. This is Chuck Berry as a traditional bluesman—or perhaps just Chuck Berry in his own living room, which might be more or less the same thing. It opens with the blues intro that Chuck Berry used often in the early 1970s-- i.e., "Mean Old World," "Have Mercy Judge."   I’ve listened three or four times since ripping the package open and can’t tell if there’s overdubbing, or if Chuck Berry is actually finger picking, or if (as I suspect) he’s doing all this himself in one take with his thumbs and a pick—but however it’s done it’s beautiful-- with a quiet guitar bass line punctuated by Chuck Berry’s patented double string blues riffs and a searing riff or two right out of Lightning Hopkins.

It’s amazing to me that this one (along with “Have Mercy Judge,” and “Mean Old World”) wasn’t included on the misguided release called "Blues," because, like “Wee Wee Hours” and those others, it is one of Chuck Berry’s most authentic blues recordings ever.

And this one is special because it is Chuck alone, in a way I've never heard him-- just him and his guitar.  It's like those quiet moments in the film "Hail! Hail!" but this time it's blues instead of ballads.  I love it.

I haven’t listened to anything else on the four disk package yet—but this song is worth the wait, and worth the $90 I paid to get the records sent to me by snail mail.

More later.  Got to ride in my automobile and listen to the rest of this set!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Come On!

Remember Bob Margolin and "Delay Time?"

"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."

I got my first Chuck Berry albums in the early 1970s.  I have a soft spot for that stuff.  I have a hankering for the stuff he recorded then that I've never heard. 

But talk about delay time.  I ordered it from Hip-O Select weeks ago, hoping to be the first one on my block to hear it. 

Still not here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Down the halls and into the Street

"Between about 1940 and 1960, one high school in St. Louis produced a Wimbledon champion, two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, an Emmy-winning actor and a famous comedian and activist."

That's how the story begins.  But the halls where Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe and Dick Gregory were ballin' the jack might soon close.  Here's the Story.

(Picture by Peter K.)

Monday, February 1, 2010


Dear Hip O Select Customer:

We regret to inform you that there is a delay in receiving Chuck Berry's "Have Mercy- His Complete Chess Recordings 1969-1974". We hope to have this item in our warehouse by mid-week and will begin shipping orders as soon as the product arrives. You will receive an shipment notification within 24 hours once the orders have been processed.