Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Monday, March 29, 2010

Looked at My Watch and it was Quarter to Four-- (every time I look up there's another Berry more), and they roll

Here you've got four Berrys in the field of view-- Chuck, Charles, Charles, and Ingrid.  (In our family we spent a week or two trying to say the "family rosary" together, but we never got this many together to sing raunchy songs).  (Another video clip from the Pageant.)

I made my case on www.chudberry.com/forum-- but here's the thing: Someone needs to do another documentary and capture some of the best of these latter day Chuck Berry performances on professional guage videotape.  Maybe they could even get him to say a few things.  There's something magical about the way Chuck Berry is winding down his performance career.  It would be nice to see it preserved.

An Interesting Blog Post About "Brown Eyed Handsome Man"

Here's a link to a blog called Brown Eyed Handsome Man-- and the interesting post that evidently started it.  http://browneyedhandsomeman.blogspot.com/2007/04/1st-anniversary-it-was-brown-eyed.html

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Man Could Get Pretty Full of Himself Up There With 100 Girls and Women

But we have to remember-- he never did catch Nadine!  (I don't think.)

This is live from the Pageant-- an all ages (and evidently all female) show last Friday night.  Oh, to be 83!

People's Television: Three Generations, Chasing that Remarkable Girl

Here's a sweet version of "Nadine" from Chuck Berry's show last night at the Pageant in St. Louis (one of her biggest fans was there to hear it) with a solo by "Junior"-- Chuck Berry's grandson.  The middle Berrry, Charles, Jr., is playing rhythm and giving the thumbs up. 

As they say on real television-- stay tuned!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Got a Chance-- I Ought to Take It!

Recently a good version of the T.A.M.I. show came out on DVD, and public television has been using a chopped up version to request donations. (It’s better than legions of Irish dancers). At the end of the show all the stars come back on stage to dance with each other and the go-go girls and boys. It’s sort of sweet. And as I recall (having watched only once) there’s Chuck Berry, who opened the show, dancing a bit shyly behind the crowd.

The notion of Chuck Berry dancing shyly is a hard concept for me. He's a great dancer—inventor of the “scoot” and the “duck walk,” a guy who did splits well into advanced older age-- and he has that rare ability to make you laugh just by moving—a sort of musical Charlie Chaplin, or Bill Cosby. Check out his little guitarless dance while his hero T-Bone Walker plays “Every Day I have the Blues” at Montreux.

Or some of those early movies and television shows where he was forced to lip sync. To make it interesting, and since he didn’t have to play guitar, he moved his whole body during those performances. They make lip-synching interesting.  (I can't embed this one, but it's worth clicking on the LINK.

But read his Autobiography (which you should do, despite the silly sections), and you find that he was shy in high school, where it took a car and a hit performance at the talent show to start getting the girls. That’s when some of the lyrics make sense.

The protagonist of “Little Queenie” knows he’s got to do something but spends most of the song thinking about just what exactly he’s gonna do

I got lumps in my throat
When I saw her comin down the aisle
I got the wiggles in my knees
When she looked at me and sweetly smiled
Well there she is again
Standin over by the record machine
Lookin' like a model
On the cover of a magazine
She's too cute
To be a minute over seventeen

Meanwhile I was thinkin'
She's in the mood
No need to break it
I got the chance. I oughta take it
If she can dance, we can make it
C'mon queenie: let's shake it!

Which sounds pretty good—until a verse or two later you find out that he’s still strategizing.

Meanwhile, I was stilllllll thinkin'
If it's a slow one
We'll omit it
If it's a rocker, that’ll get it
If it's good, she'll admit it
C'mon queenie, let's get with it!

Carol is pretty much the same. It starts out with a car ride, anticipation, and a description of the venue just like Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” or the “House of Blue Lights.”

Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin' little joint where we can jump and shout
It's not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma'am
Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed

This sounds like Mr. Slick—some teenage Casanova-- until you get to the insecurities:

Oh Carol—don’t let him steal your heart away!
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day!

Chuck Berry somehow understood how scared teenagers are—all the chances they have to take every day, and all the new things they have to learn. Getting out on the dance floor means taking a risk.

Sounds so sweet
Had to take me a chance
Rose out of my seat
I just had to dance
Started moving my feet
While clapping my hands
And they kept on rockin”!

So tomorrow, I’m taking my Chuck Berry obsession to a new, healthier place by taking my guitar to a little spot on the edge of town where, for good or ill, I intend to climb on stage for the first time, plug in that old electric, and play a song or two with people I don’t know. I won’t play Chuck Berry. It’s a blues band. But, fingers willing, I’m sure a lick or two descendent from Chuck will come out at some point, the way they always do when guitars get plugged in anywhere on earth, from Montana to Mozambique.

But geeze-- it gives me wiggles in the knees just to think about it—like a teenager again.

Revisionist Song Singing

I turned on the news a year or so ago and saw a bunch of rural folk in Montana dancing in cowboy hats to "Johnny B. Goode."  No surprise there-- Chuck Berry has written some of the best "country" songs ever, and lots of country musicians have played his music.  (Hell-- the man wears a bolo tie most days!)  Here's an example-- the great Jerry Reed playing a medley that includes "Promised Land," "Johnny B. Goode," and others.

But here's the interesting twist.  If you read this blog, you'll know that I consider "Promised Land" a song of black liberation.  It was written during the civil rights struggle, a few months after the Birmingham church bombing.  It talks about the bus breaking down in Birmingham (home of Bull Conner, dogs, bombs and fire hoses) and "gettin' 'cross Mississippi clean."  (Chuck Berry's vague obsession with Mississippi comes up often in interviews.  See the great one posted a few weeks ago.)  But those lines about a "struggle" in Birmingham are nowhere to be found in this shortened version-- just as Waylon Jennings left the home run slugger and the guy busted for unemployment out of his version of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."

Still-- these guys do great versions of great songs, and I wish I could tune into the Porter Wagner show today.

But as the kids are sayin' these days-- just sayin'!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Motor Got Hot and Wouldn't Do No More (My Visit to Berry Park)

In the spring and summer of 1978 I drove an ailing Fiat 128 across the country from Seattle to the East Coast and back. On the way home-- in hot summer-- I stopped in the small town of Wentzville, Missouri, and asked how to find Berry Park.

Many years prior I had read about it in Ramparts magazine. A writer had gone there for a promised interview. He was sent packing. According to the article the owner of the park, the great Chuck Berry, had met him for a moment, changed his mind about doing an interview, told him “Standing in the sun ain’t my shot,” refunded the guy’s money, and left.

And I'd actually been close one time before-- back in 1964, when my mother packed six kids into a 1963 Impala and drove us from Sacramento to Warrenton, Missouri to visit my oldest brother.  Another brother, Stevo, told me that "No Particular Place to Go" was a hit during that trip, and that it used to annoy my mother.  I wouldn't have known.  I was the littlest kid, and always stuck out in my own calabouse, way out in the kokomo, in a rearward facing back seat, half a mile from the car's little radio speaker.

Warrenton is just a few miles from the park.

I knew that Berry park and the Rampart's article because I was insane-- a “Mad Lad”-- obsessed with Chuck Berry since I had first seen him at a near empty hall in Sacramento 7 or 8 years prior to my Wentzville journey.   This was before the internet, and I had spent hours at the library searching through magazines and books for anything that I could find about the man.

My eyes are still quick to spot a five letter word starting with “C-h.”

When I drove to Wentzville I was hoping to find the commercial establishment described in Ramparts, where I recalled some mention of a cash register and a grill.  I was hoping for a “House of Blue Lights,” with “friers,” with “broilers,” with hamburgers sizzling “on an open grill,” and where, perhaps, (if I had the money,) I could get a “T-bone steak a la carty.”

I was hoping to see Chuck Berry walk past, tall and lanky in purple pants and a green paisley sports coat, silver bolo tie, white belt and white leather shoes.

In my heart of hearts I was hoping he’d recognize me as a long lost, genetically inferior child; or that he’d adopt me; or that, at the very least, he’d invite me into his studio to play guitar, elicit my advice about future recordings, and maybe show me a few licks.

But when I got to Wentzville no one was very sure what Berry Park was or where to find it. I remember at a gas station near the interstate one attendant consulted another.

"The rock singer's place?"

He pointed vaguely. "Down that road a couple miles, I think."

“Down the Road a Piece,” he might have said.

This wouldn’t happen now, I’m sure-- but this was 1978, a few years after Chuck Berry’s surprising 1972 last hit record, and a few years before he’d become a national landmark.

After a couple more stops for directions (I remember a little general store with warm Coke and bags of food and a man who drawled “The negro singer?” before pointing the way) I found: it across the road from a gun club.

The “Promised Land!”

There was a chain link fence and granite marker (a tombstone) with the words:

Berry Park
Founded August 15, 1957
By the Family
For the People.

I was hoping I was one of the people, but the park didn't look very commercial.  No Coca Cola in the offing. No friers. No broilers. No juke box.

I remember a long, straight blacktop drive, and flat land, and a house painted red brick red, and further right, some low buildings. 

Some irrational part of me was still hoping I could hang out a while, meet Mr. Berry or at lest see him-- as so I pulled in the drive and motorvated slowly maybe half the distance to the house thinking:

"This is not a commercial establishment."

That's when the “motor got hot and wouldn’t do no more.”

It was, as I said, a Fiat; an old one; and it was something like 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity.

I turned the key again and again, panicking, beginning to drip sweat, my battery fading, my dignity disappearing, when finally a woman came out of the house 50 yards away.

"What do you want?" she asked.

I was lame.

"Is he here?" I asked.

"He's not," she said. I probably stood there looking dumb.

"You need to leave."

I tried starting the car again but that wasn't going to happen-- so I so I put the back of my shoulder to the B-pillar and pushed the little car back out the driveway. I parked it (fittingly) next to the tombstone. I’m not sure how long I was out there, but only long enough to let the motor cool down. 

Then off to a KOA in the flat grasslands of Missouri where I set up my pup tent on the hot grass and slept off my shame.

Chuck Berry is my idol. I told him so when I was 14 or 15. I was a late comer to the music. I wasn’t even born when Maybellene was out cruising and causing trouble. My Chuck Berry was a middle-aged guitar virtuoso and showman who traveled alone, making do with pickup musicians, still making good records, still making people laugh and dance, still selling out small halls and concert venues.

His draw is mysterious.  He dipped deeply into the Mississippi and pulled up what makes America good and interesting. There’s blues. There’s country. There’s a bit of jazz. There’s youth. There’s experience. There’s black, white, Hispanic. There's raunch.  There's humor.  There’s stubbornness and trouble. There’s family.

This blog is about Chuck Berry. Not his life story, which he has told and others have documented. This is just about one fan's appreciation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Got a Chance, I Ought to Take It (Don't Bother Me, Leave Me 'Lone!)

In his book “Long Distance Information: The Recorded Legacy of Chuck Berry,” author Fred Rothwel tells a charming and typical story of bumping into his idol. He shows up at a west London theater hoping to get a ticket and is dejected to see a “sold out” sign. Then:

“[I]n the corner of my eye I spotted a long cherry red Mercedes hidden in the shadows of the flyover. The limo had dark glass but the side window was down and through it the familiar face of Chuck Berry could be seen busy videoing the fa├žade, no doubt very pleased with the ‘Sold Out’ sign.”

Rothwell ponders what to do or say, (“I got my chance, I ought to take it”) when suddenly “the glass slid down noiselessly to reveal a smiling Mr. Berry. ‘How come you are in the right place at the right time?”’ he asked. I explained my lack of admission and muttered some banal and totally inadequate words of appreciation for the enjoyment his music had provided through the years, but all too soon the audience was over.

“I turned to walk away, then realized I hadn’t shaken my main man’s hand. Without a second’s thought to cause me to falter, I thrust my hand into the car’s dark interior and wished him well. My hand was enveloped in a huge grip, by the hand that had written the lyrics of Roll Over Beethoven, by the fingers that had fashioned those immortal introductory notes to Johnny B. Goode. I drove 40 miles home with a smile on my face.”

I love this story for two reasons. First, it captures the spirit of my own tiny and fleeting interactions with the man who’s been my hero for a lifetime (although Rothwell’s encounter seems downright soulful compared to any of my blink-like interactions); but secondly, and more importantly, because he appreciates the significance of the event—his hand “enveloped” by “the hand that had fashioned those immortal introductory notes…”.

Chuck Berry is no mere celebrity. He’s not just a rock star. He really is one of the immortals—a regular man, with more than a few flaws, I’m sure, who used his considerable talents and genius to fundamentally change everything.

And he walks among us. You can see him play, in a small room, for $30, every month in St. Louis—no small matter. Or you might find him in an airport, or at a restaurant, or under the “flyover.”

Google “I met Chuck Berry”-- and you’ll find examples everywhere of people meeting and interacting with Chuck Berry, at airports, backstage, from the foot of the stage, in cars, after shows. Here are a few:




Of course, since this is (almost) all about me, I have to tell about my own fleeting interactions with the man.

At South Lake Tahoe, in about 1971, I saw him leaning on the side of the stage during a break between sets. He was smoking a cigarette talking to a man who was considerably older than me. I was a skinny 15 year old with extremely long hair. I approached and stuck out my hand. He shook it. All I could manage was stupidity.

“You’re my idol,” I yelled, above the noise of the crowd or the opening act.

He nodded. I moved on—blessed like someone who has touched holiness, and a little embarrassed by my lack of anything useful to say.


Three years later I am in Monterey, California, at an outdoor concert. I’m at the foot of the stage. It’s a helluva show—luxuriously long, but restricted to blues, jams, and the big hits. I scribble a note that reads “Play Got it and Gone.” It’s a song from Bio, the album he’d just released. Chuck Berry leans down, takes the note, repeats “Got it and Gone,” and laughs. He plays more of the big hits.

Ah well. I tried!


The next time I am at the Seattle Paramount. It’s the late 1980s. I’m with my former wife. We are in the first row. My ex-wife is a rare dark face in a sea of pasty Seattle light ones. During a blues number Chuck Berry spies her, locks eyes, smiles, and does a little dance that appears intended just for her.

Okay, it’s not an interaction with me-- but I get my kicks where I can.


Ten or so years later I’m at the Seattle EMP, this time carting along my children. The show is a surprise. Berry’s been brought in to replace an ailing Jerry Lee Lewis. We get there early, and as we approach the gaudy museum, a black Lincoln Town Car exits an underground garage and pauses right in front of us. I know all about these Town Cars. I know this could be a Rothwell moment! I grab my kids’ hands and rush forward to see a familiar chin pushed forward beneath a captain’s hat, turning this way and that, trying to figure out which way to turn. “It’s Chuck Berry!” I tell my kids. They squeal. We lurch forward towards the car. It lurches away.

I remember my lame words at Lake Tahoe. I figure it’s probably just as well.


Then we’re inside at the foot of the stage, and Chuck Berry is singing “Wee Wee Hours.” It’s the first time I’ve seen him play it and I’m mouthing the words, entranced. He looks down, sees me moving my lips, and says to me, from stage: “You’re remembering someone, aren’t you?”

The truth is, at that particular point in my life, I was doing my darndest to forget someone—but that’s another story—and who cares? The real point is that my hero of 35 years took fleeting notice and spoke to me.

Later Gemma, then 6 or 7, speaks up loudly during “My Ding-a-Ling.” A light had gone off in her head. I’m not sure how or why. “He’s singing about his penis!” she says, loudly, in a gruff, matter of fact voice.  I still don't know how she knew that-- but it was funny.  If he heard it (and she had a great big voice) he ignored that one.


Then in 2009, my new youngest got his chance. He knew I was going off to St. Louis to see Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill. One day I went to pick him up at preschool and he gave me a colorful drawing of a face with a guitar. He had somehow written “CHUCK” on it, but if I recall it was written completely backwards, as if in a mirror. I carried it to Blueberry Hill along with a photograph that I had taken at the Paramount a couple of decades prior. After the show, Chuck Berry set up a funky little metal folding chair in the stage doorway and a line of fans took turns meeting him. I didn’t rehearse any words. I was nearly as speechless as I was the first time I shook his hand. I’d thought for years that “idol” was a silly word, so I told him “Man, you’re my hero!” He signed my photograph, and then was taking the picture that Rafferty had drawn. “This is from a four year old boy in Seattle who likes your music,” I said. He was about to sign it, and then stopped.

“Oh, this is for me,” he said, with just a hint of a smile. And he put it down next to his chair.

I once again failed to thank him, or let him know how much he means to me—to us. I have no haiku to express that thought.

But I think he knows.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let's Build a Monument to Thousands of Nights on the Road

The official Chuck Berry website ( www.chuckberry.com/forum) has a very good list of all of Chuck Berry's recent appearances. Morton Reff's books-- The International Chuck Berry Directory-- has an amazing list of television performances and international appearances. And there's a huge listing all of Chuck Berry's appearances at http://www.chuckberry.de/.  But hundreds or thousands of one nighters here in the United States remain sealed in our memories, or on ticket stubs, or old newspaper clippings. Given the beautifully typed list Chuck shows (I think during an interview with Robbie Robertson) there's probably some very detailed information available in Wentzville, but we can't count on seeing that until (we can hope) it arrives at the archives of some museum many years hence. SO-- I'm wondering if fans can't resurrect history by sending the dates we know to some central spot. It would be a cool thing. A lot of us have spent our lives watching and listening to Chuck Berry and have indelible memories of it. It's certifiably crazy, but it would be cool to know the dates-- and just putting them in one place would be a testament to one man's real work-- getting on stage night after night for 50 years and just killing it.

If you've got a verified date, send it to me at goheadon(at)rocketmail.com and I'll trying getting it to someone who'll put it in the permanent record.

Picture by "Sky."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Charlie and Chuck

It's interesting that Chuck Berry scholar Morten Reff says that "I grew up with swing jazz from my father’s collection. People like Benny Goodman (Charlie Christian), Lionel Hampton, Fats Waller (Al Casey) and Eddie Condon caught my attention" since Chuck Berry himself often cites Christian as an influence, and has recorded the Christian, Goodman, Hampton, Jaquette number "Flyin' Home" a number of times.  I got to Christian and Goodman through Chuck Berry.  Berry got to himself and Reff got to Berry the other way around.

My favorite version of "Flyin' Home" is the one on "Back Home" that Chuck Berry recorded with Bob Baldori on harmonica and probably Lafayette Leake on piano.  A couple of writers have said it is not the Goodman/Christian classic, but that's definitely where it's got its roots, and you can hear traces of that original 1930s recording if you listen close.  The most fascinating example, for me, is near the end of both versions.  In the original, a clarinet and some other instrument (another clarinet?) repeat a little riff that nearly knocked me off my couch with its familiarity the very first time I heard it.  It was deja vue all over agin, with Benny Goodman playing a Chuck Berry riff about 15 year prior to Maybellene!  I don't know how to introduce a soundbite, so I'll try to imitate it with typed scat (the biological definition best describes my system of musical notation):

baa- doo-bop, da-bop, 
      doo-bop, da-bop,   

I'm sure you recognize the riff! 


(As I often say-- learn to read and write music, kids!)

Anyway, change those clarinets to guitar notes, and add a little rock and roll punch, and you've got a fine Chuck Berry lick.  If only I could pull a sound bite and show you.

But recently, listening to the "Back Home" version of "Flyin' Home," I realized that Chuck Berry never forgot where the lick came from, and put it back into the song, on guitar, at the end, just where it fits into the original.  (I haven't gone back to listen to versions he recorded for Mercury, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it there, as well.)

I do know this: in those Mercury recordings, including the Live version at the Filmore, Mr. Berry stuck more closely to the original tune-- dee-dee bop, diddley-diddley-deedie-bop, etc.  On the "Back Home" version Baldori's harmonica takes over the lead and changes the melody of the song (which is built on the "rhythm changes.")  But if you listen close, especially towards the begining, you'll here that Chuck Berry is indeed fingering "da-de-da, dudly-dudly-deedly-bop" just like he did at the Filmore for at least some small portion of the song.  Then: they take it home, in the most delightful way, with cascading piano rills, great guitar chords, and beautiful interchanges between the two.  What a song!  I put it up there with "Deep Feeling," "Rockin' at the Philharmonic," and "Woodpecker" as one of Chuck Berry's all time finest instrumentals--

Sunday, March 7, 2010

And They Say He Doesn't Play In Tune

Watch him tune up during the intro to Johnny B. Goode from September '09 at BBH.  This is a great, energetic performance that I found on a great youtube channel--  http://www.youtube.com/user/busseybootlegger

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Interview-- Good One!

How can I stop when people like Doug send me stuff like this???

But wait-- there's more!

Dang-- good stuff!

Crazy Heart

I don't see many movies at the theater, but I knew when I saw this preview that I'd like Crazy Heart.  We saw it last night.  It's a very good movie, with a great performance by Jeff Bridges and a powerful story, but I think CB fans might appreciate those early scenes of a fallen star and songwriter working with local pickup bands on a tough circuit of small bars and bowling alleys to keep his career going.  Chuck Berry never got this low, but what I admire about him is how he kept working through thick and thin and up and down-- and how, when he found the right musicians on that stage, he'd pull musical rabbits from his hat.  In 1971 I saw him play a sad show with an uninspired group of musicians to a small crowd.  I loved it-- but part of the power was the hurt in his eyes looking out into an empty hall.  Then, a few months later, a great band of local musicians and a small town audience bursting the seams of a former grocery store in a show that kept going and going until it wore me out.  In the opening scenes of Crazy Heart Bad Blake plays to a dozen or so folks at a bowling alley lounge.  The backup band is made up of game young guys.  No rehearsal.  He whispers chord changes as the song opens: Wing it, boys.  Drunk, he barely makes it through the show.  Then he stumbles into another bar and finds middle aged Wesley playing good piano and sits down to jam in the afternoon.  "It's been a long time since I've worked with a good piano player," he says, grinning.  The details are all wonderful.  The musicians are real.  The guitars are scratched and worn and loved.  There's a scene oddly reminiscent of "Hail! Hail!" about a beloved amp and sound and a stand off with the man at the controls.  (In Crazy Heart victory is complete when the man relents.)  There's something amazing to me about the itinerant musician struggling to make a living despite massive talent.  It's only the opening to the human tale that follows-- but unlike most music movies, Crazy Heart seems to get it right.  Go see it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Down Came a Tear from his Happiness

Here's another really nice write up about the event at Sumner High. Back in the classroom! This one quotes Berry's son as saying he'd never seen his dad happier than at the event, and has the father of Rock and Roll running out the door with "hurry home drops on his cheeks" (or something like that!) 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wayyyyyyy After School Session!

Chuck Berry sang (at) his old alma mater the other day, and got an honorary diploma.  Check it out HERE.  (There's a video link).   There are some GREAT pictures of the event here.

What's so cool about this is that Chuck Berry started his singing career at a talent show at Sumner High singing, I think, a Joe Turner number.  (I'll have to go check on that.)  I wonder if it was the same stage? 

When the teacher was gone
That's when we'd have a ball
We used to dance and sing
All up and down the hall
We had a portable radio
We was ballin' the jack
But we'd be all back in order
When the teacher got back
Oh Baby Doll
When bells ring out the summer free
Oh Baby Doll
Will it end for you and me?
We'll sing the old alma mater
And think of things that used to be