Monday, May 31, 2010

Ah, and about 17 years later, I tried to go there!

Today In Entertainment History May 31

WFMY News 2 - ‎18 hours ago‎

In 1961, Chuck Berry opened Berry Park, an outdoor amusement park in Wentzville, Missouri. In 1976, The Who got into the "Guinness Book of World Records" as ...

(My attempted visit to Berry Park, in May or June of 1978, should have got me in the "Guiness Book of World Records for Lameness."  You can read about it here.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tight Dresses and Lipstick

I looked back just now and saw this quote and realized what a poet Ronny Elliott really is.  I mean, this stuff came out on my pitiful little blog!  Read more below.

"Lavern Baker’s dress was too tight to walk up the stage stairs. She had to stand at the foot and snap her fingers for two musicians to come lift her by the elbows to put her on the stage. Bo came on and the walls shook. What’s a rock’n’roller doing with eyeglasses? How come Bill Haley and Joe Turner are playing the same song? The sacred mystery of rock’n’roll took over my soul and I continue to worship at that same altar."

(I was thinking about that line from "Field of Dreams," and thinking of applying it to the image of LaVern Baker snapping her fingers, and putting it in the first person, but I decided the resulting phrase was not appropriate to a family blog.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010


About 42 years ago my mom bought a wonderful baby grand piano from a friend.  Five or six years later I learned to plunk out the blues in key of C, so when my mom ran out of house for the piano, she let me take custody.  I've bugged my kids with the same blues in the same key for as long as they've been alive.  (It's endlessly entertaining to me, anyway.)

Tonight, the old piano finally got a real workout-- and I was there to hear it. 


Thursday, May 27, 2010

"He Came Out of the Wings with his 345 Blazing..." (Ronny Elliott on Backing Chuck Berry in the Early 1970s)

I've been lucky to have had a chance to "talk" to a number of musicians who play with Chuck Berry and know him well: Robert Lohr, Bob Baldori, Daryl Davis.  Their interviews are on the site somewhere and well worth searching out and reading.  (Use the handy "search" function!) 

But the other day I stumbled across Mr. Ronny Elliott, a talented musician and songwriter who did the deed about ten memorable times when he was the youthful bass player in some of the photos below.  (May favorite picture, included in the Ed Brown piece further down, shows a wary, awestruck, and slightly menaced looking group of musicians on stage half an hour before their first show with Mr. Berry.)  It can be a scary thing.  I've seen it be scary.  I've also seen it be really really good.  In an e-mail Elliott told me: "He's my hero on the good days and the bad ones."  You'll read about both sorts of days here, and see how the good, bad and ugly sometimes all happen at the same time. 

I'll say this:  Chuck Berry's admirers and supporters and collaborators all seem to be eloquent as all get out.  Which isn't a surprise.  Enjoy.

The movie title “Almost Famous” should have been saved for your life story! You’ve got to be one of the industry’s best kept secret legends.

I’m afraid that it’s really more a matter of hanging around for a good, long time. Most people would have had the good sense to quit, move on. I view my situation as something of a Forrest Gump existence. I have no complaints, though, no regrets.

How many records have you put out? Can you even guesstimate?

When I started in the mid-sixties it was all about the 45, the single for radio. In different bands I probably did about ten or twelve records. Some were on local labels like the Outsider and Soul Tripper sides that were on Phil Gernhard’s Knight label. We also did a side or two for Providence, Laurie’s rhythm and blues subsidiary. Finally we did a couple of 45’s for Decca and one for Paramount. When I mentioned to Dick Holler, the great writer who penned “Abraham, Martin and John,” some years back that his old singles on Comet, Herald and Ace were selling for big bucks he refused to believe me. When I showed him in some of the price guides he commented, “Well, it’s based on scarcity, not on quality.” I thought that he was just the most humble guy I had ever known. Today I understand him. By the way, find a copy of his original version of “Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love” and you’ll be ready to argue with him!

Since I’ve been putting out solo records I suppose that there are around a dozen or so and quite a few compilation tracks from Europe as well as the states.

How often have you backed Chuck Berry? And how did that come about the first time?

It was probably fewer than ten times total. First time was a short tour in 1970 I believe it was. I worked with my producer, Phil Gernhard. He hated to pay me for nothing when there was no project for recording so he frequently had me promoting concerts to keep me busy. Worst job in the world. Right after Richard Nader did the first rock’n’roll revival show at Madison Square Garden he offered up packages. I think the one that we did in Tampa was the second one of that series that started it all off. Lots of those folks had not been working at all. Phil asked who I wanted on the bill and without having to give it any thought I replied, “Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley & the Comets, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Coasters.” We got them all except for Screamin’ Jay. He was spending some portion of the year in Hawaii at that time. I suppose that my only regret was that Fats Domino, Little Richard and Ricky Nelson didn’t come to mind.

Phil booked my band, Duckbutter, to be on the bill for that tour so that we could back up Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and the Coasters.

People often say he’s difficult to work with. What has your experience been?

Sometimes he is. You never know. That first show, we were scheduled to do a sound check at 3:00. The show was at 8:00. Chuck strolled out onto the stage at Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa around 7:30. I didn’t write this down so the accuracy of the quote might be a little shaky after forty years but this is close:

“I’m Chuck Berry. I’ll tell you what song we’re playing and I’ll tell you the key. If I go like this, (raises his guitar up in a swooping motion), you stop. Don’t anybody play too loud. It’s my show. If you do, I’ll stop. I’ll embarrass you.”

We closed the show with him. He came out of the wings with his 345 blazing with that Nadine riff. We fumbled around for just a second to figure out that we were in F or B flat or some strange key that was certainly not what the record had been recorded in. First time he raised his guitar to start a duckwalk, we stopped. Dirtiest look I’ve ever been given. We didn’t fall for that one again. The only reason that we hadn’t been intimidated to begin with was that we all knew all CB songs. We had grown up on them. Turns out that he doesn’t often play any of them in that way.

Actually, that was a good night. Next night in Orlando I had to grab his shoulder to prevent him from dancing right off the edge of a very high stage. During a guitar solo in Around and Around he backed up to me to ask,”What are we doing?” Funny thing is it was a really good set. Next night in Jacksonville he went into "Rambling Rose" in the middle of the set. He did just a verse or two while we stood with our mouths open and our hands by our sides. He rolled right into "Jamaica Farewell" in Spanish and we hoped for lightning to strike the building. He bounced right back and we closed with a really fine version of "Johnny B. Goode" that pretty much blew the roof off of the Jacksonville Colliseum. That was the first job where I figured out that he showed up late to make sure that he closed the show regardless of where he was on the bill. At that point, Bo Diddley referred to him as “Mr. Berry” and looked the other way when Chuck entered the room. We were all doing this tour on a chartered bus. Chuck flew from town to town.

After some time Chuck began to request that promoters contact me for putting a band together for him. I was always excited but always a little apprehensive of what might happen. Some shows were pure joy and some were taxing in many ways. The last time that I took one was in Miami at the Jailai Fronton on a bill with the James Gang. I attempted to pass on it but the promoter offered too much money to ignore. We played a set that lasted two and a half hours. Chuck was on his knees, reciting poetry, working the young crowd like horny, broke preacher. I was amazed. I have never enjoyed playing more. Backstage I glance at my watch and thought that we had played for an hour and a half. No wonder I was tired. I actually overheard Chuck telling someone else that we had been out for two and a half. He was in a great mood, no sign of exhaustion. Trying to convince us to come visit him at Berry Park, he smirked, “There’s only one cop in Wentzville and I have polaroids of him.” I thought it was a joke for years. The next week he was on the Mike Douglas Show with John and Yoko co-hosting. He boasted that he had just played the longest set in his life the week before, two and one half hours. I’m still proud.

I think the magic of his music is the improvisation. What’s it like playing on the fly like that?

Honestly, he’s so used to worrying about just trying to keep it together at all that there isn’t much space for improvisation. He would certainly be the one if you had the good luck to spend a little time with him.

Where do you think Chuck Berry fits in the world of American music and culture?

I remember reading an interview with him when I was a kid. He gave all credit for all of his work to what Louis Jordan and others had done previously. I thought he was just being kind. He went on to protest that he had only really written four or five songs. I finally understand what he meant. Turns out I’ve only written a handful myself. It just happens that his four or five are the backbone for all of rock’n’roll. Never mind "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock’n’Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode"; no Chuck Berry, no "Surfin’ U.S.A.", no "Come Together". No wonder that it was Chuck Berry music that was blasted into outer space in the space capsule in case we ever make contact with an alien population. Chuck Berry is American culture and American music.

The days of pick up bands backing Chuck Berry are pretty much gone. But if you had a word or two of advice for the garage band that was going to take that job, what would it be?

Get down on you knees and thank your god!

I noticed on line that you have a piece called “Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry.” Can you tell us about that one?

I just started the tape rolling and asked my pal, Ed Brown, to tell me the story about meeting Chuck Berry in Knoxville in 1957 or so. I had heard the story lots of times but had never bothered to ask for any details. I thought the rest of the world should be in on it. Ed just passed away so it’s a very special piece for me now.

Another song talks about your mom taking you to see Big Joe Turner? True story? And did you know Chuck Berry snuck out to watch him as a teenager?

I did not know that. Makes sense. Yeah, the first real concert that I went to was billed, “The Biggest Rock’n’Roll Show of ’56.” No exaggeration, I’ll tell you. At Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, the venue where the Elvis “tonsil” shot was taken, the bill included Big Joe Turner, Bo Diddley, Lavern Baker, the Teen Queens, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Bill Haley & the Comets and the Drifters. Clyde McPhatter was home on leave and joined the Drifters onstage in his uniform. Lavern Baker’s dress was too tight to walk up the stage stairs. She had to stand at the foot and snap her fingers for two musicians to come lift her by the elbows to put her on the stage. Bo came on and the walls shook. What’s a rock’n’roller doing with eyeglasses? How come Bill Haley and Joe Turner are playing the same song? The sacred mystery of rock’n’roll took over my soul and I continue to worship at that same altar. Hail, hail rock’n’roll, huh?

Where can people see you play in the next couple of months?

I’ll be at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma in the middle of July. It’s the best festival in the world. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is the spirit of rock’n’roll. He would have been a huge rock’n’roll star. He would have denied it.

Note from Peter:  Be sure to use the search unction on this blog to find the Ed Brown pieces, including Ed Brown's brilliantly told story about meeting Chuck Berry. 
Pictures courtesy Ronny Elliott.

Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry

(Photo courtesy Ronny Elliott)

By accident yesterday I discovered for the first time a singer-songwriter named Ronny Elliott. From the bits of MP3s I found on his site, he's wonderful. (I was interested because he posted a photo of his band backing Chuck Berry long ago.) He writes great songs, with witty lyrics that remind me in some ways of our local hero. But one cool thing I heard that I wanted to tell you about is a "number" called "Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry." It's not a song. It's an interview-- a story well told by Mr. Brown about the time he and his buddies spotted Chuck Berry's Cadillac driving through Knoxville, Tennessee. They chase him down, ask for an autograph, get invited to lunch with Berry and his group, go to the show, get singled out by Berry at the show, and then head off to dinner with him. I think he said the Cadillac was a '58, so you know this is in the heart of Chuck Berry's first flame of glory; and since it's also in the heart of the south, in the late 1950s, it's a mix of wonder and horror (refused entrance to a restaurant, they gobble dinner on the sidewalk). A great story, worth the price of a great record, which you can order on line-- and a good time to do it, since I'm told Mr. Brown just passed a few weeks ago.

And it confirms my own thoughts about Chuck Berry and a lot of others-- that by doing these shows, and bringing down those rope fences, and signing autographs, and enduring the racial indignities, he was right there with Rosa Parks and so many other great Americans who helped change not just the sound of the world, but the world itself.

Learn more about Ronny Elliott, hear some of his music, and buy it at

Thank you Mr. Berry! And Mr. Elliott! And Mr. Brown! RIP

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunnyland Slim, with Bob Stroger, Odie Payne, and Lurrie Bell

I wrote about Bob Stroger a few days ago.  I saw him for the first time as a reasonably elderly man.  Here he is as a young one backing Sunnyland Slim, with Lurrie Bell on guitar.  One of the things I love about it is that the video really features drummer Odie Payne, (who drummed on a number of Chuck Berry cuts), first mugging to the crowd, then playing.  (Hubert Sumlin is supposedly there, but I didn't see him in the bits I watched.  I know he's on some of the other songs from this set.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

They'll be Rockin' in ... Annapolis

Chuck Berry headlines the second night of the Chesapeake Bay Blues festival on May 23.  Here's the day's lineup:

Sunday, May 23rd

Mummers Parade

Polish American String Band

Blues Legend Bobby Parker

Big Bill Morganfield (Son of Muddy)
Anders Osborne


Joe Louis Walker

Jimmie Vaughan & The Tilt-A-Whirl Band Featuring Lou Ann Barton

Chuck Berry

And here's the link.
If you're lucky, you're already there, digging Buddy Guy.

May 15 Brazil; May 19, St. Louis; May 23, Delaware

I get old, but he doesn't.  The song doesn't.  This is from May 19th at Blueberry Hill!  (My pupeteer Doug sent it, of course!)  I love how the song stops and then starts again at the end.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pinetop, "Big Eyes," Mr. Stroger, and Gemma

Not satisfied simply to see legendary performers who are over 80 years old, I am now starting a newer qwest: I'm going to see legendary performers who are nearly 100 years old.  Or, at any rate, I'm going to see the only one I know of.  Tonight, at Jazz Alley in Seattle: Pinetop Perkins!

What makes it especially thrilling is that we're taking my daughter Gemma, who recently began studying piano, and has already begun to play a bit of boogie woogie and blues!  Go, Gemma, Go!

Here's Mr. Perkins with Bob Margolin.

Tonight at Jazz Alley he'll be joined by Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Bob Stroger.  Smith's site, below, has a great video of him and Pinetop recording.  Check it out.

Check out Mr. Stroger's webstite here!

More later.

Win Free Chuck Berry Tickets!

Check the LINK to get a chance to win free tickets to see Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Bobby Parker and Big Bill Morganfield at the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Guaranteed to Raise a Smile. (And the Roof!)

When he’s singing “Johnny B. Goode” nowadays Chuck Berry usually sings “Maybe some day your name will be back in lights,” as if a comeback is in store.

When I was a kid I used to think the song “Sergeant Pepper” described Berry’s situation.

They’ve been going in and out of style,
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

But the truth is that Chuck Berry never went out of style. His name has always been in lights.

The records didn’t always sell. He had three clear bursts of record sales— 1955-1960, 1964-1965, and 1972, and it probably would have been an uninterrupted selling spree from 1955 to 1965 if it weren’t for a prison sentence that he didn’t deserve.

But in between and after the record sales he was always out doing concerts, keeping his name “in lights.”

Almost as soon as he got out of prison in October 1963 he recorded one of the best live shows I’ve heard him do at a Michigan casino. The 10 song set—with backup by a group of Motown studio musicians-- is included on the boxed set “Chuck Berry: You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966.” It’s the reason I bought that package, and made it worth every dime to me.

In 1964 he made two tours of Europe, focusing, it seems, on England, where his influence was huge and fresh. Groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others were recording his songs and talking up his music to the press.

In October 1964 he was part of the T.A.M.I. show, a live concert that included Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Bo Diddley, and the Rolling Stones. It came out as film, probably in 1965, and was releseased recently on DVD. (Berry’s performances are short but very sweet—but unfortunately the cameras focus on the go-go dancers behind him.)

Then, in 1966 or 1967, things take a new turn. Berry is courted by San Francisco’s Bill Graham and becomes a staple headliner at the Fillmore. The pay sounds incredibly bad to me, but the venue introduces Berry to an important audience—boomers born a bit too late for the original hits, but who probably heard “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” as teeny boppers. This is a big wave that runs from brother Stevo, who introduced me to Chuck Berry, all the way to me, and “My Ding-a-Ling.” (Actually his ding-a-ling. My curse.) Berry was suddenly bigger than ever, playing mega-shows like the Toronto festival, and able to let his music mature a bit. He played more blues, and his guitar playing became more and more refined. For me, these are the golden years of Chuck Berry guitar.

And he kept making records—some of the first I was able to buy, including “Back Home,” “San Francisco Dues,” “The London Sessions,” and “Bio.” Only “The London Sessions” was a big seller, but all of these albums got reviews in the major magazines, and all of them probably sold relatively well.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he kept touring regularly, always a headliner now. He was part of the Richard Nader “Rock and Roll Revivals” (got himself into serious tax troubles) and worked as a single doing shows all over the country with a pickup band or, if you were lucky, with The Woolies.” Then Casinos, and State Fairs. And Europe—always Europe, and Asia, and South America.

And then 1986-1987 and another burst—the movie, and the The Autobiography, and a decent soundtrack album, all of which got noticed.

Now the legend began to grow. He was and remains a fixture in Rolling Stone’s incessant lists of “greatest.” Best Guitar Songs—“Johnny B. Goode” comes in at number one. It’s on the “best songs” list as well, and he’s way up there on the lists of “best guitarists” and “all time best.” He even gets a credible shout out on the “best singers” list, and more recently his Blueberry Hill performances were listed as reason number 9 to be excited about the current state of rock and roll.

In the 21st century books started coming out, including two full scale biographies, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” by Bruce Pegg and “Chuck Berry” by John Collis. There are also a couple of books about the music, including “Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy,” by Fred Rothwell.

And, of course, Blueberry Hill, one of his coolest moves ever, where month after month Chuck Berry has played shows at a tiny venue in his home town of St. Louis that can’t be too profitable, but which have become legendary for their spirit—fun, loving shows with a stable house band and fans that come from around town and around the world to see and hear a legend.

And finally: three wonderful nights in Brazil, where he's apparently gone for three years running, playing to ecstatic crowds. 

He just just keeps going.  All told, 55 years—an incredible legacy— and the name has been in lights just about the entire time. Pretty cool.  (I've already seen my "last" Chuck Berry show three times, and I plan to see a few more!)

And no accident. In this case, I’d say 99% inspiration, and 101% perspiration.

Good job, Mr. Berry. And thank you.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be

After typing the last entry, I googled my own line and found it was a Catholic prayer called the Glory Be-- something I used to recite 45 plus years ago.  It's about God, but fits Chuck Berry-- and it explains why we go see him now even when notes get mucked up and songs go astray. 

Because it's eternal.

Always was.  Always will be.

And you can still see it live. 

Chuck Berry in Brazil

This may be the one Dominic is talking about?  Johnny B. Goode, Live, From Brazil!  (I haven't heard it.  Kid next to me is watching cartoons.  But I will take a look later.)    See lots more on

(8 hours later, and I've listened.  It sounds kind of like an extended, off key version of "Concerto in B Goode."  But everyone is clearly having a good time, so who cares?  A modern Chuck Berry concert is a celebration of what is, was, and always shall be-- which I think is cathechism.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Johnny e bom! (Chuck e muito bom!)

(Nice to see he brought the entire St. Louis band!)

No Jet Lag

Or maybe this is just what being surrounded by a couple dozen Brazilian women does for a man.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bobby Parker at The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival, May 22-23, 2010

If you are near Maryland on May 22-23, you can see Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy and Bobby Parker, too.  Here's a great story about Parker, whose guitar licks were stolen by the Fab Four.  (Ah well-- that's how it goes.)

Hubert Sumlin, Master Guitarist, Master Teacher (TONIGHT in NYC!)

If you go online you'll find dozens of videos of Hubert Sumlin explaining how it's done.  Here's one of them.

Sumlin was, of course, the guitarist for Howlin' Wolf.  Tonight Mr. Sumlin is bringing his blues to B. B. King's in NYC.  So if you're not down in Brazil, enjoying Mr. Berry, maybe you'd do well to head to B.B.'s!

Here he is with another legend, Buddy Guy.

What a wonderful guy.

Brazil, Now!

Yesterday, today and tomorrow in Brazil!  Here's a link if you want tickets for today's show.
Tomorrow he'll be at theTeatro do Bourbon Country.  Here's a link: Berry

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ragazzi! Chuck Berry in Italia!

Grazie a Doug per la notizia!

Here's the website:

(Here's one he wrote for Italian boys in the U.S.A.)

Two Chess Stars in One

Just a reminder about an upcoming show that looks to be great.  If I were nearby I'd attend both days!

Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy are headlining the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival May 22 and May 23, 2010, in Annapolis, MD.  Learn more at  Found out yesterday that Daryl Davis will probably be backing Mr. Berry at this one. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More on Sonny Rollins

I'm not up to a "review," but here's one from The Independent describing a show last fall in London that nearly fits what we saw last night-- the stooped shuffle onto the stage, the soft, breathy opening, the energetic second number, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Kobie Watson on drums, (he explained to us that guitarist Bobbie Broom had just left to form his own band.  "We'll tell him you asked about him.") and the general wonder and emotion of seeing/hearing this great one perform.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sonny Rollins

For Christmas two years ago my wife got me a ticket to see Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill.  Then last year she got us two tickets to see/hear Sonny Rollins tonight at The Seattle Paramount.  There's something about these 80 year olds.  Mr. Rollins hobbled on stage with a bent back, a big horn, and a decided limp.  And then the music started, and the back straightened and the limp became a shimmy and the horn-- well it was Sonny Rollins' horn!  I'd seen him once before, 30 or more years ago in the same building, "backed" by Ron Carter and McCoy Tyner.  That was as powerful a show as I've ever seen or heard.  But tonight's was special-- way more intimate, almost acoustic, softer, but still full of energy.   At one point he spoke to the crowd, saying "Let's keep music alive.  It's the only thing in this world that still matters."  (He said "Let's not think about the oil spill tonight.")  And when the night ended, it ended with the blues, with Rollins singing two verses.  (Dang, how I wish my ears worked better!  I wanted to hear the lyrics.)  He wore a bright white jacket and black pants, and let his hair fly loose in a big shaggy afro.  And, of course, the shades.  And the parade continues.  In another week we'll go see Pinetop Perkins.  
I guess I know I won't be doing anything like they do when I'm 80, but I do hope I do something that matters.  

Anyway, here's a LINK to his website (where I took the picture.  Sorry!) 
And here's a bit of the music.

New Sounds

Hey!  I just followed a reader's comment to the reader's own blog: Nuovisuoni.  Here is a link  Thank you Carmelo-- or should I say, Grazie mille! 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Hubert Sumlin, There At The Creation (A Creator Himself) AND YOU CAN SEE HIM LIVE!

Legendary Blues Guitarist Hubert Sumlin will be at B.B. King's in New York City on May 13.  Tickets are just $32 in advance.  $32!  If you're nearby, go!

Sumlin was the object of a turf war between Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.  Wolf won.  He also played on "Deep Feeling," one of Chuck Berry's few truly killer blues pieces.

Here he is passing on a guitar lesson on "Smokestack Lightning."

Here he's playing it with Wolf himself.  Willie Dixon's on bass:

That version was a little too gentle.  Here's the original 45:

B.B. and C.B. (Three B's in a Pod)

I bought B.B. King’s autobiography years ago, skimmed it, dipping here and there, but never read it until last fall, after visiting Indianola, Mississippi during my 24 hour visit to the Mississippi Delta. At the time I didn’t know much about Indianola except for the name, which I recognized without knowing why. And I wound up stopping there largely to ask directions to Yazoo City. I was driving without much of a map, and the highways and byways of the Mississippi Delta can be confusing to a newcomer. So I stop at a little restaurant in what appears to be a restored cotton gin mill. It is shiny and bright. The menu is, too. I order a Chicken Philly sandwich and an iced tea. There’s a stage off to one side with amplifiers and a couple of guitars hanging from the wall. There are pictures and posters of B. B. King everywhere. One says “Welcome Home B. B.!” (I assume at the time it might be a rare occurrence for B. B. King to show up in Indianola.) Since my waitress seems to be sweet 16 and shy I get up to ask directions of the bar tender.

I learned (over the course of 24 hours) that in Mississippi a question like that can lead to a lot of conversation. I’m asked where I’m from, why I’m here, and how I like Mississippi. When I explain that I have always liked the blues, new shoots of conversation open. The men at another table must have overheard. They begin offering tips and directions through the bar tender. “They say there’s a blues heritage marker down the road in such and such a village. Turn left after the part store and follow the signs.” We talk for a while, and then I’m off, towards Yazoo City, and Jackson, and home, where, a few days later, I started reading B. B. King’s book in earnest.

Unlike Chuck Berry’s Autobiography, this one is ghost written—but the ghost-- David Ritz-- has credentials. He wrote the Marvin Gaye hit “Sexual Healing.” That’s good enough for me.  And he has helped write some other great books.  He co-wrote Ray Charles' autobiography, too.

And every word of the book seems clearly to be in B. B. King’s voice.

I first saw B. B. King at the Sacramento State Fair. It was probably 1969. They had an area for “youth” and King played an outdoor show there. It was, I now understand, towards the beginning of his "crossover" to general acceptance.  I was mesmerized. I’m relatively certain I saw King before Berry, although I haven’t managed to find dates for either concert. I’ve seen King and his bands a number of times since, at a Lake Tahoe lounge, a couple of Seattle night clubs, and at the Seattle Opera House.

(King's website is easy to find:

For me it’s impossible not to compare Berry’s book and this one.  Heck, King even quotes a line from Berry, ending one chapter with the line "Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee."

They are about the same age. If King seems more “mature,” maybe it’s because he was born a year earlier, in 1925—but more likely it’s because Chuck really is a rock and roller. Because they’re the same age they share some of the same idols—notably T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Louis Jordan.  Both admire Lonnie Johnson, Count Basie, Nat Cole and others. They even started learning from the same book of guitar chords by Nick Mannaloft. (These stories are so parallel that Berry talks about it on page 42 of his book, and King on page 44!)

Both held day jobs as they began achieving some success in music. Berry worked as a carpenter and studied hair dressing. King picked cotton in the morning before his radio show, and drove tractors on a plantation. Both worked with or near Ike Turner. (That man got around!)

Chuck (as his songs would imply) had more cars in his early years. He talks about driving the girls in high school. 

King drove his dates to town on a tractor!

Berry chose at a certain point to dispense with a band and tour as a solo. King was forced by promoters to go solo after his first big hit song and fought hard to get back to travelling with a regular band.  (Happy to say that Berry also travels with his own again these days.)

King was on the “losing” side of the battle between Rock and Roll and Blues. He laments that his audience got older and older, and that he could never have the mega hits of Berry, Elvis and Little Richard. He even remembers getting booed by crowd that was waiting for Sam Cooke to perform. (Cooke was from Clarksdale, Mississippi—an hour or so from Indianola.) It seems impossible-- but not surprisingly he won them over.

Then again, he remembers receiving acclaim from jazz greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillispie, while Chuck remembers feeling dissed by Chess jazz producer/photographer Esmond Edwards. (  (Both King and Berry share a certain degree of sensitivity about their music. King knows the blues is an art form and resents when critics or promoters debase it; Berry often laments that his music wasn’t as blue as Muddy Waters, or as refined as Nat Cole.)

Both were extremely ambitious and hard working. They wanted it.  They got it, despite the odds.

Both had trouble with the IRS. King managed to escape prison; Berry didn’t. Both played shows in prison, though it seems to be a regular thing for King, and a personal thing for Berry.

Both spend more time discussing their sex lives than some of us want—but then again, it probably sells books.  And both had late stage circumcisions! Yikes!  I turned those pages quickly.

Both are described by themselves or others as quiet off stage-- maybe even loners.  On stage not at all.

Both had careers that were revived by British rock and rollers and U.S. hippies. Both had a giant super hit in the early 1970s (King had the thrilling “The Thrill is Gone” and Berry, [thrill having absolutely departed] unfortunately had the novelty “My Ding-a-Ling.”)

They both wound up playing Gibson semi-hollow bodies.  Berry needs to have one named after him. 

It’s interesting that two men with so much in common were ultimately so different.

I’ve seen them both a lot of times.

I last saw King about five years ago. He played at the Opera House in Seattle and (although he talked a lot more than in the old days, and played sitting down), he put on a polished performance consistent with what I’ve seen over the years ever since I first saw him in 1969 or 1970. He says in his book that he sees himself as a “rhythm and blues” performer, and takes pride in the power of his backup band. It shows. He has active management and says he likes being told what to do. Berry doesn't seem to like being told what to do.  He manages his business himself, with a bit of help.  His performances are more ragged and rebellious, pure rock and roll that, when I last saw him at Blueberry Hill, was boiled down to a hard core, garage type sound that was almost punk despite some pretty elegant backup. That night, at least, the guitar virtuosity was gone, but the power of the music, the voice and the charisma were definitely still there.
King keeps making good records. I've liked his last two a great deal-- both simple, straight forward blues records.  Berry seems to have kept recording, too, but he’s hiding it all from us for now.  I wish he'd put it out there-- but alas, that stubborn streak of his might keep us waiting a while.
Amazingly, both men are still going strong at 82 or 83, performing all over the world, taking their music out there the only way they really can, with live performance. In fact, Chuck Berry will play at B. B. King's New York club this June 25!  (
We owe both a huge amount of thanks and respect.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

B. B. King in the former Zaire

This is about the right time-- maybe 4 or 5 years later, at the Rumble...


(Picture by "wonderham."  Thanks!  See link below.)

It just occurred to me that the first two blues acts I ever saw, (and the first two concerts that really affected me and changed my life), were by young men, or young middle aged men, who are still playing today, and who can still outplay the younguns.

B.B. and Chuck.

I once wrote about all their similarities.  (I'll repost it nearby.)  But what a privilege for me, and what a coincidence that the two continue to thrive.

I'm sure I saw B. B. King first.  It was at Cal-Expo, the California State Fair, then new.  There was a momentary dream to make it a year-round rival to Disneyland, with monorail, and futuristic edifices.  Chuck Berry described his own dream for Berry Park in "Hail! Hail!"  He said something like, "I wanted it to be like Six Flags.  Ah-- turned out to be one flag."  That's how it was for Cal-Expo, too.  It turned out to be just a new location for the same old State Fair, with a counties exhibit, and a midway, and fireworks at the end of the night.  But for one summer, it was magic-- six flags, and B.B., too.

I don't know how I got there.  I had to be about 13 or 14.  But I remember standing in the crowd, mesmerized.  I was an idiot child from the Sacramento suburbs, and some part of me thought there might be something threatening or uncomfortable about a B. B. King blues show, (he probably felt the same about a crowd of Sacramento suburban teenagers,) but what I found was the magic of B. B. King.  (I'm sad to say that what I remember best from that night was the schtick-- where B. B. let his wrist go limp imitating a woman.  But I heard the music, too.)  Since then I've seen him at least four more times in venues ranging from bars to an arena and an opera house, and I've never been remotely disappointed.

And then came Chuck Berry, in a performance at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium that I've written about elsewhere.  Most of the show was his rock and roll hits, but when we walked into the near empty room he was playing the blues for sure, alone at the mike with a red guitar, blue jeans, and an orange shirt.  We bought our tickets at the door and sat six or sever rows from center stage.  I'll never forget it.

The other day, in Sacramento for family business, I parked and walked around that beautiful old brick building, trying to peek in and remember.  Like so many spots around the country, it's a place full of history and memory, magic and loss.  I couldn't see much, but I felt a lot.

I wondered how Chuck Berry got into the building that night, or on the nights he played there with Louis Jordan or the big rock and roll shows.  I wondered where Stevo sat with Bo Diddley, or where Danny found the crowd chanting Stevo's name. 

I remembered seeing Albert King and Freddie King in the same building, warm up acts for lesser acts that I've forgotten.

And tonight?  Just amazed that those first two geniuses that I got to see alive on stage endure, still play, and still outplay the younguns. 

83 years old!


(I borrowed the picture from  Thank you wonderham.  Here's the post.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Don't the Beat Overcome You...

I don’t have flying dreams. But at least three or four times that I remember, I’ve dreamed that I found a room with amplifiers and musicians and a drum set just sitting there, and I sit down…

Then I wake up.

I don’t actually recall playing the drums in these dreams, but I always approach the set with the confidence that I’ll be able to at least play a beat.

I used to play drums when I was teenager. I was a simple 'boom-chuck" drummer back when people surrounded themselves with dozens of tom toms and played ridiculous solos.  (I was born under a bad time.)  And I played my last beats about 36 years ago. But I kept the drums—always hoping there’d come a time when I could pound them again without bothering the neighbors.

I’ve even been working on a soundproof room in the basement. But I’m even less of a builder than musician, so it’s taking a while.  (Maybe by the time I get Social Security.)

But yesterday the dream came true.

I was with a group of amateur musicians. One was semi-pro. We’d rented a room with three amps and a drum set. A drummer came, but he was having trouble keeping the beat.

So when he left the room, I couldn’t resist.

There was a bass player and a guitarist. I sat down at the drums—and for the first time all afternoon we had a little vibe going. I couldn’t do much, but I could keep time, work the pedals, and smack the snare two or three times every measure.

I loved it.

Today I spent some time polishing my old drums, which have been in our basement soaking up dust and grime for decades.  It got me thinking, and I looked the set up on line.

Turns out, it’s vintage.

It’s a set called Ludwig “Club Date.”  The small tom tom was manufactured three weeks before my 11th birthday.  I got them when I was 16 or 17 for $150.

The cheapest set they sold, painted black—but someone was selling the bass drum alone for $275 on e-bay.

I’d never sell mine—but it’s nice to know that the drums have appreciated.

Now I got to make them feel that way.

We’re going to rent the room again, and I’m going to put down the guitar for a while and try to drum.