Wednesday, June 30, 2010

An 84th Birthday Pre-Func with Chuck Berry & Daryl Davis at the Strathmore Music Center in October

This to me looks like a good one with plenty of tickets available at a fine theater in the Washington D.C. area.  For more information and to buy tickets Check Here!  For more about the Strathmore Arts Complex and Music Center, Check Here!  For more about the amazing Daryl Davis, check out the start of my Interview Here!

Monday, June 28, 2010

More Italian TV! On Guitar, Signor Billy Peek. On Piano, Il Maestro, Chuck Berri!

Here's a long clip with CB sitting down to the piano while Billy Peek and Jimmy Marsala keep it moving on the guitar front.  Note the two finger, double note right hand style that Daryl Davis mentioned in his piece on the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival.  And the bonus: "Do You Love Me?!"  We do, Mr. Berry, we do!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bon Soir Cheri. Je Dois Partir Now. Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.

I started this blog more or less by accident in March 2009, during a temporary breakdown at the I had posted three or four things there in the winter and realized that I enjoyed spouting off about my old hero. (I enjoy spouting off about lots of things, whether I know about them or not.) Then one day the forum conked out, locked some of us out, and my old posts disappeared. It turned out that the forum was being targeted by spammers, and the first effort to block them ended up knocking off lots of other people and jettisoning hundreds of posts, including mine.

You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. I had the rolling arthritis-- so I started this blog. And somehow I just kept blogging, even after the forum got going again and my old posts returned. Whenever I’d run out of ideas, I’d head towards youtube and type something like “Odie Payne,” and the rest took care of itself.

Which is a typically long-winded way of saying that I started this thing, and it’s here, and now I have to figure out how to end it.

So, in the manner of James Brown, I'm donning my cape just one last time! 

(Mr. Berry---  I love you.  Bye Bye!)

Now can anyone beat that?  What more is there to write about?

(Maybe a new album full of new songs.)

Sweet Little Sixteen 1973

It's always nice to see an older one.  The notes say it's from Germany in 1973.

Maybe Some Day Your Duckwalk Will Be In Bronze

I've known for years there was a bronze statue of Chuck Berry somewhere in Seattle, and I showed some images of it once that I found on the internet-- but it's exact location somehow eluded me.  Then a few weeks ago my friend Al told me to go check out the entrance to a new apartment building in an alley off Broadway.  And lo!  There it was.  (Fittingly, it's on the other side of the block from a statue of Jimi Hendrix, which I think was done by the same artist.) 

It's hard to trap lightning in a bottle, or to put motion and life into realistic bronze.  As a fan with my own idea about Chuck Berry, I'm not sure it happened here, or that it's happening in the St. Louis project.  (Surprisingly, the biggest problem with sculpting Chuck Berry seems to be the face!  I don't get that.  But in this one I give kudos to the right foot and lower leg.  It looks like real duckwalk to me.)  But hey-- an apartment building with a statue of Chuck Berry near the entrance?  If that's not my future retirement home, what else could it be?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Good stuff HERE about Chuck Berry's performance (and presentation) in the T.A.M.I. Show, where he had to share the stage with Gerry and the Pacemakers. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Someone Opened Up The Closet Door (and Stole a Melody!)

I went to my piano to plumk out the melody of "Garden Party" (it is catchy; it is caught inside my head tonight) and I realized I was actually playing the melody to "Brown Eyed Handsome Man!"

Someone opened up the closet door,
(Two and three count, with nobody on)
And out stepped Johnny B. Goode
(He hit a high fly into the stands)
Playing guitar like a ringing a bell
(Rounding third he was heading for home

Jeeze Louise, My Sweet Lord and Oooo-Lang oooo Lang, too.  If stolen tunes were all I sang...

Anyway, RIP Ricky Nelson.  It's a good song, too.  But dang!

Someone Opened Up the Closet Door and Out Jumped the Real Thing

I always had mixed feelings about the Ricky Nelson song “Garden Party.” It came out in 1972, pretty much at the height of my early obsession with Chuck Berry. It told the story of the first big Rock and Roll Revival show at Madison Square Garden in 1971. According to Wikipedia:

“Nelson came on stage dressed in the then-current fashion, wearing bell-bottoms and a purple velvet shirt, with his hair hanging down to his shoulders. He started playing his older songs "Hello Mary Lou" and "She Belongs to Me", but then he played The Rolling Stones' "Country Honk" (a country version of their hit song "Honky Tonk Women") and the crowd began to boo. While some reports say that the booing was caused by police action in the back of the audience, Nelson took it personally and left the stage. He watched the rest of the concert backstage and did not reappear on stage for the finale.”

It’s a great song, with an interesting sentiment—and one that hit pretty close to home. I became a Chuck Berry fan at the time of “Back Home” and “San Francisco Dues.” I knew Chuck Berry wasn’t only singing memories—but on stage it was usually just the hits and some classic blues.

Still—I felt the punch Nelson took at Berry was unfair.

The song opens hopefully:

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn't look the same

But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

The concert itself was an event. There’s some big time name dropping.

People came from miles around, everyone was there
Yoko brought her walrus, there was magic in the air
And over in the corner, much to my surprise
Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan's shoes wearing his disguise
lott-in-dah-dah-dah, lot-in-dah-dah-dah

Then comes the self pity.

Played them all the old songs, thought that's why they came
No one heard the music, we didn't look the same
I said hello to "Mary Lou", she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave
lot-dah-dah-dah (lot-dah-dah-dah)

I have a little trouble seeing the change in Rick Nelson in the two shots here. Looks pretty much the same, except that the earlier shot is a bit more timeless. But then the dig at Chuck Berry…

Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playing guitar like a-ringin' a bell and lookin' like he should
If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I rather drive a truck

I understand the sentiment-- but it's wrong.

It's wrong in part because it's just wrong.  I haven’t found any photos of that particular show, but I doubt Chuck Berry was “lookin’ like he should.” If he wanted to “look the same” as he did in the 1950s he’d have a white suit and a big fat blond guitar—but I’d be willing to bet that in 1971 Chuck Berry was wearing his psychedelic paisley shirt and playing a cherry red semi-hollow body. See example below!

Who was more of a "hippie" in 1971 than our hero? He wore his hair longer. He wore Sly Stone sideburns. He usually wore purple or red bell bottom pants. He had a green flowered jacket.

So I doubt he looked any more “like he should” than Mr. Nelson.

The real difference was the repertoire. Ricky had “Mary Lou,” and ultimately “Garden Party.”

Chuck Berry, on the other hand, jumped “out of the closet” with Johnny, and Maybellene, Nadine, and Marie.

He had Sweet Little Sixteen and that dirty look giving teacher.

He had the “po’ boy” on a bus from Norfolk to the Promised Land. He had Beethoven on the run. He had “Wee Wee Hours” and “Deep Feeling”.

He had Rock and Roll Music.

And though he didn’t play it much on stage, he had Tulane, and the merciless judge, and Louisiana.

And he had a guitar style that, in the words of Eric Clapton, "Pretty much laid down the law" for rock and roll. 

He wasn’t singing memories. He was making history.

But I suspect that if he could have made a better living driving a truck, he probably would have been happy doing that too.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bye-Bye Elvis

Follow the LINK to an article and an mp3 of a Bruce Springsteen song about the death of Elvis.  It's called "Johnny Bye-Bye."  I'd never heard it, but I sure recognize some of the lyrics!  (They have become part of the vocabulary of rock and roll-- just like the guitar licks).

Gibson on Chuck, T-Bone, B. B., and Sister Rosetta

The T-Bone Walker clip I posted below is also part of the post from Gibson Guitars, which talks about the guitars used by T-Bone, Chuck, B. B. and others.  It includes a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.  I've read, but haven't seen, that Sister Tharpe did something like the duck walk.  She sure as hell is worth listening to during the guitar solo-- and Chuck Berry says in his autobiography that he did just that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Just Her and Her I-Phones

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece distinguishing Chuck Berry from modern acts that rely on a cast of hundreds to create music and videos.  I used Lady Gaga as an example.  I meant no disrespect to Lady Gaga-- simply wrote the piece after seeing a video that had obviously required the help of dozens or hundreds of talented make up artists, dancers, directors, editors, sound people, etc.  But check out this woman, Kim Yeo-hee, a 22-year-old music producer from Korea.   She does it all by herself.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Can't Help It, But I Love It (Volume One)

So why do I love Chuck Berry?

Part of it is obviously some genetic accident or defect—an inborn predilection for certain sounds and rhythms and rhymes. Some people like the sound of an old car motor. Some people are probably drawn to the squawk of a goose. Some people like the sound of Sarah Palin speaking. I’m called by a double string electric guitar lick, strong bass, and echoing drums, and some fine piano rippling in the distance. I heard it and I knew—and that was 40 years ago.

Which suggests that another part of it is simple timing—pure luck, a simple twist of fate. There’s a moment in life—the teenage years-- when we are ready to be swept away by whatever bit of music or art that we really see or hear. I got lucky. I first saw Chuck Berry live when I was about 14 years old. Everything about the performance got me. It happened to be a sad sort of show, a meager crowd, a lame backup band, with Chuck Berry looking sad himself, alone at the mike stand singing blues when we first walked in the door, his brow furrowed, his guitar raw and loud. It was music at its most basic and powerful, amped up by circumstance. In the next 45 minutes or so he kicked into gear, played his hits, did his splits, joked with the other guitarist on stage (who, when given the chance to solo, plucked a single note—true musical shrinkage—causing Berry to laugh and shrug and cajole.) He got the crowd to its feet where it stayed and left them there as he cut out early supposedly to a show in Los Angeles. But it was the blues that got me—some of the first I had ever heard live (the other came from B. B. King, around the same time)—blues played by a man alone with his guitar, on the road, looking at a fading audience.

The writer Michael Lydon compared Chuck Berry to Chaplin—a clown who can bring tears. In Chuck Berry’s case there’s a certain artifice to the laughter (and sometimes to the blues). Even on his worst days he will get the crowd jumping and laughing and singing along. It’s a talent he was born with and a skill that he has honed to perfection. I saw him at his grumpiest at the EMP in Seattle, but at some point, after the scolding and instruction, after the sad solo versions of Ding-a-Ling and South of the Border, he amped it up and ran the crowd ragged. He was 75 at the time. But the sad part of Chuck Berry is built in—part of his own genetic makeup, and probably exacerbated by circumstances he himself has caused. He has made himself more alone by his own actions, personal and professional. But it doesn't hurt his art.  He’s often at his very best when waxing nostalgic. (“Wee Wee Hours.” “Memphis.” “Oh Louisiana.”) Sometimes it’s sweet. (“Time Was.” “Oh Baby Doll.”) It’s never the hard blues of Muddy Waters (the closest he ever got with one of his own numbers was “Have Mercy Judge,” perhaps because he was singing about what he knew—the same judge and some stony mansion. That was real blues.) What Chuck Berry specializes in is more of an ache—the ache of loss, and memory, and aloneness. “In a wee little room, I sit alone and think of you.” Watch him sing “Cottage for Sale.” This is Chuck Berry’s blues, the blues I have no doubt that he feels at his very core.

(Then again, is there a single Chuck Berry song that takes ownership of any part of that aloneness? Is it always the other party’s fault. “Her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home.” “You ain’t done nothing darlin’, but ruin a happy home.” “She put me in shame and in sorrow.” Is there an apology anywhere?)

So anyway, long story short, at 14 I found something real—real exuberance, and real blues, and I spent the next five years listening hard and often going to see him again and again—at Tahoe, at a couple of jam packed “Rock and Roll Revival” concerts, at Monterey. He was at his musical prime, and except for the “Revival” shows where he split the bill with a dozen acts, the concerts were long and luxurious. (The revival shows had their own reward; playing last after well-received groupls like Bill Hailey and the Comets and dynamite acts like Bo Diddley, he nonetheless blew the crowd away.)  At Lake Tahoe he played longer than I could stand (the promoter tells me he was kept there by security to fulfill a contract that called for two sets!).  We left before it was over. At Monterey he played for hours and we were at the foot of the stage. By the time I was 17 or 18 I was thoroughly and irretrievably infected. The sounds had worked their way into my brainstem. I don’t even listen to albums anymore. I don’t have to. It’s there. When I have lost consciousness some day, (I hope many years from now), and doctors are trying to determine brain death, they will hook me to an ECG and find a backbeat. I can’t lose it.

Recycling an Old Post-- Two Shows, 30 Years Apart

I first saw Chuck Berry in Sacramento in 1969 or 1970. I’d heard about the concert that same day on the radio. I convinced two of my sisters to join me. We headed downtown, parked, and got to the ticket booth five minutes after the scheduled start of a three act show. I remember that it cost five dollars.

There was music coming through the auditorium doors.

“Has the show started?” we asked the lady in the booth. She was grumpy even though there was no one to bother her except us. The lobby was empty.

“He’s on stage now,” she said, counting our money.

“Who’s on stage? Chuck Berry’s on stage?”

“He started about five minutes ago.”

This was vaguely alarming news. The other acts were a local rock band called Slo Loris and a child singer named Little Deon. Chuck Berry was supposed to be on top, the headliner.

We pushed open the auditorium door and there he was, seemingly alone on stage, him and his guitar, at a mike stand, playing the blues.

I was transfixed. The room was nearly empty—a few hundred people in the front rows, and a few more along the side balconies. And Chuck Berry was there, tall, lean, jeans and an orange shirt, hair slicked back, eyes half closed, high cheekbones tilted at the mike, singing something sad and woeful. His guitar was a cherry red Gibson, and he bent the notes two or more at a time, loud and raw, thundering and blistering between his mournful, slightly scratchy voice.

You’re so unhappy
You always cry
The man you love
Treats you so unkind
When things go wrong
Go wrong with you
It hurts me too.

"It Hurts Me Too"  by Elmore James

He pushed through another 45 minutes or so, getting the small crowd up on its feet for most of the show, playing hits I only sort of recognized that day—a song about Boston, Pittsburgh, PA, and the heart of Texas, a couple of “Beatles” songs about Rock and Roll Music and Beethoven rolling over. When Chuck was finally grinning he tried to get the local guitarist to solo and the guy just smiled humbly and plunked a single note. (He probably regrets that now.) Chuck laughed, but it didn’t matter. All he really needed was his guitar and a crowd. He finished with Johnny B. Goode, bowing as he backed off stage, still playing his guitar held upright in front of himself like a religious relic of some sort—and then he was gone, the band still rumbling away, and finally a story from the emcee that there’d been a mix up and Chuck Berry had to get to LA for another show. We watched the other acts for a few minutes, but it was all downhill after Chuck Berry. When Little Dion, perhaps ten years old, sang “It’s a Man’s World,” we left.

But I was infected and doomed. What I saw and heard had worked its way deep into my bones. God only knows why these things happen. There were 400 people in the auditorium. Most probably went home happy to have seen a good show. I went home changed.

(This looks like the Chuck Berry I saw that day, alone at the mike, only happier. Same jeans! Has to be about the same year.)

It was one of my first introductions to the blues. (The other was equally profound—a “young” B. B. King playing outdoors at the California State Fair. We considered both him and Chuck Berry—young men in their mid forties—to be “old” in those days.) Chuck Berry played many of his hits, I’m sure. I remember bits and pieces of then unfamiliar songs. But it was blues that I remembered—this great man, singing to an empty hall, his guitar blasting and bending like a car horn undergoing the dopler effect.

The next day I rode my bike to the local discount store (“Rasco Tempo a Division of Gamble Skogmo, Inc.”) (I’m not making that up) and found a black and gold double album—Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade—for $6 or $7. That day everything changed for me. I played it front to back three or four times. I couldn’t believe my fortune. One song after another—Maybelenne, Wee Wee Hours, Johnny B. Goode, and on and on, all seemingly perfect, with crackling lyrics, pounding drums and blazing guitar. The only ones I didn’t like so much were the few with backing vocals or too many horns. I liked it stripped down—drums, bass and guitar, and Berry’s own vocals. Maybe a saxophone in the background. Within a few weeks I had that record memorized—and before long I was chasing down the influences, like T-Bone Walker and Elmore James.

I’d only seen him twice before, on television, backed by television bands with dorky horn arrangements. My brother Stevo had told me about Chuck Berry, who was “better than Elvis.” The first time was on the Mike Douglas show, where, it seems, he was a regular guest. I watched him on a little black and white set, interested, not hooked.

Another time, maybe a few months later, I was woken up by music in the next room. My brothers were watching Dick Cavett or some other late night show, and there he was again, this time in color. I watched, not mesmerized, but something in that music must have woken me from deep sleep.

Stevo was worth listening to. He was a self taught drummer who played in a string of local Sacramento rock bands in the mid 1960s through the early 1970s. I never got to hear him on stage, but the entire neighborhood heard Stevo thumping hour after hour in his bedroom. My mom bought him a full set of sparkling blue Rogers in an effort to keep him out of trouble. The set cost $849 back when $849 was about a cazillion. There were two tom toms on top, and beautiful chrome hardware. Stevo would let me sneak into his room to play them, and once his disreputable friend Dee taught me a simple boom-cha, boom-boom-cha beat. Dee was in the same bands as Stevo. They played in Battles of the Bands at our local shopping centers and at the Cottage Park youth center. Stevo’s group once opened for Sly and the Family Stone at a little rock hall at South Lake Tahoe (where I’d later see Chuck Berry and shake his hand). Stevo snuck on stage before a show and started pounding Sly’s drummer’s set—something Sly’s drummer didn’t appreciate. Stevo was good. And when he talked about rock and roll, or blues, (or any sort of pop culture,) he always seemed to have good, interesting thoughts. So when he said “better than Elvis,” I listened.

Not that I cared much about Elvis. I still have trouble caring about Elvis. I was too young to care about Elvis. By the time I was listening to music, Elvis was nearly done making it. This was before he went to Vegas, and at the tail end of a lame string of movies.

But I was curious about this guy who was supposed to be better, though less well known-- Chuck Berry.

For me, for reasons I don’t know, “Chuck” has always meant blond hair and freckles. So I imagined Chuck Berry as an angry sort, with a tall blond pompadour.

Then they announce him on Mike Douglas. I decide to watch. The TV is black and white. There are crazy daisies. And Chuck isn’t blond, or angry.

I watch but I am not changed in any way.

And then, maybe a year later, Stevo again, holding forth again on Chuck Berry after a trip to Winterland or the Filmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

Stevo is still inexplicable to me. He was short, stocky and Irish in a half Irish family where the men tended to be tall and (in our youth) lean. He was one of the first people in Sacramento to have long hair—always an inch or so longer than the Beatles. He got beat up for it. He was tough as nails. He walked home from a car crash on a badly broken foot. Another crash left a circular gash in his cheek. He drank too much. He honored my mom, but joked with my dad. As he got older they’d drink themselves into insanity and run amok inside our house. He went to jail frequently— all for stuff that wouldn’t get you in trouble now. A year or two before he died he became increasingly paranoid and irrational. I remember him punching me from behind, convinced I’d said something, which I hadn’t. He could also be incredibly sweet. He got me drunk once and let me sleep it off on his couch, and I heard him and his drunkard friend talking gently about me. Another time he listened to my tape of a blues type song about drinking and asked who it was. “That’s me,” I said. He feigned disbelief. “I’ll be your drummer,” he told me. I’d followed him into drumming, and had a beginner’s set of Ludwigs that he could have used. I was incredibly honored. But within a week or two Stevo was gone—killed by a passing car after a bouncer pushed him into the street.

He was, in some ways, a dummy. On a trip to Europe he evidently could not fathom that people in other countries spoke other languages. But he was a genius, too—a philosopher of pop culture, sports, and politics, all of which he understood in a deep, instinctual way.

The thing he understood better than anyone I knew was pop culture—and specifically music and old movies.

It doesn’t sound like much now, but in the 1960s it was unusual to hear a young, long haired rock and roll musician defending Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I remember, vaguely, Stevo explaining that Jackie Gleason was a great actor. He talked about Sammy Davis Junior’s talent at a time when all I could see was the tap dancing friend of Richard Nixon. Thundering south at night on Interstate 5 or Highway 99 Stevo held forth on song after song on some 50,000 watt rock and roll radio show.

We are all dummies. We’re not all as smart as Stevo.

“You know, he’s not really a bluesman.” He was describing a show he’d seen in San Francisco. “I mean, there are the real blues guys—Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Bobby Bland-- and he’s not one of them. But he comes from that tradition. I bet that’s how he started—playing blues and standards in little clubs. And at this show he played nothing but the blues, and it worked. I mean, he’s not really a bluesman, but he knows that music.”

I was probably 14 years old. I didn’t really know what a “bluesman” was, but I was listening, storing away this information from a good authority.

(Stevo's insight was confirmed by Chuck Berry himself, who told the Brittish newspaper The Independent: "My music, it is very simple stuff. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn't blue enough. I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic." For the full interview, see below.)


And then I hear the announcement. Chuck Berry, tonight, at the Memorial Auditorium.

The Sacramento Memorial Auditorium reeks of old rock and roll shows. It was built in 1927 of brick and ceramic tile. The stage is wrapped in gold. It’s essentially a barn, used for all the big events of small town life—boxing, wrestling, opera, graduations-- but has seen dozens of rock and roll legends. My sisters and brothers saw James Brown there in the middle 1960s. Also the Rolling Stones on their first tour through Sacramento. Chuck Berry played there throughout his heyday in the 50s, and came back several times in the 70s, either alone, or with the Rock and Roll Revival. I saw my first Rock and Roll concert there—Sonny and Cher, with backup bands that included The New Breed and a group of kids in wig hats called The Golliwogs. They later became Credence Clearwater Revival.  In later years I saw a very young Elton John, a very quiet Van Morrisson, a very hairy (wiggy!) Billy Preston, Tower of Power, Freddie King, Albert King, Bo Diddley and lots of other folks at the Memorial Auditorium.

And I saw Chuck Berry there, for the first time live, sad and lonely looking, singing the blues to a crowd of three or four hundred people. I don’t remember many of the songs he played. I didn’t know them then. I don’t really remember the details.

But what I do remember is being mesmerized by the sight and sound of this lone and lonesome looking gunslinger of a man, “Better than Elvis,” singing blues and joyful rock and roll and blistering us with his red Gibson guitar before taking off for some more rewarding show in another town.

The next day, I bought one of his records. And everything changed.

# # #

Flash forward 30 years. In the interim I have seen Chuck Berry 6 times. I’ve purchased just about all of his records and compilations. I’ve searched out all the interviews. I’ve read his autobiography. I’ve let him go now and then, only to return.

I’m a single dad and lawyer, raising kids and trying cases, too pooped to pop, to old to stroll, a life of much too much monkey business.

It’s May of 2001. I open the newspaper and see in a small advertisement or article that Chuck Berry will fill in for an ailing Jerry Lee Lewis at the EMP in Seattle. It’s a last minute change. He’s playing that night!

(It just so happens that The New Yorker is talking to Berry when he gets the call asking him to play this show.  I like this story-- largely because it talks about the NEW record he's been threatening to put out for, oh, about 20 years! )

The spark is reignited. I get tickets for myself and my two little girls. This will be the second of three “last time I see Chuck Berry” concerts that I’ve attended so far. He just keeps going.

The EMP is a rock and roll museum built by Mercer Island billionaire Paul Allen. The building itself was designed by Frank Gehry. It’s not his best work, but perhaps only because of its location in the colorful civic jumble of Seattle Center. The building is all curves and colors, inspired by the painted bodies of solid body electric guitars. It would have looked good set in the middle of Seattle staid downtown but it’s lost in the chaos of the Center. And there is something fundamentally wrong about putting rock and roll (or any form of music) into a museum. It belongs in garages, clubs and guilded civic centers.

But this day I learn that the EMP has a “club”— a great little music hall called the Sky Church where real music can come alive.

We get there early and see a black town car leaving the EMP’s underground garage. The driver’s got a captain’s hat, and he’s leaning forward trying to figure out which way to go. “That’s Chuck Berry!” I tell my kids. The girls shriek (they’re properly indoctrinated) and we lurch towards the car, but no chance-- Chuck is determined to get somewhere. Anyway, what the heck would I say?

He’s with another man who through darkened glass looks to me to be almost as old as Chuck himself ( who is close to 75 that day). I wonder who it could be. Some old friend helping him do what he used to do alone—pack a toothbrush and a guitar and head out to one of the hundreds of one-nighters he’s done over the past half century. The car scoots away. We watch. I’m half way thinking how I can follow it. I’m guessing that Somewhere in Seattle, some restaurant is about to be visited by great Chuck Berry. I try to imagine being in that place when the two walk in.

There is a scene in the movie “Chuck Berry- Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” where Chuck Berry walks through an airport in his red sports coat and bolo tie, carrying his guitar, talking about how each one lasts six months (“Deductible, you know? Tools!”). Heads turn. There are little waves and moments of recognition. Once on board the plane the flight attendants ask for and receive a tight lipped kiss. (The guy next to him just seems to wonder what the fuss is about.)

It’s fascinating to me: a landmark of history and culture who walks among us, doing ordinary (and sometimes pretty extraordinary) things.

Guitarist Joe Perry described meeting him in an airport. “I was walking through the airport, and someone said, ‘It's Chuck Berry over there.’ Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.”

I’ve seen him after a show in a Cadillac convertible, towel around his neck, young blond at his side, waving a quick goodbye and then taking off through the crowd. “Hey Chuck!” He must hear it all day, every day.

But we can’t follow the Town Car today. We have tickets. The show starts in an hour. We want good spots. We get inside and set anchor near the stage. My younger daughter is only tall enough to see people’s butts, so she spends most of her time on my shoulders or in my arms. It’s a small room, wider than it is deep. Everyone within sight is a fanatic. They’re talking about shows they’ve seen and are reciting various bits of urban legend. “He’s paid in cash before the show.” “Different band every night.” I can’t even respond to this because I figure I am the biggest fan there. That’s just the way it is. I know more than all of them put together. (You can tell me about a lot of things, but you probably can’t tell me much about Chuck Berry, or General Motors Trucks, model years 1973-1986. Those subjects are mine.)

When it’s finally time for the show Chuck comes out in a captain’s cap, a glittering shirt and a grumpy mood. Call it foul. The first thing he does when he gets on stage is pull all the plugs from his amp and guitar. A cool 22 year old is sent out to get the wires right while Chuck taps a very large foot. This, we agree in my section of the audience, is pressure. The kid does it though, and the fanatics all mumble knowingly about the contract. The second thing Chuck does is kick a dumbstruck guitarist from stage before the band plays a single note. “It’s in the contract,” he says. “Drums, bass and piano. That’s it.” I feel terrible for the guitarist. He didn’t write the contract—he’s just a victim of it. The band is actually a good fit—a bunch of old rockers and artists who’ve played together for decades, but Chuck’s evidently in no mood. He reduces the bass player to three notes and a set rhythm: “ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump” and it stays that way for the rest of the night; he plays a good chunk of the show without accompaniment—silly songs like South of the Border and My Ding a Ling; and when he gets to Wee Wee Hours, the grown up flip side to “Maybellene,” he instructs the pianist on just how to play it, sliding the chords up from E to G, and then from A to C.

This isn’t the Chuck Berry I remember but that’s okay—it’s an interesting Chuck Berry. And he’s playing his first song—the one he originally brought to Chess Records, the one that came in second to Maybelenne. I’m doing my best to absorb the moment and the music lesson.

In the wee wee hours
That’s when I think of you.
In the wee wee hours
That’s when I think of you.
You say, but yet I wonder,
If your love was ever true.

In 7 prior concerts I’d never seen Chuck Berry play it. A suitably sad and nostalgic song for a night that felt a little different. I mouth the words as he sings.

In a wee little room
I sit alone and think of you
In a wee little room
I sit alone and think of you
And wonder if you still remember
All the things we used to do.

At some point during the song Chuck Berry looks down at me with tired eyes, sees I’m mouthing the words, watches me, then says: “You’re remembering somebody, aren’t you?”

Actually, no. Mainly I’m trying to absorb the music lesson and the moment. But I’m pleased he’s singled me out—that he’s noticed me in a crowd.

We’ve met before. I shook his hand while he sat near the stage at Lake Tahoe, smoking a cigarette and talking with someone. I was about 15. I blurted: “You’re my idol!”

A few years later I passed him a note suggesting that he play one of his newer songs. He laughed and shook his head.

And a dozen years before the EMP show I’d seen him at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. This time he didn’t notice me, but he did notice the mother of the two little girls I took to the EMP show. We were in the front row. It was my first “last time I see Chuck Berry” concert. My ex wife is African, and was a rare black face in a sea of lighter ones. Chuck noticed her in the front row, lit up, and did a little back and fourth dance for her during another blues number.

It’s a conversation of non-sequiturs that takes place one line every decade or so.

When Chuck plays “My Ding-a-Ling” I’ve got my seven year old on my shoulders, a few feet from his knees. She listens a while, then blurts: “He’s singing about his penis!” Even this doesn’t get a smile out of him on this crabby evening.

He’s grumpy. I never saw it during a show until this particular day, 40 or 50 years into his professional music career—but I heard the stories. Cash in a bag before going on stage. Playing out of tune. Carl Perkins, who toured England with Berry in 1964 said that Chuck turned cold after his early 19602 prison sentence on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act. (The judge was a racist fool who slept during the trial. Berry writes about it in his autobiography.) Chuck kicked one sympathetic writer out of Berry Park in the late 1960s. He argued with Keith Richards during the filming of “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” (Chuck was right, though.)

I remember talking with my brother-in-law, a smart man knowledgeable about music, who said: “He doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t care anymore. Don’t get me wrong-- he was great. But he should quit. He doesn’t even tune his guitar!”

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard and read a lot. Keith Richards says it in Chuck Berry- Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. As for the guitar—there’s a funny story posted somewhere about the musicians in his current band distracting him before a show while another sneaks off to snatch and tune the untouchable Gibson.

And maybe they’re all right—maybe he doesn’t care.

But he keeps doing it— playing for people, playing songs they need to hear, working them into at least a small frenzy before he lets go and heads back to the car.

At the EMP he doesn’t seem to care much about anything except the contract-- until, like magic, he perks up, the songs take life and flight, and the notes start flowing. He’s like a surfer who has suddenly caught the big wave. The guitar strings snap, the old licks come alive, he’s grinning, he’s crackling, he laughs and makes faces. The crowd goes crazy, jumping and screaming for this 74 year old in a captain’s hat, inventor of rock guitar and rock poetry, grumpy genius, occasional felon, and father of us all. It don’t take or last but a few minutes, but it’s good while it lasts.

And then, before we know it it’s Johnny B. Goode, the guitar notes as full throated and loud as the horn on an old Ford as he backs off stage, bowing, still playing, driving us wild with an energy and sound that hasn’t faded at all in 40 years, doing it better at 74 than the younger folk on stage, and ready to disappear into the night with his old man companion, his towel, and the black Town Car.

The truth is so obvious. He cares a lot.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rellin' and Rockin' and Rollin' Since the Dawn of Time

Thanks to Doug and Dominic for these.  And to Chuckfan1, who evidently played the bass you hear pounding through the songs.  What I love is that these give us more live performances captured with multiple cameras to join the Toronto and London shows,  Let the Good Times Roll, Hail Hail, a couple of good television performances, and even some recent shows from B. B. King's.  Someday someone will gather them and put together something wonderful.  Anyway, if you're watching this for the first time hang in there for the closing number, "House Lights," where he does his usual show stopping ending, practically playing the guitar as he puts it in the case, and having a harder time getting off stage than James Brown and his cape.  I'd say it's the definitive live production of that particular number, at least as captured on tape or film. 

Gonna Give You Thirty Years To Come On Home

1980 in Vancouver...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Better 60th Birthday Concert?

Here's Chuck Berry on October 18, 1986, playing with Dave Edmunds, drummer Terry Williams, Who bassist John Entwhistle and Rolling Stone (end everybody else's) keyboardist Chuck Leavell, (who also appeared in the Hail! Hail! concerts; remember Johnnie Johnson's appreciateive smiles during rehearsals.)  The Hail! Hail! shows were filmed just a day or two earlier in St. Louis and the performances were marred a bit by the necessities of film making and the general exhaustion of cast and crew.  Liberated from his musical director, but defiinitely warmed up and ready to go, it sounds like they got it right in this one.  WISH I'd been there. 

What I'll say about the St. Louis concerts is this: someone opened up the closet door and pulled out songs that don't get played a lot.  But it probably would have worked better if there'd been less fuss and muss and rehearsal.  Richards was used to spending a few weeks in a warehouse getting ready to tour.  Berry had spent a lifetime simply touring.  But one way or another, it became a fascinating movie-- one of the best rock and roll movies, up there with "Don't Look Back."  Why?  Because it told us something about the man himself.  The scenes at the Cosmopolitan and the Fox; or during lulls in rehearsal when he began strumming ballads-- those are what made the show.  And I liked Jerry Lee Lewis, too!

Thanks Doug-- when you get done sopping up all the Chuck Berry on youtube, there's a big job for you in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Still!) Wating for a NEW Chuck Berry CD

I keep seeing and hearing references to the "new" material-- "new" meaning anything recorded at a studio from 1979 until now.  I hope he puts some of it out soon, and all of it out eventually.  (It would be the perfect final set from Hip-O Select.)

Here are quotes from two old clippings in my file, both from 8 plus years ago, when Chuck Berry was turning 75, both telling the complicated, contradictory truth.

“…I’m not an oldies act,” Chuck Berry told Rolling Stone’s Mark Jacobson (RS 883/884 Dec. 6-13, 2001). “The music I play, it is a ritual. Something that matters to people in a special way. I wouldn’t want to interfere with that.”

I say interfere. The "ritual" aspect is true.  But I'd like to hear some of the songs he doesn't play. "Tulane." "Have Mercy Judge." "Oh Louisiana."  I'd like to hear some of the ballads he knows, whether he wrote them or not.

(Even some of the old classics rarely get played. I don't think I've ever heard "Too Much Monkey Business" or "Promised Land" at a concert. I know I've never heard "Havana Moon," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Dear Dad," or so many others.)

But we were talking about records-- or more specifically, a new one.

The New Yorker, (January 21, 2002), gave a description of a new song, still unreleased, called “Darlin’”:

“It’s a country tinged ballad to his daughter Ingrid that begins,

Darlin’, your father’s growing older, I fear;
strains of gray are showing bolder each year.
Lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear:
Time is fading fast away.’

He goes on to sing of death and tells how tired he’s grown of playing his ancient hits and doing his trademark duckwalk for the pleasure of baby boomers. In record stores, his CDs are always in the “Vintage” section. “It’s an insult,” Berry said. “But this new album should help me bust out of that ghetto.”

Bust out, Mr. Berry!

Both are great articles about a great man, full of wonderful details. Berry tells Brinkley about the horror of French food. When Jacobson visits a St. Louis recording studio to hear some new work, the dog-eared original copy of the lyrics to “Havana Moon” falls from a cardboard box. Both articles give bits and pieces of new songs and poetry most of us have yet to hear.

Berry tells Jacobson: “For many years I’ve been reluctant to make new songs. There has been a great laziness in my soul. Lots of days I could write songs, but I could also take my $400 and play the slot machines at the riverfront casino. In a way, I feel it might be-ill mannered to try and top myself.”

Ah, Mr. Berry! Please, be rude as you like!  Top yourself!

As a young man he pushed Beethoven aside.  As an elderly man he doesn't need sharp shoulders.  We'll circle around to listen for sure.

Friday, June 4, 2010

In the Midst of War, Gushing Oil, and Chaos-- a Bud of Hope!

I was a kid in the 1970s and I'm afraid that my image of Lou Rawls was shaped by the beer ads that he did for Budweiser somewhere back there. I couldn’t stand those ads—and I hated them all the more because I knew there was something to like in the star.

But a week or so ago Bob Lohr clued me in on a record. It was a blues piano tutorial—too short.  He started with Johnny Johnson. He morphed into Otis Spann. He channeled Professor Longhair for just a moment, and Lafayette Leake touched the keys for a second or two. But then he revealed his favorite.

“Les McCann, on that first Lou Rawls blues album, the one with “Stormy Monday.”

It was one of those musical lessons you file away, without question.

(I remember watching Chuck Berry try to teach a piano player how to play “Wee Wee Hours” the Johnny Johnson way. Berry slid from an E to F to Gb to G. He gave up on the piano player eventually and turned to me, standing at the foot of the stage, thinking to myself: “Eureka! That’s it!” And he spoke to me. “You’re remembering someone, aren’t you?” I was just trying to make sure I remembered how to play that the next day.)

If someone else had mentioned Lou Rawls I would have stupidly thought: “Beer ads. Leisure suits. Boring.”

But when someone is channeling Lafayette Leake and Les McCann before your very ears you listen and learn. I’d heard McCann's name, but not necesarilly the music. And I knew that my brother Stevo, an original genius of musical genius recognition, had told me certain things. One was that Nat Cole, recognized as a singer, was one of the greatest jazz pianists. Another was that Lou Rawls was the real thing.

So the day after the piano séance, I went to my favorite record store and found Lou Rawls’ first album, “Stormy Monday.”


As the man says, “It goes to show you never can tell.”

Especially when you’re 17.

I mean—hell—some of us are pretty smart at 17. I found Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker and Elmore James. Bob Lohr found blues and boogie piano. My daughter G. is not even 17 and she’s writing poetry.

But I never looked or listened beyond those beer ads until a few days ago— 37 years after 17.

Lou Rawls was a hell of a singer. And Les McCann played right on the jagged edge between jazz and blues, (if indeed there’s any difference at all).

That was Rawls' trick, too, if I can define his "trick" now after listening to one album (37 years hasn’t made me a whole lot smarter)-- he is right there at the edges, mixing blues, jazz and gospel.

In fact, the best of what we have always tends to be where the purities mix and meld and make something new. Chuck Berry mixes country and blues and bits of big band jazz. Otis Redding tears your heart out doing a "Tennessee Waltz" with a mixed race, Memphis, Tennessee soul band. Jazz men like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins do pure blues. Al Green sings Willie Nelson. Cassandra Wilson does The Monkees AND Robert Johnson. Sharon Jones sings Woody Guthrie.

And Lou Rawls—I’m glad now he got his beer money, because damn! He deserved it.

Another gift. Not smarter than I was at 15 or 17, but in the midst of oil spills, war and chaos I continue to learn more about the good parts of the world, and that may be all that matters.

(He is sort of cool, isn't he?  But if you’re as ignorant as I was about Lou Rawls and Les McCann, and if this is allllll you know, you can rectify that by listening to bits and pieces of the "Stormy Monday" album  HERE.  This one's for you, Lou.)

(You're the bes, Les.)

(Tell us more, Lohr.)

Father Like(s!) Son

I have to thank another Italian fan, Manuel, (I know him chiefly as "ForeverChuck68," his nom de plume on the Chuck Berry web site) for the link to this video of Bob Lohr, Chuck, and Charles II in Brazil that manuel posted on  It's worth waiting for the "guitar duel" between father and son.  And hey-- although when I heard him CBII soloed in a different style, he shows here he can play those CBI riffs!  And the spirit of this shows why it's always worth seeing Chuck Berry with his St. Louis band-- which you can do back home in the U.S.A. for just $30, at Blueberry Hill!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Oh My I'm Feelin' So Good Today!

I stole this one from myspace friend and super Chuck Berry fan Ida May of Brazil!  It's at the airport in Porto Alegre.  Obrigado, Ida May!

From left to right, You Know Who, Bob Lohr, James Marsala, and Charles Berry II

Coming Soon, to a Blog Near You!

You KNOW those pants, right?  The only more famous ones might be red, or purple-- but you wouldn't know those for sure.  These ones you KNOW.  These ones you could wear on Beale Street without the home folks even blinking!  Or on stage in Toronto for D.A. Pennebaker and a cast of thousands of young hippie children.

But if you want to know more, you'll have to keep tuning in to Go Head On!

(How's that for marketing?)

Now that I look closely, were they TWO of a kind?  Dang!