Friday, July 30, 2010

Maybellene Revisited





Wop Bop a loo Bob a Wop Bam Boom! Weird and Wonderful Television From Italy

Got a Chance-- Had to Take It! (A Super Fan Connects With Chuck Berry)

The guy in the blue shirt look pretty satisfied with life, doesn't he? 

Well-- ever dream you could meet Chuck Berry?  Maybe have dinner with him?  Or just a chat?

Ever fantasize that you could play guitar with Chuck Berry?   Not on stage-- just for fun?  A little bit of blues?

Carmelo Genovese, an Italian author, journalist and musician has done all those things-- and has pictures to prove it.  He sent some photos to me after reading something on this website-- and I had to learn more about them.  Carmelo also sent an article he wrote describing Chuck Berry's performance at a private party at London's 100 Club.  The best part: a rare, surprise appearance by Mr. Berry at the soundcheck, not unlike the one Daryl Davis described at B. B. King's . 

In this interview he tells about a whole bunch of shows; about meeting Mr. Berry the first time through the driver's window of his rental car; about getting a volunteer position on one of Berry's European tours and about racing across Milan in a Lancia (Berry), a Ford Escort (Genovese), and an SUV (road raged Italian Flattop).  He tells about how he got a last minute bear hug from his hero at the end of a long day; and he tells about taking the chance playing the blues with Chuck Berry backstage.  Dang!  Bravo, Carmelo!

But we started at the very beginning.

What is it about Chuck Berry’s music that got you “hooked?”

When I was a child I was always captivated by the boogie which I heard sometimes on tv. In fact I didn’t know yet it was named “boogie” but I surely recognized that walking bass and I loved it. In 1977, while in France for my summer holidays, I listened to my cousin Talì who played guitar and sang Johnny Halliday and Eddie Mitchell songs. So the first time I consciously listened to Chuck’s music was through the French versions of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Carol” and “Promised Land.” When he saw how fascinated I was with rock and roll - I started to play guitar that summer just because I wanted to learn the intro of Johnny B. Goode - he gave me a 45 (the wonderful Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie”) and a Chuck Berry double album (“La Terre Promise”) which, when I went back to Sanremo, became my greatest treasures. Almost all my friends were into progressive music – they were crazy for Genesis, Yes, ELP, Camel, Caravan - but I couldn’t stand those long long suites. The first record I bought was Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love (but I wasn’t prepared yet for it, so it remained on the shelf for a couple of years…) and Elvis’ Sun Sessions, which gave me the other main part of the rock and roll equation.

How many times have you met the man? Where? How?

In fact I’ve always been lucky: the first time I met Chuck was the first time that I went to see him live. It was the end of August, 1983, at Il Covo di Nord-Est-- a well known nightclub in Santa Margherita Ligure, near Genoa. I went there with my great friend Paolo “Beba” Bellucci and we had the chance to see Chuck when he arrived at the Club: he was parking a long green BMW 730 and we stood firmly at the side of his door with a notepad in hand for the autograph. He looked at us and with a sardonic smile he closed the dark window glass, remaining inside the car for few long seconds. We were thrilled and nervous. When he came out of the car he was kind and signed us an autograph. Later we had the chance to meet him at the bar and he was very kind. I told him I knew all his songs by heart and he asked me with a smile to show him how true this it was: I started to sing “Johnny B. Goode” (man, I must have been so boring…) and after the first verse he shook my hand vigorously with a big smile.

He played a great show (there were Jim Marsala, Ingrid Berry and also Billy Peek on guitar) which was later broadcast on national RAI television. Chuck argued with the promoter because it was not stated on the contract about the tv deal, so he probably asked for more money. That night, attending the show, there was the famous Italian journalist Gianni Minà and the singer songwriter Edoardo Bennato (who played and loved rock and roll ; here's a link) and who, at the time, was one of the best selling artists in Italy. He asked Chuck to sing “Nadine” and, after the show, I heard him telling his friends about it and he was so happy Chuck had sang it.

Then I saw him several more times - Rome (a great show in 1987 with Johnnie Johnson), Pistoia Blues (an unforgettable show with Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and Albert King on the same bill), Juan Les Pins, Salon En Provence – before meeting him again.

You’ve lived the dream! How on earth did you get into Chuck Berry’s dressing room and play guitar with him?!?! Tell us about the experience, and how it came to be.

It was February 1997, Chuck was due to come to Italy for a couple of shows (Milan and Campione d’Italia – which is a small town at the border with Switzerland) and I was lucky and smart enough to find me the chance to help the tour manager. The previous year I had become a pen-friend with Jean Pierre Ravelli (a real long-time friend of Chuck) and when I met Chuck at the Milano-Linate airport I told him about the “Ravelli Connection”: he suddenly treated me as the only one to trust in the promoter’s crew.

I spent two days with him and it was an incredible experience. At first, when the tour manager told him “we are expected to be at the sound check at 4.30 pm” he replied “this is not written in the contract.” After a few minutes he said that the car they provided him (a grey Lancia K) was not the Mercedes he expected to find and that he wanted that specific car “as stated in the contract.” (In Milano it’s difficult to find a Mercedes to rent because they usually only rent them with a driver). When he saw that it obviously was a difficult task, he asked if there was another airport in Milan (the Milano-Malpensa airport was 40 miles from there) and asked to go there to search for the car.

The tour manager was nervous because he still hoped to go for the sound check. Going to Malpensa airport and then back to central Milano to the hotel was really fun. I couldn’t believe it: I was driving with my Ford Escort and Chuck was following me driving the Lancia! During the trip he argued with a guy who was driving a big SUV and flashing his lights because he wanted to pass the Lancia: at one point Chuck gave him the impression to approach to the right leaving him the way on the fast lane but, suddenly, he cut across on the left blocking him from passing. The guy went mad and started hooting and screaming. Chuck accelerated and overtook me with the guy almost pushing him a foot from his bumper.

We were driving at more than 100 mph. I was very worried but, at the same time, so excited: it was like finding myself inside “Maybellene” or “You Can’t Catch Me.”

When we arrived at the hotel I met Jean Pierre Ravelli and his lovely wife who where just arrived from Paris. That night the first show was at the Palalido with the band Cherrie Pye as backup band. They were not “swing” enough (they played a robust 70’s rock-blues) and the show was really bad. After the end, Chuck understood people felt cheated, so he came back on stage for an encore and sat at the piano. He started to play but the sound man had already cut off the power…Chuck stayed at the piano for a long minute waiting but nothing happened so he gave up while people were booing to the organization.

We went back to the hotel and then met the following afternoon to go to Campione d’Italia casino (where he had to play). The previous drummer had been “fired” and there was another one. I brought my old Silvertone gutar and, while Chuck was relaxing in the casino with Jean Pierre I did the soundcheck with the band playing Chuck’s song. Before the show me and my wife Elena had dinner in the dressing room with them. It was incredible: we stayed for about a couple of hours together, talking about many things. Chuck was really kind and asked us where we were from and many other things. I proudly showed him my guitar (a semi-acoustic Silvertone 1446L) I had just bought in Austin the previous year and told him it had a real good sound for rock and roll and that I had a good deal paying it just 450 dollars. He looked at me with a smile and told me “probably at the time they sold them for 99 dollars…”

After the dinner he called the young promoter in the dressing room and for around 10 minutes had a dispute over a few “business details” of their deal. It was very instructive to witness the way he was treating the deal.

When the promoter went away Chuck took his guitar and started to play the chords to “Downbound Train” (Elena while having dinner told him that she loved that song) then he played the whole “Havana Moon” singing it with Jean Pierre. Then he started to play a blues and I told myself “Carmelo this is a chance you won’t have again in your life”, so without asking permission or saying one single word I grabbed my guitar and started to play rhythm letting the music do the talking. I was worried, and he didn’t even look at me, but when I started to play along with him he sang “C.C. Rider” playing some solos. After this one it was time for a fast boogie. I was playing the way he plays that rhythm and all of sudden he theatrically stopped playing, looked at me and with a big smile, and said loudly “Do you want a job!!!”

I was in rock and roll heaven!

He started to play rhythm and told me to play solos, which I surely did at the best of my knowledge. My smile went from one ear to the other… The whole “session” lasted around 15 minutes but all of sudden someone knocked on the door and said “Mr. Berry you should be on stage in 5 minutes”. So there he went with his guitar…

The show was better than the night before and the back up band did the best they could do to keep things going. Around 2 a.m. we were at the hotel, we shook hands and he went into the elevator to go to his room. But there was room for another surprise: when I said "goodbye," another time, waving my hand, he came out of the elevator, said “we say 'goodbye' the Russian way” (before coming to Milan he had just played in Moscow), and gave me a strong hug. I was really deeply touched and told him “Take care Chuck”. He replied “take care…man.” He didn’t recall my name but, at this point, this had really no meaning for me. The next day I wrote 16 pages, full of details and impression, which I carefully keep as a treasure of life.

After this time I met him again in Nice (1998 - La Grand Parade du Jazz), Montecarlo (2002 - at the Sporting), Bellinzona (2003 - Piazza in Blues), Milano (2005 - Teatro Smeraldo) and London (2008 - 100 Club). Every time we had the chance to go and say hello in the dressing room and one time we took a couple of really nice pictures.

In Milano (it was my birthday) I also spent all evening backstage and after the show I had dinner at the hotel with him and the band (CBII, Ingrid, James). What can I say? There are no words to describe how it has been to find myself living this experiences after 20 years in which I had played and listened to his music almost daily. I know I have been a really lucky guy and I will never thank Jean Pierre Ravelli enough for the way he helped me to fulfill this dream.

I see you went to Wentzville and Berry Park—tell us about that trip.

In 1996 I finally went to the USA. A coast to coast trip from L.A. and San Francisco to Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, and then to Philadelphia and New York. Elena and I went to Wentzville but there are no particular anecdotes to tell. We tried to go in, thinking that it was possible to visit, but they told people were not allowed to go in. We just took a picture in front of Berry Park.

How on earth did you get that pair of pants?!?!

In 1997 we went in Paris and Jean Pierre Ravelli invited us for dinner in his home. We had a wonderful time and he showed us a lot of pictures and memorabilia. It was fun to have that picture with the Toronto rock and roll festival pants!

Do you plan to make the trip to Senigallia to see him perform this summer?

I obviously would like it but I don’t know yet if I will be able to go.

Tell us about your book. Is it still in print?

At the end of the 90’s I started to write for some magazines and at one point they asked me to write a book about Chuck. I also have written books about New Orleans and Louisiana music, Elvis Presley, and the birth of rock and roll (LINK). They are out of print but you could still find them in various shops. Writing for Jam Magazine ( I also had the chance to interview Jerry Lee Lewis (phone call while he was in his Nesbit Ranch in Mississippi) and it was a really thrilling experience. Now I write a few articles and I have a lot of fun with my band (The Boogie Ramblers): we play a lot of Chuck Berry songs, you know….

And so they do... And be sure to hang on to the end to hear Carmelo absolutely nail the guitar solo!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Here's a Link to bits of the St. Louis Free Show,0,6587197.story

Did He Get the Five Year Guarantee?

Well Mister I want a yellow convertible
Four door de Ville
With a continental spare
And wire chrome wheels
//  //
I want railroad airhorns
And a Military Spot

“No Money Down”
Chuck Berry's car, circa 1979.  It wasn't Yellow.

Nelly and Chuck

At the All Star Game, thanks to a friend in Iowa...  Tonight, St. Louis?

G' Obama Go! Go! (Today!)

Actually, don't click there.  You can find the live link and maybe score a ticket HERE!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Golden Gloves Chuck Berry to Honor Champ

Chuck Berry tells some pretty funny stories about his amateur boxing career in his Autobiography, and he still packed enough punch 30 years later to give Keith Richards a sore jaw.  Even Jerry Lee Lewis admits to getting whupped by the true king.  And on August 1, Berry and fellow St. Louis star Jackie Joyner-Kersee will show up at city hall to honor St. Louis world champion boxer Devon Alexander.  You can read about it here-- and if you're sweltering in St. Louis in early August, you can go.  (But check out Thursday's free concert first!).  Read about the city hall visit HERE.  Check out the free concert HERE.  Or go straight to the source (and get free tickets) at

A Glimpse Inside

In his autobiography Chuck Berry wrote about his months in a federal prison for tax evasion back in 1979, and mentioned some shows that he did there for the inmates-- one with just him and his guitar, one for visiting children, and another with fellow inmates as a backup band. Not long ago a friend in Sweden pointed out that there were snapshots of concerts at Lompoc on myspace. I contacted the photographer and got permission to post some of his photographs. I think they offer a glimpse into the quieter Chuck Berry-- a man generous enough to entertain and listen to his fellow inmates. He gets lots of crap about being a hard guy to get along with. He also must be one of the most approachable and available rock and roll stars of all time.

These pictures look like they were taken near his release, with the faithful Jimmy Marsala on bass.

Marry, Get a Home, Settle Down, Write a Book!

The best way to learn about Chuck Berry is to listen to his music. Most of what he wants to give us (sell us?) is right there.

But if you want to go beyond the music, to the roots, or the gossip, there are an amazing number of really good books about the man.

Not so when I was a kid. I didn’t even have the internet. I poured through old Billboard and Melody Maker magazines, and read whatever I could find in magazines like Rolling Stone and Ramparts.

As a kid I remember finding one reference to a book called “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Not the scholarly book of the same name by Bruce Pegg—this was a paperback, out of print in the early 1970s. I remember writing to a book dealer specializing in out of print books that I found in the back pages of The New Yorker Magazine. The dealer must have choked on a first edition of Thoreau when he read my wrinkled little request. He never responded.

But then one day it happened…

Chuck Berry published his Autobiography.

This was an event. The book was reviewed everywhere. It got good reviews, too, from places like The New York Times (where it was ultimately chosen as a “notable book” of 1987).

The used book dealer must have rolled in his grave.

If you haven’t read it, you should—sort of a “tell some” (as opposed to a “tell all”) that begins: “This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.”

He wrote much of it while in prison on tax charges, with help from his longtime assistant Francine (a good looking blond, not quite wife if I understand it, who shared a home and got the man to settle down and write it.)

Berry admits the book reflects his state of sexual denial by focusing more than a little on various love interests. But it’s a very good read, too, that also covers family history, youth, various penitentiaries and more than 30 years of music—all as honestly as seems possible, with plenty of word play and flair.

Fifteen years later TWO more books came out— within a matter of weeks. The first I stumbled upon was the rather scholarly “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry,” by Bruce Pegg. Then, a few weeks later: “Chuck Berry: The Biography,” by John Collis. Frankly, it was more than I could handle, and since I was in a “latent” phase of Chuck Berryitis, I picked through both, reading what I found interesting and ignoring the stuff I thought I already knew. Then, years later, after reading a remark from Flattop on, I read them both, pretty much cover to cover.

They make good bookends. Both tell the same story, at pretty much the same time, and both end with trips to see the aging Berry at Blueberry Hill (thumbs up from both authors).

And both authors are obviously fans—though Pegg seems to take a more careful and forgiving approach. Collis is a bit more jaded, and certainly more casual. He's probably the more entertaining writer, where Pegg is the better journalist and historian.

Here’s a review of both, with quotes from the authors, from one of Chuck Berry’s hometown newspapers.

And then there’s “Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy,” by Fred Rothwell, my most recent acquisition, though published a year before the twin biographies.

I’m still at the picking stage, but I love this book.

For one thing, it focuses on the music. I have little interest in Chuck Berry’s steamy stuff, and I’m disappointed by some of the seemier stuff that has haunted his later years; but the music, live and on record—ahhhh!

Rothwell organizes his book by “sessions,” including the real ones at Chess and Mercury, a number of videos and films, and even bootleg recordings of concerts around the world. He identifies as many of the session musicians as possible, gives dates, tells a few stories, offers a few quotes, and describes what he hears. Although he’s clearly a fan, he’s also willing to pan the bad songs—often firmly, but usually in a pretty gentle and funny way. Plus, he writes prose like Chuck Berry, with lines like: “If the prose gets up your nose, maybe you can relax with the facts.”

Dang! He sounds a heck of a lot like his hero.

While all three authors write about the songs, I like Rothwell’s criticism best. He seems to like a lot of the same songs I like, giving nods to later work like “Tulane,” “Have Mercy Judge,” and “Flying Home” (all from “Back Home”), “Oh, Louisiana” (“San Francisco Dues”) and “Woodpecker” (“Bio.”) On the other hand he pans a television performance with Bo Diddley from the early 1970s that I remember with something close to awe-- especially when Bo and Chuck were together, dancing and chugging away on their guitars in a frenzy of Chess Records nirvanah. (Of course, I saw it just once, as a kid, lying on the floor of a crowded room 30 something years ago, and Rothwell saw it as an adult.) (Still, if you know where I can find a copy, TELL ME!)

All three authors, Pegg, Collis and Rothwell, are British. You’d think someone would have taken a shot Back in the U.S.A., but we sit mesmerized by the sizzle of hamburgers.

(You can read more about all of these books on the website of Dietmar Rudolph.) (German!)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The True Story of Dr. Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Mr. Wolf: An Interview with Author/Musician Mark Hoffman

If you read this blog you know that for a month or so I was Howling for Mr. Howlin' Wolf.  For decades I knew him mostly from a couple of compilations that were in my thin selection of music.  One I bought for 66 cents, marked up from 44-- with two each by Wolf, B.B. King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Bland and Elmore James.  (Three cents a song, retail!  How much did those artists get?)  Then, a few years ago, I saw Cadillac records, and loved the portrayal of Howlin' Wolf in that movie; and not long after, I supplemented my meager Wolf collection with a "greatest hits" album from Chess.  A little after that I played "Killin' Floor" a couple of times with members of a semi pro blues band who generously allowed me to add my noise to their music.  (We either killed the song, or didn't, depending on your level of slang.)  I also read the story in John Collis' book about Chuck Berry where Berry arrived at a show without a guitar and grabbed Wolf's.  (That's guts!)  The story ended with Chuck Berry on stage apologizing to Wolf.  (That's Wolf!.) 

And then, one day I walked into the new Elliott Bay Bookstore and found a slightly tattered copy of the book "Moanin' at Midnight" by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. 

I couldn't buy it that day because I'd just been given books about B.B. King and Thelonious Monk, and I was still working on a monster of a book about Willie Mays.  I'm a slow reader.  I didn't want to add to the pile of guilt on my Readin' Floor.

And besides-- the copy I first saw was a little dog-eared.  Other blues fans had spent a bit too much time with it in the store.

But a few weeks later, I couldn't help myself.  I went back.  There were two fresh new copies.  I bought one.

And I loved it.  And I couldn't help noticing that one of the authors, Mark Hoffman, was a ferry ride away on Bainbridge Island.  Too shy to hop a boat, I sent an e-mail-- and here is the generous result.

You started out playing music with Robert Cray! (Or maybe Cray started playing music with you!) Tell us about that. And how soon did you start getting into the blues.

Yes, I knew Bob Cray a bit in high school when I lived in Lakewood, south of Tacoma. He was a friend of a couple of younger guys in the band I was in, and he used to come over on occasion and jam with us. He was a really good singer and guitarist even then, though not the best guitarist I knew at the time. A kid in another band I played in was even better. (He’s since gone on to greatness as a salesman, he said with a sad shrug.) The first few times I heard Bob play, I was impressed mostly by his voice, which is so often a gift from God or Genes, whichever you believe in.

When I and another guy in my band went off to college, the younger guys in the band reformed it with Bob and another guy named Rocky who sang, played harp, and was a charismatic front man—shades of Curtis Salgado. Bob was kind of shy at that point, and he would often turn his back on the audience when he played. He used to bring a friend with him sometimes to our jam sessions: Bobby Murray, who now plays guitar for Etta James, and was even back then quite a guitarist. They used to come over with Richard Cousins, who’s played bass in Bob’s band off and on for 30 years and played with lots of other great musicians. So it was quite a scene for a bunch of high school kids.

One time when I was in my first year of college, we reunited the band to do a jam session at a dorm at the University of Washington. That was the first time I was really knocked out by Bob’s guitar playing. I hadn’t listened to him closely enough before, so it seemed he’d grown in one year from just a competent guitarist to a flashy one. We did Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” and Bob played it note for note and blew everyone away. At that point in his career, he played lot of Hendrix stuff, though he doesn’t play in that over-the-top style at all now.

I started getting into the blues in high school. A couple of the guys in my band were listening to a lot of Magic Sam, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, and they turned me on to that stuff. I can’t say I was knocked out by Chicago blues at first. I preferred to listen to that genre’s undergrowth: Cream, Hendrix, the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles, the Animals, and the rest. But when I was in my early 30s, I started listening to a lot of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and that led me back to Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Skip James, Son House, Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Arthur Blake, Willie McTell, Gary Davis, Memphis Minnie, and all those 1930s artists, who were simply astounding musicians.

This is too big a question, but why not?   What is it about the blues? What is it that gets to you in particular?

For me it’s about the raw emotion in the blues. I have a degree in English Literature, and I’ve read a lot of English poetry from Beowulf on. The greatest blues lyrics are as well-crafted and moving as any lyric poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, or Yeats. And of course those great blues lyrics are all delivered through music, which makes them even more powerful. The best blues songs are like country music: three chords and the truth. Of course, country music is heavily indebted to the blues and vice versa; country music came from European-Americans singing African-influenced music, and blues came from African-Americans singing European-influenced music. That’s the power and delight of American music—those hybrid influences. Before the advent of modern segmented music marketing, they didn’t put country and blues records in different bins or play them at different times on the radio, so you’d hear everything. Every good musician I know listens to everybody anyway.

So what gets to me about the blues is the emotion, delivered through poetic lines that link together with the solid inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Listen to a great blues song and you’re tangled in the big conundrums of life: love and death and everything important in between. Some people call blues “death music,” because it is all about Thanatos and Eros.

I also like the rhythmic aspects of the blues, which come mostly from its African influence. I love the power that a lot of blues songs have to make you want to shake your ass and scream out the lyrics and play air guitar simultaneously. I’m not too old to do that, thank God, and I hope I never am.

Music is rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, and dynamics. European folk music has powerful rhythms, but in European classical music, the rhythm, timbre, and dynamics became much less important than the melody, harmony, and tempo. Blues and country and bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll brought the dance rhythms back and made them important. No wonder Chuck Berry sang, “Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news!”

A lot of blues songs make me laugh because they’re very funny in an earthy or absurd way. I was listening to a blues song today that made me laugh out loud: Wolf’s “Do the Do” from the “London Sessions” album. Sample lyrics:

34 bust, 20 in the waist—everything right in place.

A cool disposition. You’ll love her, too

When you see her do the do. Do the do. Do the do.

For my money, song lyrics don’t get more absurd and funny than that!

Howlin’ Wolf surprised me. When I first heard his records I heard the raw power of it. But when I read and heard more about his life, I was struck by the civility and refinement: his marriage, his professionalism, his insistence on paying benefits to his musicians way back in the 1950s. Can you expand or comment?

Wolf was really different onstage and off. Onstage, he would do anything to win over a crowd, including glowering, clowning, and acting strange. He was mercurial as hell, so you just couldn’t stop watching him because he was always up to something onstage. Music was his life and his art, but it was also a business for him, a way to make a decent living. They call it show business, two words, and Wolf knew there was no show without the business. And despite his reputation—mostly caused by his glowering and wild man act onstage and his wariness and reserve around people he didn’t know—he was a gentlemanly, caring, and sweet man. He was very fatherly towards younger musicians and younger people in general. We heard variations on that from at least 30 of the people we interviewed for the book: “Wolf was like a father to me…He took me under his wing and taught me how to survive in the music business…He used to give me life lessons.”

Wolf was a hard-headed businessman because he had to be. It was the only way to survive in the cesspool that was the music business back in the 1950s and 1960s. Musicians like Wolf were rarely literate and numerate and didn’t have access to entertainment lawyers or accountants or anyone else who would watch out for their interests. So Wolf and practically everyone else got ripped off every time they signed a contract. Wolf was street-smart enough to know that he was getting ripped off, too. In 1974, he’d finally had enough, and he sued ARC Music, the song publishing business run by the Chess brothers and Benny Goodman’s brother. After Wolf died, his wife started getting bigger royalty checks from ARC Music. But he was getting royalties even before then; I saw the ledgers, and he was making thousands of dollars a year from the few songs that he wrote. But ARC Music was making a lot more, and Wolf wanted part of it. Funny thing is, and we didn’t write about this in the book, Wolf copyrighted “Sitting on Top of the World” as his own song, though it was written by Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks. His widow successfully sued Wolf to get the copyright back! I regret that we didn’t put that in the book. I don’t think Wolf quite understood the concept of “original composition.” I don’t think many of the old blues guys did, because they all recycled lyrics all the time.

Wolf had a pretty happy last marriage with Lillie Burnett. He’d been married once before, unhappily, and had had many relationships with other women, including one with another woman named Lillie, but Little #2 was probably his happiest relationship. She was educated and stable, and he was finally making good money and able to buy a house and settle down, so it was the happiest time of his life, I think. After his wild Delta years, he had to settle down! By the late 1950s, he’d survived several knifings and shootings, a near lynching, and a nervous breakdown, so he wanted and needed that marital stability.

One funny story I heard about his marriage: Peter Amft, the photographer who took the cover shot for our book went over to Wolf’s house to meet him for the shoot in 1970, the year that Wolf had his first heart attack. Lillie Burnett met Peter at the door and turned to Wolf and said, “That photographer is here, Wolf. I want you to be nice to him now, OK?” “Yes, Lillie.” “Don’t give him a bad time.” “No, Lillie.” Wolf and Peter went down into Wolf’s lair in the basement, where he practiced and wrote songs. But it was full of nice antique furniture that was covered with doilies and lace. Peter said it looked like Little Red Riding Hood’s house, not the Big Bad Wolf’s! And Lillie kept calling down to Wolf, “Are you being nice to that boy?” “Yes, Lillie!” Peter started shooting and was trying to get Wolf to look angry and mean, but Wolf only gave him angelic looks. Then Wolf lit a cigarette and whispered, “Don’t tell Lillie because I’m not supposed to be smoking.” So Peter waited until Wolf had the cigarette in his mouth and had turned away, from him, and when he turned back around, Peter stuck the camera right in his face and snapped the shot! The Big Bad Wolf just didn’t want the little woman to know that he was smoking! That’s how Peter got the shot that we used on the cover of our book: Wolf glowering and pulling a cigarette out of his mouth.

Did you ever see him perform? And what would you give to travel back to 1950s or 1960s Chicago?

I never saw Wolf perform, alas. I was playing in a blues band here in Seattle in 1975, and Wolf did one of his last shows here, but for some reason, I never heard about it. I’d give anything to be able to go back in time and see him at that show. He was in bad shape by then, but it would’ve been worth it anyway. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve asked him about Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson and those guys, and then asked him what happened to him in the Army that caused him to have a nervous breakdown. And I would’ve asked him about his girlfriend Lillie (not his wife Lillie) whom he lived with during the last days of World War II down in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. He got thrown out of the Army because he had a nervous breakdown. She’d just left her husband two years before for Wolf, despite the fact that she was very religious. And when Wolf left her, she had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized in the state asylum! Her own mother signed the commitment papers. We discovered a lot of amazing stories like that about Wolf and the people in his early life.

This is a Chuck Berry site. Did you know that Wolf and Elmore James were the first two people Chuck saw perform when he went to Chicago to sell Maybellene?

I had no idea. I never did interview Chuck for the book. I tried to, but I couldn’t get his manager to return my calls. I heard that Wolf and Chuck didn’t get along, but I would’ve liked to have heard that from Chuck. I did interview Johnnie Johnson for the book. He was sitting next to me at a club in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure it was him, but I finally introduced myself, and sure enough, it was him. What a nice man, and what an amazing pianist.

Even though they are so different, I couldn’t help being struck by similarities between the two men: professionalism, self-improvement, and an incredible sense of dignity. Can you add to that?

You nailed it. They both were consummate professionals who were into self-improvement and stood up for themselves and wouldn’t take a lot of shit from anyone. They did that in a time when black men were expected to bow their heads and shuck and jive. They both got in trouble with the law over white women, too. Chuck’s bullshit Mann Act violation is well known. Wolf almost got lynched from singing a song to a white woman who invited him onto her porch. I suspect she was attracted to Wolf, but her husband came home and caught Wolf singing to her. The next week, he swore x he saw Wolf prowling around their house, and he called the sheriff. Fortunately, Wolf had an alibi—he was playing music at the time. The sheriff kept Wolf in jail overnight and then let him go.

Wolf also killed a man over a women. She’d gone home with Wolf after a show, but her boyfriend found out about it and beat her up. Wolf found out about it and confronted the guy on the guy’s front porch. The guy pulled a knife on Wolf, but unfortunately for the guy, Wolf was carrying a cotton hoe. He hit the guy over the head with it and took the top of his head clean off, killing him instantly. Wolf hid out from a posse and got away. He wasn’t proud of killing that guy, either. Years later, he wrote “Killing Floor,” which was partly about that incident, and maybe an attempt to exorcise that ghost from his past.

Tell a bit about your research for the book “Moanin’ at Midnight.” You seem to have gone everywhere and met everyone.

I and my co-author, James Segrest, interviewed about 250 people for the book, including more than 100 people who played music with him, plus a lot of people from his early years. I interviewed some of his childhood friends and his first girlfriend, whom I met on my first research trip to Mississippi in 1994. James interviewed a lot of people who knew Wolf in the in Mississippi Delta back in the 1930s and 1940s. He’d spend part of every summer working for his friend’s record store in Drew, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, and he’d go out on weekends and find people who knew Wolf 80 years ago, which was quite a feat, and pretty much impossible to do now because everyone who knew Wolf well then is dead now.

To me, it was all an adventure. It was like following a mystery story from decades ago. And interviewing some of these people from the Mississippi was like interviewing people who lived in the 14th century in a feudal society. The racism was so awful that even when I interviewed them in the 1990s, some of them were afraid to talk about it. Growing up in a poor agricultural society was hard enough, but when you add the racism, which made it almost impossible for them to get ahead, it was brutal. Most people today have no idea how bad it was; I just got a taste of it second-hand. It was one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever researched. I suppose talking to people in North Korea or dissidents in Burma today might be the equivalent.

Did you get to make music with any of the musicians you write about? Tell us about that.

I played guitar a few times with Hubert Sumlin. I spent three days with him one time, and he taught me some licks, like the one to “Smokestack Lightning.” He also played guitar while I did my Wolf impression, which he said was really good—but Hubert is an easy audience!

When I go on youtube I am always amazed at the generosity of Hubert Sumlin. He is everywhere on video teaching people to play those amazing licks. And every lick seems to put a big smile on his face.

Yes, he’s generous that way. He’s a nice guy, and fun to play with. He’s only ungenerous with the truth. We were warned about that by a couple of people when he was started working on the book. Hubert’s a complete gypsy, and like most gypsies, you can’t always trust what he tells you. He sent us on some epic wild goose chases as we tried to verify stories that turned out to be nonsense—what we called “Hubert stories.” For example, he told us that Wolf knew Elvis’s parents really well, and Elvis’s dad, Vernon, took Elvis to see Wolf play when Elvis was a child. It didn’t sound farfetched because Vernon was born in West Point, Mississippi, close to where Wolf was born, and they weren’t far apart in age, and they both worked on farms in Northern Mississippi as young men. I started researching it by contacting people in Tupelo who knew Elvis when he was a kid. I talked to a couple of his childhood friends and neither of them knew anything about it. I talked to a few bluesmen from around the Tupelo area, and they told me that the only bluesman who was old enough to know if it was true had just died. I talked to some other people at the Elvis museum in Tupelo, and they’d never heard the story. I finally wrote to Peter Guralnick, the famous Elvis biographer, and he thought it was nonsense because he’d done incredibly in-depth research but he’d never heard this story—and he was a Howlin’ Wolf expert! (In fact, he was the guy I always was afraid might write the big Howlin’ Wolf biography before we did.) After several weeks of trying to verify this alleged Wolf/Elvis connection, we finally figured it was just another Hubert story. There were others like that!

On the other hand, Hubert told us a couple of stories that we thought were whoppers that turned out to be true. One was that James Cotton was going out with Lillie, Wolf’s last wife, before Wolf met her. That didn’t make sense because Lillie was a lot older than Cotton and supposedly a straight-laced middle-aged widow who didn’t like bluesmen when she met Wolf. So why would she have been going out with a wild man like Cotton who was in his 20s at the time? But we used a reliable third party to verify this story with Cotton, and he verified it! Hubert knew that because Cotton is his oldest living friend.

So that was the problem with Hubert: It was damn near impossible to figure out when he was telling us the truth. As I said, we were warned.

What did you think of the portrayal of Wolf in Cadillac Records?

I thought that Eamonn Walker was spectacular as Wolf. Before I saw that film, I couldn’t imagine anyone playing Wolf onscreen, and now I can’t imagine anyone else but Eamonn Walker playing him. He played Wolf as a kind of menacing guy, but at times he also brought out Wolf’s sweet side, which is not easy to do in the short time he had onscreen. And Walker isn’t a huge guy of 6 feet 4 inches like Wolf was, but you didn’t notice that. Walker played him big. So he did a hell of a job. He used our book for research—there isn’t much else about Wolf available. Jeffrey Wright, who played Muddy, was great, too, and I liked Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Really, everyone in that film was good. The only problem with it was that they tried to put too many characters into a two-hour movie, so they had to fictionalize a lot to have a story line that you could follow, and except for the leads—Muddy and Leonard Chess and Etta James—the whole film had to be done in cinematic shorthand. Eamonn Walker, for example, mostly played the angry, glowering side of Wolf, not the funny side, and Wolf was a very funny guy. I’m sure he would’ve done some clowning if it was in the script, but there was no time for that with all the other characters to follow.

On the other hand, if you knew nothing or very little about Chicago blues, you got a good taste of it from that film and learned what the people who created it were like. The band that did the music for it was outstanding—Steve Jordan and Kim Wilson and all those great players. And as I said, the acting was very good all around. So “Cadillac Records” was well done in those ways. I just wish they’d had a bigger budget and could’ve done a bigger film, and had better promotion. Getting that film made for $10 million was no easy feat, I’m sure. I thought Jeffrey Wright and Eamonn Walker, at least, should’ve been nominated for Academy Awards.

Where can people get your book about Wolf? or any online retailer, and it’s still in some bookstores. You know—the places where you can actually see and hold the book before you buy it.

Any new books coming out?

I’ve got an idea for one, but I have to research it and see if it’s viable. If it is, it’ll take me a couple of years to finish it.

Any prospects of reviving the high school band?

I wish. I often think that if we’d kept that band together, we could’ve been one of the legendary American bands like Los Lobos or the Band or the Dead. We got together again about 20 years ago for a party, and we sounded great! But realistically, we’ll never play again. I don’t even play drums anymore. I’m a guitarist and singer now, and I dabble a bit in mandolin.

You can find more about the book, and about its authors, or to buy it, click here!

Friday, July 23, 2010

All Over St. Louis!

Chuck Berry will be doing a FREE concert in St. Louis on the 29th to support an effort to bring President Obama and the Democrats to that great (hot!) city for their 2012 Convention.   Read about it HERE.  President Obama:  He Deserves a Medal!

What He Helped Invent

School Day

Deep Feeling

Be patient!  It's great-- they listen to the real ting and try to learn it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Best of the Biggest: Howlin' Wolf

When I first became interested in blues I lived in the sticks outside of Sacramento. The only place to buy records within miles of my house was a discount store called “Rasco Tempo, a Division of Gamble-Skogmo, Incorporated.” (You can’t make that up.) I don’t remember much about the place except for two things. Years before we moved from a more central location into the sticks, that’s where we bought a $50 pool table that eventually became rendered useless when an angry teenager (not me) flipped it onto its side and kicked a volcano shape into the particle board surface below the felt. That’s the first thing. The other thing I remember is the record section. It’s where I bought my first Chuck Berry record ( read that story here), and it’s where I bought, for 66 cents, a record from United Superior Records called “Best of the Biggest.” That might sound like a deal, but later I peeled off the price sticker and learned it had been marked up from 44 cents.

Sometimes you buy bargain records that are complete horsepucky. I remember picking up a “Jimi Hendrix” record for a dollar or so from a supermarket rack. The notes were by some French guy who wrote that “Jimi laughed ecstatically when he heard what we had created.” I’m sure he laughed, all right. (If he’d seen my face when I heard it he would have laughed harder.)

But sometimes you get what they say you’re going to get.

“Best of the Biggest” was a musical education in the blues and R & B. It had two songs each by Ray Charles, B. B. King, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bobby Bland. And these weren’t filler. One of B. B. King’s selections was “Rock Me Baby.” John Lee Hooker was represented by “Boogie Chillen.” Bobby Bland had “Drifting from Town to Town.”

Elmore James—well, they kind of sort of cheated by giving us “Dust My Blues” instead of “Dust My Broom.” It must have been an effort to avoid copyright problems-- but it was the same dang song.

And anyway, 12 songs, 66 cents. That’s 3 cents a piece!

So I felt I had a bargain there even after I peeled off the label and found that I had been cheated by 22 cents. (You can figure it in today’s dollar by knowing that in 1971, assuming I could drive, I could have bought a gallon of discount gas for 25 cents. Or, maybe, one McDonald’s cheeseburger.)

Anyway, I still love that album. At the time it was an education. I knew B. B. and Ray Charles, but I didn’t know any of the rest of them—so it represented my very first exposure to Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Bland, and my favorite at the time, Howlin’ Wolf.

As I say, I didn’t know Howlin’ Wolf. I was a kid from the suburbs. The sticks, at that point. But he was there, waiting for me, at Rasco Tempo.

I did know Wolfman Jack—the late night DJ we could hear playing old songs on long trips. You had to be further out in the sticks to hear him broadcast on 50,000 watt clear channel radio stations from far away that felt like visitations from outer space. Wolfman Jack would later become mainstream famous—a television celebrity—but at the time he was a ragged, pinched, nasal voice of mystery on late night radio.

He was Howlin’ Wolf’s voice, simplified, without the music or the soul or the power. He took Howlin' Wolf's voice, or tried to.

He didn't get it, of course. But Wolfman Jack probably played a lot of Howlin' Wolf in his day.

Recently I read  “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. It’s a great book with a great cover shot of Wolf’s face, close up, dragging on a cigarette and about to grab it with his pointer and thumb. Here's a website for the authors:

Flipping through the photographs inside the book I learned, with a bit of melancholy, that one of Howlin’ Wolf’s last performances was a mile or so from where I’m sitting, at Sick’s Stadium, a minor league (and for one year, major league) stadium that I only saw once or twice when first visited Seattle (and which was then razed to build a concrete box that is now a home improvement store). The show happened a couple of years before I moved to Seattle, so I couldn’t have been there-- but it seems so close.

The song I used to love on “Best of the Biggest” was called “Riding in the Moonlight,” a seriously crazy and wonderful blues romp where Howlin’ Wolf asks his baby to “ride with daddy tonight.” ("Oh baby! I'm'o give you an auto-mobile!") I have played it thousands of times over the decades. Wolf sounds almost like he’s growling through an old fashioned megaphone, with drums echoing from a trash can. The guitar is close to shredding the speakers. The harmonica is wailing with a kind of crazy zazoo band feel. It’s a record that introduced me to everything Taj Mahal was trying to do in his great first album. It’s a record that has me riding along with Wolf and his baby, a participant/observer, wind in my hair, shivers up my spine, neon lights flashing in the darkness, a little worried about the girl, but knowing she’s in it voluntarily with a grin on her face.

I played this song for someone a month or so ago, after he told me he liked Howlin’ Wolf. I think it worried him.

What thrills me now, reading the biography, is knowing for the first time that it was the first song he recorded as a demo; with Sam Phillips; that he recorded it again with Phillips just a few weeks later; and that the version on “Best of the Biggest” was recorded for the Bihari brothers a few months after that. He recorded it three times in a year! That’s how good it was.

My copy cost me 3 cents, when Wolf was still alive.

The Bihari brothers paid Wolf $25 for it.

And he played one of his last shows, sick as can be, about a mile from here, after treatment up the hill at the old veterans’ hospital.

The world is a mystery as deep as Wolf himself.

Here's a version of 'Dust My Broom" from a man who used to travel with Robert Johnson AND Elmore James.

I'll Buy One!

Down Bound Train

You know, he ignores too many of his own songs!  Here's a Brittish "skiffle" version.

You Can't catch me

My wife just gave me this terrible movie!  (Another song that gets ignored in live shows.)

Don't Get Me No Consolation

Chuck Berry never gave this one the live attention it deserves-- a good little country song.  So we'll use this guy's version.

I Sit Alone and Think of you...

After a chorus of "Beer Drinking Woman" he gets into "Wee Wee Hours."  This might not be the best version, but het gets serious about it just before the match trick.

This flip side of Maybellene

Personally I like this version, posted by French Super Fan Red Chuck (a guitarist himself).  Hope it works.  My computer's having some trouble with it.

A Very Good Place to Start

It occurred to me just now that it might be fun to put 'em up in order.  And this 1973 version of Maybellene, during the height of Chuck Berry's post London Sessions revival, is just about perfect.  It's got everything.   First, watch Chuck play "stump the band" on national teenage primetime television.  There's no backup at all for at least ten seconds.  The bass player looks to the piano player.  No one plays.  They're trying to guess the key.  Then you hear some tinkling keys and the bass player starts relaxing.  I'm not sure even the drummer starts for the first several bars.

Then you get a great duckwalk, a great (and pretty authentic) solo, and even the extra verse. 

I remember this as the glory days.  My hero (I had discovered him just a few years prior) had made yet another comback.  He was the big thing.  Of course, he still is.

The Promised Land

The Promised Land hits enough southern locales-- Norfolk, Virginia; Raleigh in North Carolina, Rockhill, South Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia just to get started—that it should probably be required reading in high school geography. In his autobiography Berry says he wrote the song in prison. “I remember having extreme difficulty while writing “Promised Land” in trying to secure a road atlas of the United States to verify the routing of the Po’ Boy from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles.”

Maybe the song should be heard in history class, too. When he gets close to Montgomery, Alabama, there’s something like a bus boycott-- struggle and a breakdown, anyway. (Things are always breaking down in Chuck Berry songs-- something that makes them so real.)

Had motor trouble
That turned into a struggle
Half way across Alabam’
And that ‘hound broke down
And left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham

It might mean nothing that Berry was released from prison a month after the white terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a landmark event in the civil rights struggle, or that the song was recorded a few months later— but check the glint in his eye in this clip, which is so true to the record that I’m betting it was recorded soon after the record came out.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Nadine, Maybellene and Tulane: Ain't Man Enough For You!

I tried to name my daughter Tulane.

Didn’t work—although years later she adopted it as her name for at least a few hours.

I thought about Maybellene, but it seemed a little hard core.

What I love about Chuck Berry’s women is how unapologetically freewheeling and independent they all are—always just disappearing over the hill, over the counter or into a downtown cab.

Take Tulane.

Johnny jumped the counter
But he stumbled and fell
Tulane made it over
Johnny fell to the yell
Go head on, Tulane
He can’t catch up to you
Go Tulane!
He ain’t man enough for you!

Tulane seemed like a good role model for my daughter—a girl who can jump the counter and outrun the law. (Not that I wanted her to have any such troubles. My other thought at the time was Jackie, for the Jackie Joyner Kersey I’d just seen jumping hurdles and running faster than I could imagine. But she wound up as Jade, from a book someone had brought to the hospital about a girl in San Francisco.)

When Johnny winds up in prison, he’s singing the blues fondly.

Lord have mercy on my little Tulane
She’s too alive to try to live alone
Tell her to LIVE, and I’ll understand it
And even love her more when I come back home.

Compare that to Chuck’s youthful progeny Mick and John, who wrote “Under My Thumb” and “Run for your Life,” or Joe, who’s marching unstoppably down the street with a gun. It took years for John Lennon to start over.

Nadine and Maybellene were always disappearing in Cadillacs. Did he care? Yes, sure—it made chase them harder. He gunned the motor, prayed for rain, and caught Maybellene at the top of the hill. And it made him shop for a Cadillac of his own—a yellow convertible four door De Ville.

Even Sweet Little Sixteen has a life of her own—manipulating mom and dad, running to and fro for autographs, wearing lipstick and tight dresses (or, in later years, miniskirts, hot pants, or tight jeans), driving the cats wild. Little Queenie, looking like a model on the cover of a magazine, gets him thinking. Carol motivates him to learn to dance.

Even little Marie is out of reach.

Nadine has some of the most vivid poetry.

It was written in prison sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Incarceration can probably give a man a vivid imagination. When Chuck Berry was in prison for tax problems in the late 1970s he wrote his autobiography and admits that “It may be obvious that the book displays certain longings…”.

Nadine is like a vision from the prison window—tall, tantalizing, a wayward summer breeze, but always just out of reach. No Cadillac of his own, he sees her from the city bus.

…when she turned and doubled back
And started walking toward a coffee colored Cadilac
I was pushin’ through the crowd trying to get to where she’s at
I was campaign shoutin’ like a southern diplomat
Nadine! Honey is that you?

Can’t you see her now?

Lord have mercy!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Funeral in Lome, Togo

I once lived in Togo, West Africa and remember going to (and hearing) many all night "funerals."  During one of those funerals, which was taking place next door to my house, I had a dream that Bo Diddley had shown up in town and was playing.  No wonder: Togolese funerals are in part festive affairs, with all night drumming and dancing.  The drums thunder.  The voices chant and cheer.  And in the background of some of those songs, you hear the cowbells playing the familiar Bo Diddley beat.  It's not a sound that sprang from nowhere.  It was passed, through generations, to Bo.

You don't hear that particular beat in these funeral shots from the captial city of Lome, Togo-- but you'll get an idea where rock and roll came from!

Who do you love? (Hey, Bo Diddley!)

(He's a Man! Man enough to have a woman on guitar!)

I saw Chuck and Bo together and separately lots of times-- and twice I saw them together on stage, but only on film and tv. The film was "Let The Good Times Roll"-- a great one from the 1970s that is evidently locked up by copyright problems. Too bad. A clip is below. My favorite part is when the the band stops. You hear Chuck doing one of his famous riffs and Bo throwing in his trademark rhythm skills. Perfect! The two also played togather in a spectacular television performance around the time that Chuck's London Sessions was a big hit.

(I mentioned my brother Stevo in an earlier post. Stevo once spent a few minutes with Bo Diddley. There was a concert at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in the late 60s. Stevo couldn't get in. Maybe he didn't have the money. He did, however, have a bottle of wine, and sat for a while outside a stage door drinking his wine and carrying on for the crowd. Out steps Bo Diddley. He sat with Stevo for a while and talked-- about what we'll never know. But Stevo said he was very cool.

Stevo was a good match for Bo. One of Bo's last new albums showed him with a Harley. An old album showed him with a scooter. Stevo once led a group of Hells Angels through Sacramento on a borrowed mo-ped. Stevo and Bo had similar builds. And both had charisma. Once another brother was walking up to the Memorial Auditorium one night and found a huge crowd chanting "Stevo, Stevo, Stevo." Stevo stood and bowed, but said he was indisposed and couldn't do more. Your guess is as good as mine as to what they were expecting.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Fan (of this fan)

When I talk about Chuck Berry's "influence," I'm not just talking about his influence on Keith Richards, or Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton, or John Lennon.  I'm also talking about his influence on us, his every day fans.  And his not so every day fans, like Peter Kaleta.  Back by popular demand: an old post about an incredible fan.

Peter Kaleta, of Sweden, is a visual historian. He researches. He goes. He records and documents—beautifully.

His backyard is enough. (Must be a helluva backyard!) On his myspace site you’ll find pictures of wildflowers, deer, snow, slugs, hummingbirds-- even a clothespin.  (These two are by his talented 12 year old daughter!)

I first “met” Peter on Peter’s posts on the CB forum are marked by a photograph of Peter standing near the granite gravestone that marks the entrance to Berry Park in Wentzville. I have a soft spot for that marker. I still have an ancient snapshot of the same stone taken the day my Fiat died in Chuck Berry’s driveway—but I was alone that day, with an instamatic, so there’s no me in the picture. But I knew from Peter’s photograph that we shared something—if only the drive from St. Louis to Wentzville and whatever it is that drives a person to do that.

Peter's 38 years old.  He lives in Sweden with his wife and daughter.

For Peter, the Chuck Berry thing began with a television show.

“Everything started back in 1981 when I was 11 years old. We had a Swedish TV program called “Rock Rullen” hosted by the Swedish Kings of Rock’n’Roll Jerry Williams and Svante Grundberg. They showed people how everything started in the 50’s using clips with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and more. We didn’t have a video recorder then but it was favorite program and I saw it every week. After that I started to buy records with different 50’s artists, and I soon realized that Chuck not only sang my favorites, he also wrote them and he was most important artist of them all.”

Most of us would be satisfied with a record collection. Or seeing our hero in a few shows. Not Peter. 22 years after first seeing Chuck Berry on Swedish television he and his family head to the United States. For his wife and 12 year old daughter, one of the goals is to see a “killer whale show” somewhere in Texas. But this puts Peter in proximity to all sorts of the USA's best musical locations—Memphis, with Sun Records and Beale Street; Nashville; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and New Orleans. 

Now, I recently went to Mississippi. I “researched” it by asking three people—my brother, and the owners of the Shack Up Inn-- what I should do. Most of the advice concerned eating (which suited me fine.) For the rest, I stumbled around, seeing what I saw, missing what I didn't see, and loving it anyway.

But Peter knows where to go and what to see. He plans it in advance!  In Memphis he tracks down the Royal Recording Studio where Chuck Berry recorded “Back to Memphis” with the Memphis Horns. He goes to the crossroads in Clarksdale (even I found that!). And in New Orleans he does the most amazing thing of all.

He finds Fats Domino’s new home. He marches past the cars (poses with the Rolls!) and knocks on the door.

And Fats answers!

And poses!

And even sings a song to Peter’s daughter!

“He came out and sang “Hello Josephine” to our daughter and was very friendly to all of us. We took some pictures and drove back to French Quarter where we also met Cosimo Matassa, the former owner of the J & M Studio. Matassa recorded Fats Domino’s first recording in 1949.”

And then, eventually, off to St. Louis, via Route 66.

“We had been to Sea World in Texas and drove from Texas to St Louis on Route 66 with one stop at Days Inn in Oklahoma. When we first came to St. Louis I was in hurry because I wanted to see the concert at Blueberry Hill the same evening we arrived. I had my family with me and my 10 year old Daughter who wanted to see Chuck but it was impossible because of her age. We drove fast to the hotel and I took a taxi by myself to Blueberry Hill. My wife stayed at the hotel with my daughter. It was an evening I never will forget. My dream came true and I felt like Louis Armstrong on the moon!”

(Editor’s note: Peter meant “Neil Armstrong.”   But I didn’t ask for clarification. I liked “Louis,” who fits as well or better.  Louis— one of Chuck Berry’s rare peers in the world of musical genius-- showed his joy better than Neil, and once sang about the Moon in a way that strikes me as very fitting:

Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style some day
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way

Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see!
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ‘round the bend
My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me.

What song could be more appropriate to describe Peter Kaleta, off to see the world and rainbow's end?)

After the show Peter met his hero. “I met him that evening in August 8, 2007 after the show. I had some photographs with me from the recent Swedish tour that I gave him. He smiled and asked “So this is for me?” then I got my first autograph on a picture I got from a guy at Blueberry Hill same evening. I also met Charles before the show and he was very kind to me.”

The next day Peter went around photographing various historic sites—

Chuck Berry's former homes

his old office

his high school ("down the halls and into the street!")

And lots of other places.  His collections of photographs are almost mind bggling.  I've only just begun to explore them.

Kaleta explains how he found stuff.

“When [Chuck Berry's] biography came out in 1987, I bought the Swedish edition and started to read. I was 17 years old then and my dream was to see all the places he mentioned in the book. I did a list of places I wanted to see before our trip. We had a rental car with GPS so it was very easy to find everything and the journey began. I had to wait 22 years to do that but I did! We drove to Berry Park the day after the show to take some pictures. Berry Park and Blueberry Hill were the most interesting places for me to see in St Louis. I also wanted to see the Cosmo Club but the building was gone.”

A lot of those places will be gone some day, and most of us probably won't use the GPS to go find them.   But we've got Peter's photographs.