Tuesday, August 31, 2010

As Marie Antoinette Would Say: Happy Birthday to -- US!

Turning 84 must make a man feel young again.  In October, Chuck Berry will be celebrating his birthday like it's 1959, with performances at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis on October 20, The Pageant on October 16, the The Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland on October 22, and The Argosy Casino on October 23.  Dang!

I can't vouch for this personally, but I'm told Mr. Berry likes the sound system at the Argosy, where he can hear himself think and play, and that his picking gets particulary good there.

Ah-- but I'm booked already.  So I'll have to make do with just two of these shows!  (Poor me.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

You CAN go Back Home Again

I wish “Back Home” would come back.

ATCO reissued “Rockit.” “London Sessions” made it onto CD at some point. But “Back Home” didn’t stay home. It was there when I became a Chuck Berry fanatic in 1971, and then pretty much disappeared into the bargain bins. Only a few cuts, like "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge" have survived on various reissues.

(Since this post first appeared the glorious "Have Mercy" set came out.  It has all the "Back Home" stuff, and a few "Back Home" sessions things I don't have much use for.  Still want a "Back Home" CD!)

But last night, in the Wee Wee Hours, I heard "Back Home" again, or a few dazzling scraps of it anyway-- like a faded memory, without even turning on my record player.

I was fussing around on the net and found the site of Robert “Boogie Bob” Baldori, a man who played with Chuck Berry as much as anyone, and who was rumored (in books, and Wikipedia) to be among the personnel on the record. (The album, though graced with fine liner notes by Michael Lyden, doesn’t identify the players.)
There was an e-mail address, so I dropped him a line just to confirm that he played on “Back Home.”

I got a late night response that Baldori had played both harmonica and electric piano on the record, and that other personnel included Lafayette Leake (grand piano) and Phil Upchurch (who I believe played bass on the record. Still checking that one).

Baldori made his mark. “Back Home” is dominated by harmonica like no other Chuck Berry album except “Chuck Berry in London” (not to be confused with The London Sessions,) a mid-sixties record with some good blues. In fact, the harmonicas are what make both those efforts sound like albums, and not just song collections.

Baldori was a member of the mid-sixties Detroit rock group The Woolies. The Woolies had recently had a hit with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” and had toured with Berry for a couple of years after filling in for a failed backup band during a five night East Lansing club date. The Woolies and Baldori kept backing Chuck Berry for years—and the attached photograph tells a lot about the musical connection Berry and Baldori had.

Who Do You Love? Baldori and Berry

What I was remembering very specifically last night was an instrumental called “Flying Home” with wonderful, energetic piano by Leake and a melody provided largely by Baldori's harp. (I now have to dig out the old disk and listen more intently to the bass).

Chuck Berry had already recorded the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton/Charlie Christian song “Flying Home” during his brief string with Mercury records—notably on “Live at the Fillmore.” Along with another instrumental that he recycled as "Rockin' at the Fillmore" it’s a nice glimpse into Chuck Berry the aspiring big band jazz musician.

“Flying Home” is an example of “rhythm changes”—a jazz chord progression originally used in the song “I Got Rhythm” that Chuck Berry talks about in his autobiography. (He said something to the effect that, having learned the blues progression and the rhythm changes he could cover 80% of the songs he wanted to play.)

On “Back Home” the song loses some of its Goodman/Hampton/Christian decoration and becomes a Chuck Berry/Robert Baldori song. I love it.

It is a song of pure ecstatic energy—a perfect incarnation of a day when you can go home again, and the plane’s landing, and your loved ones are there at the gate, and there’s gonna be a long party after which everything will be good from now through eternity. It’s music for passing through pearly gates, or at least airport gates, with beautifully refined and energetic guitar work by Chuck Berry alternating with cascading, exhilarating piano notes by Leake. Baldori tops it all with a new and memorable melody line.

By the way, there’s something about Chuck Berry and piano playing lawyers! Robert Baldori is an attorney. Berry’s St. Louis keyboardist, Robert Lohr, (who does a fine job filling the large, tapping shoes of Johnny Johnson,) is a lawyer, too.
As a member of the bar, this gives me hope--but then I plug in and remember…

Anyway, Robert Baldori’s bright red website can be found at http://www.boog.com/. And for a bit of history, some new music, and perhaps a personally packaged memento from the legendary Phil Upchurch try http://www.philupchurch.com/ .

Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Thinking about matters of Race and Chuck Berry I went to youtube looking for a good version of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," a song Berry recorded in his third session at Chess in 1956 along with "Too Much Monkey Business," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Havana Moon."  (Pretty good day's work!) I was hoping to find video of Taj Mahal's lilting caribbean rendition ( http://mog.com/music/Taj_Mahal/World_Music/Brown_Eyed_Handsome_Man) but ended up with Waylon Jenning's racially redacted rendition instead.

The song was written during the civil rights movement, just months after Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat, and during the height of the bus boycott that followed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was making himself a national reputation. So were Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. So was Chuck Berry.

The lyrics are extraordinary, and can be found on Berry's own website, where they are top of a small heap of songs listed there (they ought to add more).


Author Bruce Pegg spends several paragraphs disecting "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" in his book of the same name, and describes it as the first black pride song in rock and roll.

Most of the song's protaganists are women, one "running cross the sand en route to Bombay," another losing "both her arms in a wrestling match" to get one of the men. The "judge's wife" is another.

Only two brown eyed men are actually described-- one who's in court, "arrested on charges of unemployment," and another who's "rounding third and heading for home" after popping a game winning home run-- (a stanza that smacks of pure Willie Mays in my imagination, Others see Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron). It's sort of the yin and the yang of the black experience in 1956, as filtered through Chuck Berry's amazing imagination.

But back to youtube, where I found this Waylon Jennings version. Jennings bats his (brown?) eyes coquettishly and sings about the women but leaves out the brown eyed handsome men and omits the real meaning of the song. No one's arrested for being denied employment in Jenning's version, and there's no Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson, either.

I like Waylon Jennings-- but times do funny things to people.

When he did this one on television, Jennings evidently wasn't "outlaw" enough to sing the song that Browned Eyed Chuck Berry was brave enough to write.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

C'est La Vie Chantent les Jeunes Gens!

Johan, Doug-- Merci!

Bob Lohr says he's gonna be a player.  Wait!  He already is!  More about it HERE.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I just finished watching the movie "Chasing Sound: The Les Paul Story."  I highly recommend it-- a great story, with great music, about a guy who kept performing weekly till he was 90.  (http://www.lespaulfilm.com/)

For me, it's been a good couple of months for elderly inspiration.  First Sonny Rollins, about 81.  Then Pinetop Perkins, age 97!  Then, a day ago, my wife buys tickets for the young'un, Bob Dylan, at the upcoming Bumpershoot festival.  (He's probably not even 70-- but he's hanging in there.)  And today-- I got tickets to see Chuck Berry at the Pageant in St. Louis couple of days before he turns 84.

Chuck was in the Les Paul movie tonight-- scooting past in a flash with that black Les paul guitar that evidently disappeared in a fire.  There were also beautiful moments with B. B. King, Chet Atkins, Keith Richards, and, of course, Mary Ford.

Les Paul talked about his last gig-- a well known, well attended, weekly show in New York that paid "peanuts" but made people happy (especially Paul himself). 

Chuck Berry's gigs at Blueberry Hill are a lot like that. He and the band probably don't make a heck of a lot of money-- but everyone leaves happy.

So wish me luck when the ticketmaster lottery comes next September.  That show happens just a few days before the show at the Pageant. 

(As Robert Johnson would say, "I'm booked, I gotta go.")

Thursday, August 26, 2010

June 14, 1969 (The Cover of Rolling Stone)

Chuck Berry's featured in the current Rolling Stone-- but he's not on the cover.  That only happened for real one time.  On May 9, 1969, Chuck Berry stopped at U.C. Berkeley’s Student Union building to give a speech. According to the write up by Greil Marcus he told the crowd:

“The speech—ecch; the questions, ahhh,” and opened the floor for questions.

It is fitting that it was a "people's" interview that wound up in the June 14, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone. (I've got a tattered, yellowed copy that I picked up 30 years ago at a used bookstore). Issue 35 also features a story called “American Revolution 1969: The Battle of People’s Park.”

People’s Park was a scraggly bit of dirt owned by the University of California that helped turn Berkeley into a miniature war zone in the late 1960s. The "people" had claimed the lot as a populist playground and installed a few swings and sand boxes. Then Governor Ronald Reagan (imagine a tall, handsome, suave version of Dick Cheney) fought to defend the realm. Truckloads of National Guard roamed the city. The local sheriffs fired shotguns. There was tear gas. People were killed. I saw parts of this as a kid without any understanding why the sad little “park” could engender such events.

Chuck must have liked being interviewed by the people, because it turns out to be one of the best available from a man who's supposedly stingy with information, covering everything from his first visit to Chess and his early recording sessions to his first duck walk. He talks about the difficulties of performing in the south early in his career. He identifies his early influences—T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Carl Hogan and Nat King Cole (“because I am so moody, and Nat same moody music.”) He describes the record he made with Bo Diddley, “Two Great Guitars,” as “sausage."

There's an interesting but minor inconsistency. In his autobiography Chuck Berry complains that "somebody, somewhere" said that Chuck sat in with Muddy Waters the night the two first met at a blues club in Chicago and says "it has always hurt me when a writer replaces truth with ficticious dramatic statements to increase interest in his story." He says in his Autobiography: "I was a stranger to Muddy and in no way was I about to ask my godfather if I could sit in and play. He didn't know me from Adam on that eve and Satan himself could not have tempted me to contaminate the father's fruit of the blues, as pure as he picked it."

But the devil got into the details in Berkeley, and it turns out that Chuck himself put the fiction into the drama. He told the crowd that he first went to Chess Records "in May of 1955, after a previous night of visiting one of Muddy Waters' dates, which was around the corner, on the south side of Chicago... and I played a song with him, it was a great thrill, him having let me do so, and he said I sould go to Leonard-- whoever Leonard was."

Exactly what happened that night, two score and 14 years ago isn't as important as what happened in the 55 years since. We know that our forefathers met, and that Muddy sent Chuck to Leonard Chess. The rest is cultural history.

But back to the interview. One of my favorite parts is where Chuck talks honestly about the compromises of travelling solo, without a band:

“When I go out, for the last eight years, I have been performing as what is known as a “single”—I go there, and there is a house band or a local band, that performs with me. I never know who it is, or seldom know who it is, and we have usually an hour or half an hour, or no hour, to rehearse. On the last eight years of trips, I have tried to keep my music quite simple, so that I could preach it in two or three minutes. A lot of the songs are alike. A lot of the songs are on the familiar blues track, in order that I can go to a show, at rehearsal, and in a short time, can take the thing and do a performance.”

That forced simplicity is probably the thing that kept us coming back for more Chuck Berry all these years—music at its most fundamental. And I maintain that the lack of a band (and subsequent lack of fixed arrangements) kept the performances alive and real, show after show, for most of 55 years. Every show is the same but different, every performance unique.

But it was also a bit sad to lose songs that didn’t fit the two minute rehearsal mold—songs like “Havana Moon,” “No Money Down,” “Downbound Train,” and others. Credit Keith Richards for reviving some of these lesser played gems in the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And happily, Chuck now has a band-- one ready to adapt to the constant improvisation-- that is helping him end his career in style.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

If You Want To Hear The Music Like The Boys And Girls Play!

Cruise on down and we'll cut a rug
Dig that jive like it should be dug
A real home comin' for all the cats (Baldori!)
Keep a walking till you see that welcome mat
Hang in there-- lose your lead
At the House, the House of Blue Lights!

Or maybe Blueberry Hill. 

For the best set of pictures ever to capture that magical place, check out Doug's RIGHT HERE.

And here's why Keith Robinson is the best drummer I've had the fortune to see back up Chuck Berry.  (I never saw Fred, or Odie, or Ebby!)  You can practically hear it!

It's a Family Affair (Part Two) Key to the Highway

One of my favorite Blues songs by Chuck berry was always "I Got a Booking" from the Chuck Berry in London album from the mid 1960s.

I got a booking
With the airline
Packed up and prone to go
I'm gonna leave here by train darlin'
'Cause railway is much to slow

I'm going back
To my hometown
Where I'm better known
'Cause you haven't done nothing
But ruin a happy home.

What I didn't know when I was a kid was that it was based on Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway."  Here's a great version by a whole mess of Berry's: Chuck, Ingrid and Charles (CBII) Jr.

And here's Broonzy himself doing the song:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ringing Clear as a Bell: School Day at Blueberry Hill

Technology and video skills are improving!  Don't want to seem 'flip," but usually these things are shakey, unfocussed with bad sound.  This little bit of video seems to take you there.  (Sent by Doug, who was there.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Another Country, Another Fan: Jan Richter, from Hamburg, Germany

One of the people who welcomed my little blog, and who encouraged and welcomed my inept (and ultimately failed) attempts to figure out myspace is Jan, from Germany.  I now know that his last name is Richter.  Until now, he's simply been "Jan," someone who always found and posted interesting videos of Chuck Berry, who contributed regulary to www.chuckberry.com/forum, and who sent me and hundreds of his friends weekend greetings on myspace.  Chuck Berry's influence on music and culture is huge; but this blog is also about Chuck Berry's influence on fans all over the world like Doug, Carmelo, Peter and Jan.  (And me!)

Tell us more about yourself: where do you live? What do you do for a living?

I live nearby the Beatles birth place Hamburg in Germany . (Exactly two days ago we had the 50th anniversary of their first arrival in Hamburg ) I'm married and we have two daughters. My work has nothing to do with Rock n Roll. I m biologist, but my current employment takes place in an office for landscape and town planning including the practical preservation of woods and grassland and more.

You've followed Chuck Berry across space and time and at least one continent. Tell us about following some of his tours in Europe .

Backstage: Photo by Peter Kaleta
Oh yes, I tried and travelled a lot when I grew older and in the last 5 years alone I ve been to 22 shows. But I don t have ambitions to count the shows. I just want to see the man ! And I had the chance to meet the band and had the best time of my life backstage and even on stage several times in different countries across Europe . Often Peter Kaleta, Jean Million (Red Chuck) and Johan Hasselberg joined me there. These meetings have been beyond words and comparison and a lifelong memory. Chuck's band members were so upfront and cordial with me – I didn t even think that this would ever happen.

When did you first see him live? Can you describe some of your earliest memories of concerts?

It was in the Musikhalle in Hamburg in the mid seventies. I was a young teenager and I was absolutely excited and enamored. I had never seen such a concert before and after the show I tried to write up every crazy movement he made on stage to remember it. These shows were fantastic, some of them exceptional. I ve seen a concert with Chuck playing for two and a half hours – the complete audience was dancing up on and in front of the stage. This never happened again.

My first listening to a Chuck Berry tune was during an oldie radio show every Sunday. Fortunately we had special radio programs for different musical genre in these days and I became captivated of Rock 'n' Roll Music at the beginning of the 70ies. Berrys music was very special to me from the beginning. I recorded the broadcasts on my first little mono cassette recorder. Later we had the Toronto Festival and the London Wembley show on TV and this was absolutely magic for me. I was glued to the TV screen, because there was no way to record it in these days.

What are your favorite Chuck Berry memories?

Well, I m not a musician and didn't jam with him like our friend Carmelo and sometimes I've wished to be a blonde girl instead of a brown-eyed long-haired man, ha ha. And I didn't have the chance to run into him like a Wentzville tourist-- I'm only a fan like thousand others. So my favourite memories are the moments when Chuck Berry noticed me in the crowd and smiled at me or when I came close while getting one of many autographs over the years. Nothing special for your readers, but very special for me. There have been so many occasions and glimpses – it's difficult to tell and rather a trip down my personal memory lane. Only one anecdote: In my mind's eye I see Chuck and Jimmy arriving in a small Danish town in 2005, Chuck driving himself, dragging their guitars and luggage themselves across the street like decades ago….

Have you ever met him? Spoken to him?

I ve been very close, but never spoke with him. There are so many questions on my mind, but probably my heart would sink into my boots when it comes to talk with him. I would barely utter a word. Schizophrenic in some way, because otherwise I feel like a close old family member towards him. This is naïve of course. I know there are very few people that know the man. It is fascinating and tantalizing at the same time to perceive that his character will be left a secret for me forever.

I have no problem to be called a Berry maniac – there is no day without thinking of him and humming a Rock 'n' Roll melody. And it doesn't impress me if my behaviour strikes someone as teenaged. I m not a fanatic - I don t have the ambitious aim to complete a worldwide collection of records and memorabilia. For me it's all about the music. In the last few years I started collecting more and more digital photos and video clips because of the lack of new recordings. But my approach is totally different to our friend Morten Reff or Dietmar Rudolph and I'm not as accurate as Peter Kaleta. Maybe Johan Hasselberg is my brother in spirit. In summer 2007 we both followed Mr. Berry all across Sweden .

What do you think it is about the man and his music that got you hooked?

This is hard to say, still a mystery to me and that is why it never palls to be engaged in Berry stuff. Apart from his matchless way to strike his guitar it must be his entertaining talent – underestimated in all the biographies by the way. It s the way he interacts with the audience like no other. I love his impishly and waggish way, his spontaneity and even his unpredictability. His art of improvisation is unbelievable. He s always surprising and amazingly funny. His infectious cheerful nature has saved my life several times in the last 35 years. And of course it s his incredible energy and breathtaking power he yields to me unlabored.

I've seen references to your brother on Myspace. Do you have a brother who's a musician? Tell us about that.

Jan's Famous Brother Henjo
Yes, my brother Henjo is very famous in his music style (not my taste of music of course). His Metal band “Gamma Ray” is touring worldwide, selling 100.000s of CD copies and filling concert venues up to 70.000 people ! I m very proud of him.

What about you? Do you play any instruments? What sort of music?

No, I ve missed that in my youth and I m hopping mad about that. I only torture my guitar at home.

Have you made it to St. Louis yet? Do you intend to go?

No, I didn t have the chance yet, but the trip is planned for a long time yet and I hope to make it in 2011.

Did you get to Italy this August to see Chuck and his band?

I tried hard to go, but wasn t able to take any days off.

Anything Else?

I hope that the endlessly repeated old baseless rumors, preconceptions and unproved accusations about the man come to an end soon. These lies hurt me too.

I d like to end with some of our mans lyrics:

Hello, I'm just a fan who had to call you on the phone
Someone you won't remember of the many that you own
I'm just a name within your past you met while all alone
Someone who shared a love with you and stayed behind unknown

Around and Around-- Stillllll Rocking'!

Here's a bit of the newest from Blueberry Hill.  With a jam like this, who needs lyrics?
Thank you Jan for the link (Hope someone taped the blues that preceded it.)  And here's another, this time with Bob Baldori, who played harp on "Back Home," Keyboards on "San Francisco," and who toured with Chuck in the late 60s and 70s taking over the keyboards!

(For the internet wanderer who doesn't know, that's Chuck's son Charles on the other guitar, and his daughter Ingrid doing the harmonica solo on "Around and Around."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On The Cover Of The Rolling Stone!

Actually, no.  On the cover: naked people covered with blood.  (Chuck might approve of one of them, but probably not the concept.)  But inside, starting on page 62, a full page shot of our man, handsome as ever at nearly 84, next to the words "American Visionary."  And inside page after page, through page 69.  At last.  Thank God Almighty, at last.  Haven't even read it yet; but I'm about to sit down.  (My eyes hit a paragraph.  "Every blade of grass, he continues, tells a story."

Wow.  Doug.  I can assure you, I know what Joe Edwards will be holding when he comes to announce the show tomorrow night!

Now I'm gonna read it!

Blueberry Hill

Nowadays the place to see Chuck Berry is at Blueberry Hill, in St. Louis, where he plays one Wednesday a month.   He's doing it again tomorrow, August 18.  (Our resident photographer and video archivist, Mr. Spauer, is evidently on the road as we speak, taking his parents to see his idol.  Doug took the shot you see here at BBH sometime last year.)

I got lucky once, a year and a half ago.

I had been threatening to go to Blueberry Hill for years, telling anyone who loves me enough to forgive my Chuck Berry problem that I needed to see one of these famous shows. And then, finally, my lovely wife (I knew she was good when she gave me an autographed picture of Chuck a few months after I met her) gave me the incentive: a $25 (cheap!) ticket to the January 14, 2009 show. I live in Seattle, so this forced me to do some creative work-- but long and short, I Got a Booking with the Airline, packed up, and prone to go, flew in on Delta (not 903, alas,) and showed up at Blueberry Hill hungry, frozen, excited, and dead tired.

Blueberry Hill is a big place, a block long, (on a great street), jammed with people, beer, hamburgers and memorabilia. Chuck's beautiful blond Gibson (presumably the guitar that played Maybellene, and rocked the Apollo) is in a glass case right by the front door. A "Chuck Berryn" poster from the pre-Maybellene days is on one wall. There are photographs of owner Joe Edwards with everyone from Barack Obama (yeah!) to Bo Diddley (RIP!)

The show is downstairs in a basement room called The Duck Room. There are ducks all over the place. The fanatics all waited in line for at least an hour to get a choice spot near stage, but there really isn’t a bad spot in the Duck Room unless you are too short to see over heads and shoulders. The room is wider than it is deep, with a bar in the back and a low stage up front. A hundred or so folding chairs are set up beneath the stage. Late comers stand. It’s all flat black and unpainted brick—a classic rock and roll dive.

I sat next to two guys a few years older than myself. They both were from the area—or at least were born there. They remembered hanging out at Berry Park in the 1960s.

There was an opening act—a trio of musical prodigies of great talent. But they weren’t Chuck Berry.

Then comes Chuck Berry’s band. His son, Charles II, backs him up on guitar. Charles II has his dad’s good looks, but not his height or his hair. He’s bald, with glasses and, of all things, a Fender guitar.

Also on stage is Chuck’s long time bassist and collaborator, Jimmy Marsala. Marsala has played with Chuck Berry off and on for 30 years or so—but this is the first time I’ve seen him live. The drummer is Keith Robinson. A lawyer/piano genius named Robert Lohr is on keyboards.

And then Chuck Berry—tall as ever, unbent, grinning from the start, captain’s hat, but none of the grump I saw at the EMP.

And here's why: he's with a group of great musicians who love him-- and it shows. He’s HAPPY up there, trading beats with the wonderful Robinson; sidling up to his son and Marsala; laughing with keyboardist Lohr.

It's a great band that knows exactly what to do.

Chuck's fingers don't do quite what they used to do-- but his voice and spirits were strong, and whatever he lacked in picking virtuosity he made up for in guitar wisdom, knocking out the weird rhythm chords that are a much a part of his playing as the double-string leads that he's more famous for.

I’m reasonably certain the guitar he played that night in 2009 is the same one I saw him play in Monterrey, California in 1974 and in Seattle in 1989 and 1998.   It is battered, scratched, duct-taped, missing parts (on purpose)-- and evidently as good as a guitar can get. It'll need to go on display somewhere someday. Maybe the Louvre.

He played (not necessarily in this order!) Memphis, You Never Can Tell, Nadine, Rock Me Baby, a Ray Charles number that begins "I like Enchiladas...", (What a great song!), Sweet Little Sixteen, Around and Around, Bio, School Days, and Reeling and Rocking.

He forgot the lyrics once or twice-- notably during School Days. ("I've forgotten the second verse but I can still PLAY the mother!") He was 82 years old that night! But whenever he forgot Chuck Junior or Bassist Jimmy Marsala would lean in with a reminder and then-- off to the races, with newly modified lyrics rattling out as usual.

When he finished with Reeling and Rocking the usual flock of 21 year old girls (and a few closer to my age) jumped on stage to dance with the band. (He's 82 years old, and the girls are still falling all over him! He said during the show "I'm 82, but I've had it pretty good.")

As usual he left the stage before the song ended. He didn’t back off bowing, he just stepped through the stage door, still playing. The band worked its way through another 12 or 24 bars. And then-- don't ask me how-- Chuck finished it with that trademark string of 4 descending ninth chords that he uses so often at concert to slam a song shut. You didn’t have to see him to know who it was. The tone is unmistakable.

After the show he sat on a folding chair in the doorway on stage and signed stuff for us. I was speechless, as usual. "You're my hero," I said-- not much changed from when I yelled "You're my idol" 39 years ago. But he signed my picture and I also had a chance to give him the drawing that my then four year old had made for him at preschool-- a four year old's picture of Chuck in red, yellow and green with the name spelled backwards as if he was writing in a mirror. Chuck was about to autograph it and then said "Oh, this is for me!"

Lately Chuck Berry has been busy, and has been putting on some fine performances with his St. Louis band not just in St. Louis, but in Brazil and Italy, too.  In the videos I've seen his fingers-- more practiced, perhaps, than when I saw him, have been working just fine.  And as he recently told an Italian interviewer (and here I'm paraphrasing a double translation from memory): "maybe not as well as when I was in my 20s, but I'll tell you, people leave my shows happy."

If you ever get a chance to see him at BBH, do it.

As for me-- I've been threatening to go again for at least another year.  So maybe I'll get lucky again soon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Alan Clark Photographs

I stumbled across Rockabilly artist Alan Clark's photographs while cruising the internet looking for something else.  Here's a nice one of our man taken at a May 29, 1983, show at Magic Mountain in Southern California, and posted here with the kind permission of Mr. Clark.  (A youthful Jimmy Marsala can be seen in the distance.)  If you're in to rockabilly or early rock and roll, you should explore his ARCHIVES, which run very deep indeed.  Here's a link to the HOME PAGE, and another to a site about Clark himself.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

More About Chuck Berry at Lake Tahoe, 1971

Here's a link with some fascinating back and forth between me and the promotor, a talented musician named Jim Burgett.  What's interesting is that while Mr. Burgett admits to having breached the contract (Berry had asked for a particular amp; Burgett thought it was a mistake and gave him a different one), and then says he used security to enforce his part of the same contract-- which Berry himself never breached!  http://www.topix.com/forum/city/south-lake-tahoe-ca/TVUKT35I7V4RCD126/p5

Chuck's "manager" says in "Hail! Hail!" that that's where the "trouble" always starts-- when a promoter thinks he knows better about what Chuck really wants. 

To me it says a lot about what Chuck Berry and others had to put up with, even from well meaning promoters like Mr. Burgett (who points out that he remains a fan today).  (Didn't Berry describe a show enforced by shotgun in his book?) 

In his "peculiar rider" Berry wasn't asking for Dom Perignon and chocolate covered strawberries in the dressing room-- he was asking for the tools he needed to be the Chuck Berry everyone wants to hear and see: a dual showman amplifier.  (In a related article, below, Mr. Burgett says that the amp that was good enough for a then youthful Jerry Garcia and therefore good enough for the man whose songs Jerry Garcia always played!) 

Anyway, a fun time was had by all at the Fun House, or Sancutary, or whatever it was called.  Two sets!  A little eternity of great music.

In other words, Mr. Berry peformed according to the contract-- on an amp that breached it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Concerto in B Goode! (2/3s of the Senegallia show)

I haven't tried to watch this whole thing, but here, from Doug, is the first 2/3s of the show:

This one begins with a beautiful introduction to "Carol."  Listen to that tone!  Then comes "You Never Can Tell."  (Chuck's voice was never so smooth in the 1970s when he was playing and singing it ragged every night.)

"Around and Around" (sounds so sweet.)  Listen to Bob Lohr go to town after the first verse!  Chess Records Lives!  (Followed by some blues!)

He lets it rock with a blazing introduction here (then ends with a jazzy little chord or two).  (This is a helluva Chuck Berry show in the year 2010!)  (Then he pulls it out.)

Grazie a Doug e alla persona simpatica che a fatto questo!

Joint was Rocking

The second time I saw Chuck Berry in person was at The Sanctuary, (or maybe the Fun House,) a tiny rock club in South Lake Tahoe. The place was built out of a former grocery store in the Bijou neighborhood, just across Highway 50 from the lake. Modest would be an understatement-- but that's one of the joys about being a Chuck Berry fan. He has played stadiums, to be sure; but you're much more likely to see him up close and personal in a small or medium sized venue like The Sanctuary. Anyway, the former grocery store is still there. The Sanctuary was a lively place during its short life as a rock hall. Santana was the "house band" for a while before the release of his/its first album. And personal history, too: My brother Stevo's band had opened there for Sly and the Family Stone. Sly’s drummer caught Stevo bonking on his drum set between shows. The drummer wasn’t pleased.

I'm guessing that Chuck Berry played there in 1971, but I could be off by a year or two. (See the article I just posted; it was evidently July 4, 1971).  (Decades later, when the internet was new, I saw a poster for the show for sale on line. I tried to buy it, but alas, never heard back from the seller. That was before pay-pal! I've searched in vain for it since that time.)

By 1971 I was a confirmed Chuck Berry addict, and had probably added the album “Back Home” to my little "collection."

The title “Back Home” referred to Berry’s return to Chess records after a short but moderately profitable stint at Mercury (Berry credited the short change of labels with revitalizing his finances. The contract gave him something like $150,000 for five albums). I always thought the record also marked his return to form.

Most of the Mercury records don’t count with me. The old thumping, blaring urgency of the original Chess records was nowhere to be heard at Mercury. The records sound tinny and cheap. There’s a collection of remakes of the greatest hits that don't cut it at all. There are some reasonably interesting new songs like “Ma Dear Ma Dear” and "Back to Memphis," but they, too, are tarnished a bit by bad sound. There’s the wonderfully titled but, for me, endlessly boring “Concerto in B. Goode.” (Every half decade I try it again, and every time I turn it off.) There’s one interesting live album—“Live at the Fillmore.” It’s heavy on blues, but-- well, wish it sounded better.

When he went back to Chess Berry made a string of good records, including his one late career hit “The Chuck Berry London Sessions,” which included, alas, his only real Ding-a-Ling.

But “Back Home,” recorded in 1970, was always my favorite among the later records. It even looked good, with it's sincere, sepia toned cover shot, the funny ones on the back, and unusually fine liner notes by Michael Lydon (who also wrote an interesting piece about Berry for Ramparts magazine. It is reprinted in his book Rock Folk.)

"Back Home" also included one of Chuck Berry's last best songs, “Tulane,” near namesake to my firstborn child, (and true namesake of this website.) Tulane is the true hero of the song, but the voice in "Tulane" is a "Johnny," but this one is going to be behind bars, not in lights.

Johnny and Tulane opened a novelty shop
Down beneath the counter was the cream of the crop
Everything was kicking and business was good
Till one day low and behold an officer stood
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 with you
Go Tulane
He ain’t man enough for you
Run! Tulane, he’s lagging behind
Go head on, Tulane, Go head on!

(Words and music by Chuck Berry)

And on and on, in a staccato harmony of two Chuck Berry vocals, (incessant!) harmonica, rippling piano and Chuck Berry’s guitar at its finely nuanced best. (The guitar work has a very different tone from Berry's earlier work. In the liner notes Lydon writes about guitar licks with the "the bitingly fine quality of etched steel." The description is right on.) By the time things wind down, it’s time for the blues, with Johnny doing time and singing “Lord, have mercy on my little Tulane. She’s too alive to try to live alone!”

Anyway, I heard about the Lake Tahoe show by accident when someone passed through Lake Tahoe and Sacramento and mentioned in an aside that “Hey, you like Chuck Berry. He’s going to be there this weekend.” That was all it took. I rode up on the Greyhound with a girl from my school and her friend.

This time—unlike the sad Sacramento show where I first saw him-- the joint was rocking and the place was packed. I have no idea who backed up Chuck Berry, but they were up to the job. (There was a slight miscue when the drummer, a thin black man with an afro, a little cap, and goatee stepped onto the stage. Half the crowd cheered, thinking it was Chuck Berry.)

People complain about Chuck Berry doing short shows. Those people weren’t at this one. He played two sets, and the show was so long that I left before it was over.

During the break between sets I spotted Chuck Berry sitting near the side of the stage, smoking a cigaret and chatting with someone. I was a shy kid, but I got brave, pushed forward, held out my hand, and blurted: “You’re my idol!” He nodded and shook my hand, and I left him to his conversation. Ah well!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Second Chuck Berry Show: Lake Tahoe, July 4, 1971! A News Article!

I've always wanted to learn more about my second Chuck Berry concert.  After starting this blog, I found some information about the place I saw it on line, and then contacted the promoter, a musician named Jim Burgett.  Here's a recent story about Burgett in The Tahoe Daily Tribune, and some words about the show, the contract, and Burgett's dealing's with Berry.  All I can tell you is this: Chuck played TWO SETS!  TWO!  Long ones!  Great ones!  Oh, to go back!

And at 15 years old, I got a chance to shake his hand.  Dang!  (He was smoking, and talking to a big guy.  Maybe it was one of those 49ers.)

It was the ultimate Chuck Berry show, with a great band, 1600 kids crammed into an old safeway store, and 700 people and a bunch of police waitiing outside.

I remember walking away with my friends before it was even over.  We banged out a side door and heard the music booming as we headed towards the lake and home. 

What's amazing, reading it now, is how happy the promoter is to describe what sounds like it might have been a crime.  First, the promoter probably breached the contract by providing the wrong equipment.  (Berry's contract usually requires that the promoter provide dual showman amps; there may have been a time he insisted on bassman amps.)  Then he has professional football players "escort" Mr. Berry to the stage to enforce the contract through two sets. 

Imagine if I wanted some work done on my kitechen.  The contractor signs a bid but says that it's my job to provide electric current for his tools.  When he gets here there's no electric current.  The contractor gets grumpy and says "This might be a short day."  So I call in some large buddies to keep the contractor there until the job is finished.  Some people might call that false imprisonment-- a crime and a tort.  Generally speaking, you can't hold someone against their will for your purposes.

Mr. Berry nonetheless stayed and played two sets-- two of the best I've seen him do-- backed by Mr. Burgett's very good band.  It wasn't a short night at all-- it was probably the most Chuck Berry I've seen in one performance, and some of the best. 

What Mr. Burgett should do is thank his stars and gods. 

Ah well.

(By the way: in an e-mail Burgett was far kinder telling the same story in some earlier internet postings.)

Read about it here.  http://www.tahoe.com/article/20100811/EDITORSCHOICE/100819997/1020/WHATTODO

Chuck Berry's Three FenderRhodes Scholars

I just had the luck of seeing Daryl Davis live.  Then loads of video of Robert Lohr in Italy.  And then an e-mail advertising shows by Seeley and Baldori.  (Information about the shows can be found HERE.) 

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to revisit three great interviews.

Bob Lohr: Tickling The Keys Of History

For Christmas my wife bought me a $25 ticket to see Chuck Berry perform at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.  (Read about it HERE). 

That was the first I ever heard of Bob Lohr.  He was behind an electric piano sounding like one of the original artists on Chuck Berry's great 28.  I have had the good fortune of seeing Chuck Berry perform at least ten times since 1970, including some shows in the early 1970s when he was at his instrumental peak.  But I've never seen him have more fun with a band than at Blueberry Hill.  And I've never seen him play live with a better piano player.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get Bob Lohr to answer some questions.  I thought I'd have to edit it into a story-- but we got very lucky here.  Enjoy.

What sort of law do you practice?

Mostly criminal: drug/DWI/traffic defense, Federal, State and local. If you get popped in Missouri, call me...I also defend mental illness patients against involuntary commitment...enjoy that as well....

How do you balance your life in the law and your life as a musician?

I'm a sole practitioner, so I call my own shots. I come and go according to a court schedule I set for myself. As such, I rarely have a problem with conflicts between playing w/ Chuck and the courtroom. A lot of the judges who toil in the same legal vineyard will come out to see me play...same with a number of prosecutors/fellow defense attorneys. For some reason, it all works out. I don't do a lot of trial work, plus I avoid high-stress cases....gets in the way of the dreaded blues/rock piano...

Do you know Bob Baldori? And what’s Chuck’s thing with musical lawyers?

I do know my evil twin Counselor Baldori...excellent piano/harp player and a top-flight attorney...he also does a lot of criminal defense in his home state of Michigan. Bob has played with Chuck for over 40 years...started backing him in the '60's with his legendary Michigan/Detroit band the Woolies. Bob comes in a couple of times a year to the Blueberry Hill gigs in St. Louis...we drag him up and force him to kick a few numbers on the piano...then he switches up and blows harp the rest of the set. Lately, Bob's been kicking some serious worldwide ass with his boogie-woogie piano duo, Seely & Baldori...they have two big grand pianos onstage and they let it roll...killer stuff. They've been playing to massive response all over Europe. As for Chuck's thing with musical lawyers? Pure coincidence, although Bob and I come in handy if any legal altercations arise while on the road...

(Editorial hint from Peter O'Neil:  Mr. Berry-- I am a lawyer.  Unfortunately, my piano repetoire is restricted to the key of C.)

How did you get started in the music business?

...started when the maid taught me to play "After Hours" on piano at the age of nine...got hip to Muddy Waters at 12, and took it from there...started hanging out in East St. Louis at all the gutbucket blues dives at 15...played with a gang of people since then...check out my MySpace page for a semi-complete listing...pretty wild, in that I ended up gigging with a lot of the same cats I grew up listening to on records as a kid...including Chuck...

Who did you grow up listening to?

...the usual suspects: Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold, the three Kings (BB, Albert & Freddie), the entire Chess roster including Chuck, plus Magic Sam, Otis Rush, plus all Motown piano players...Johnny Griffith, Earl Van Dyke/Stax/r&b/blues indie labels, etc. Lots of New Orleans stuff as well...Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint...lots of funk too. Plus all the British blues/rock cats, Clapton, Beck, Page, Greene, Gallagher, Mayall, Savoy Brown etc...plus I love English rock...Free/Paul Rodgers, for example...Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Motorhead, Bowie, T-Rex...you name it...I like it all and have played it all at one time or another...even country...haha...did the piano on a new country project for a cat a while back, plus I just played on a cool Detroit-style proto-punk CD which also features Wayne Kramer of the MC5...!!! I love the MC5/Stooges/Iggy Pop vibe...

Do you remember your first gig with Chuck Berry? What was that like?

I got a call from Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill, back in '96 at my law office...asked whether I'd like to play piano behind Chuck at his 70th birthday show..said Johnnie couldn't make it . This was the first official Chuck BBH monthly show. Of course, I said sure...and I've been there and elsewhere around the world w/ Chuck since...played with him well over 200 times and counting...also played on most of his new CD project...

Did you know Johnnie Johnson?

Yes I did know Johnnie...nice guy who I first met back in '74...invited me over to his house, sat down and played piano with me, etc. Didn't see him again until '88, when I was playing w/former Chess blues singer Barbara Carr who had just signed to Jewel/Paula Records...after the show, Johnnie came up and unexpectedly hugged me...said "Man...you sound just like me!"...nice compliment. To me, Johnnie pretty much laid out the blueprint as to how to play piano behind Chuck...needless to say, Johnnie was a big influence on me, especially cuts like "Wee Wee Hours"...of course, a lot of people don't know that there were other piano players instead of Johnnie on some of the classic Chuck cuts, most notably Lafayette Leake, who played piano on "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock & Roll Music"...also Otis Spann, (see him Here!), who played on "You Can't Catch Me" and "No Money Down"...Paul Williams, who played on "You Never Can Tell"...etc...they should also be in the RR Hall of Fame as sidemen...especially Lafayette Leake, who was essentially one of two Chess staff piano players, the other being of course Otis Spann...btw...that lawsuit was total/complete nonsense (here ) with no basis in fact...Johnnie was a good piano player, but could not write music nor lyrics if you held a gun to his head...I've played with both Johnnie and Chuck, and to a man, nobody I know who has played with either of them ever claimed Johnnie could write music other than play a straight blues progression...which is essentially like handing you a prefab musical template...great guy and sideman, but that's all he was...a great sideman...

Did you/Have you met any of the other Chess greats? Who? When?

Yes...starting back in the '60's...Muddy, Wolf, Koko Taylor, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Spann, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy...check my MySpace page as to who I've actually played with over the years...a gang of people from Chicago and Mississippi...

What’s the best thing about playing with CB?

The music and worldwide crowd response...you're playing with a major musical architect/icon of the 20th Century and somebody who's damn near as famous as the Beatles. The money's always right and on time, plus I rarely have to move any equipment...what I request is almost always there ahead of time. The touring conditions are the absolute best as well...five star hotels, sometimes first-class airfare, all expenses paid. Chuck is also very generous with solos...sometimes he'll let me burn 4-5 in a row...also, Chuck is an extremely funny guy onstage...he'll come over and start talking to me during the show...he'll get me laughing so hard I've almost fallen off the piano stool a couple of times...can't tell you what he said, though...haha...all in all, Chuck is the best cat I've ever played for by a long shot. He's always treated me with a ton of respect...essentially like one of his family, so what can I say?

What’s the toughest thing?

the one hour set length...stopping after the set is over...I'm ready to play another couple of hours...we have way too much fun...

Did you see him perform much in his younger days? Describe

...from the '60's on I'd see Chuck around town or at concerts...Chuck used to have rock festivals out at Berry Park in the late '60's early '70's...major acts, 10,000+ people would be there...he'd always play at some point...Chuck would also show up unannounced and sit in with local bands...

He seems comfortable up there having a regular band—any comments?

I would agree 100%...Keith Robinson, Jim Marsala, Ingrid Berry and I are old-school veterans from way back who know the Berry catalog inside out, and Butch (Chuck Jr.) has been in the band now for 8-9 years...he nails the rhythm guitar parts well and also kicks some nice lead solos when required...Jim has played bass w/ Chuck as his bandleader for over 35 years...I've been w/ Chuck for almost 14 years, and Keith (who used to be Johnnie's drummer) has been with us for 5 years...plus Ingrid has been playing w/ her Dad since she was 5...haha....btw...we actually do "Promised Land" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" from time to time...on the other hand, I've seen Chuck absolutely smoke over the years with a pickup band...that BBC TV program from '72 is a prime example...probably the best Chuck on video anywhere...

What are some of your other musical memories?

...playing/recording with some of the old-school Delta blues cats at the various festivals such as the King Biscuit in Helena, Sunflower Blues fest in Clarksdale, plus a bunch of blues fests nationwide and in Europe..getting called up onstage by Albert Collins back in '72 at the Keystone-Berkeley, CA...have also played some some interesting r&b cats...recently played for a few months in Ernie Isley's band here...started to conflict w/ Chuck, so I had to quit...can only do so much as one human on the planet. I have essentially retired from club work this year...too much smoke, drunk idiots and not enough money...haha...

What was it like for you going down to Mississippi where it all began?

...you have to understand that Memphis/Mississippi is just a short drive from St. Louis, which is essentially the Gateway to the South as well as to the West...as such, it's just another day at the office to me...I grew up in the same musical/cultural environment with the same people...it's cool to go to Clarksdale, but it's no different from the streets of East/Northside St. Louis...maybe slightly hotter in the summer, but not by much...

(Final Editorial Note:  After my utterly humiliating visit to Berry Park in the late 1970s all I can say is that actually Wentzville can be hotter than the red hot tamales at Clarksdale.  Hot enough to kill a Fiat.  Or at least stun it for an hour or two.  Beyond that, all I can say from all Chuck Berry fans is: Thank You Mr. Lohr, and keep on with what you're doing.  This gig of yours is historic.)

An Interview with Bob Baldori

A long time ago I was lucky to post an interview with Bob Lohr, his current piano player.  (If you didn't see it, check it out here.)  I ran this post a month or so later, but I'm repeating it because (a) it's a good one!, and (b) because of the post and comments below about backing Chuck Berry.

Lohr mentioned  fellow attorney/pianist Robert "Boogie Bob" Baldori, whom I've written about several times on this blog.  Baldori played harmonica on the Chuck Berry album, "Back Home," and he and his band The Woolies backed Berry on most of "San Francisco Dues."  The band is even mentioned in the song "Festival."

Baldori calls Chuck Berry "Charles."  I think that might qualify him as family.

Baldori and The Woolies travelled with Berry for years starting in the early 1970s.  In Bruce Pegg's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" Baldori describes the sold out shows Berry was playing night after night "off the radar" of mass media.  He is a witness to history, and a part of it.  He was with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Gary U.S. Bonds the night they learned that Chess Records got sold to GRT Corporation.  You can read about it here.

The Woolies once had a minor hit with Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?"  They played with Bo, and Chuck, and Muddy, and a host of others.  Now Baldori's working with Bob Seeley in Seeley & Baldori, a boogie woogie piano duo.  I posted something one of their videos here.  Or you can go to the website http://www.boogiebob.com/

Anyway, Robert Baldori was nice enough to answer some questions via e-mail.

What was it like for you as a young musician to first play with someone like Chuck Berry?

It was meant to be. I grew up on the streets of Dearborn in the 50s, and Chuck Berry was our hero. By the time I got to college I was playing in a backbeat R & B band that knew everything Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin Wolf ever recorded. We were downtown Detroit on Hastings sneaking into bars to see Jimmy Reed, recording with Devora Brown and Nate Meyer at Fortune Records and in Chicago at Mother Blues and any other blues joint we could get into.

About 1966 we made a little noise as The Woolies, with Who Do You Love, a Bo Diddly tune that became a hit for us, and about that same time Charles came through town (Lansing) for a five night gig at the Dells, a local roadhouse. With Charles, you get him, the guitar and the duckwalk. The promoter is required to furnish everything else. The local promoter had hired a heavy metal band to back Charles, and it didn't quite work out. After the first set, he saw me in the audience and asked me if I could handle it. In the dressing room, Charles looked us over, reviewed some basics and before you knew it we were jamming.

It was a perfect fit, not just because we knew the material, but we also knew how to play it. The chemistry was there from the downbeat. After the week was up Charles asked me about traveling together. We never worked that out formally, but because of Charles, William Morris started booking us on all his gigs. We worked hundreds of them over the next couple of decades, and recorded an album with Charles at my studio in Lansing. Charles also flew me into Chicago after a gig in Detroit to play on the Back Home sessions. I spent a couple of days at the Chess studios with Lafayette Leake, Esmond Edwards, Phil Upchurch, Roy Black and Ralph Bass.

You were quoted once about the big crowds Chuck Berry was drawing in the early 1970s even when his records weren't selling that well. What were those shows like?

We were on the road night after night with Charles playing to sold out houses, and there was hardly a mention of it in the media. Charles didn't have a manager or a marketing department, so the fan base was really a testament to the power of his show and his material. But the power was definitely there, and the shows were electrifying. Charles could stretch out with us because he didn't have to worry about us following anything he did, or losing track of the fundamentals - the groove and the dynamics. It was a completely different show than when he got stuck with local musicians. The range of material was exceptional, and he could always come back to the hits. Occasionally I would work a gig with him where it was just me and a couple of local musicians instead of my band. Those were usually a nightmare, even when the musicians were competent. A lot of the things we take for granted turn out to be too subtle for someone who learned it from the records. Like... the exact timing of a blues shuffle. Or how the parts fit together. Or when not to play.

When you and The Woolies were backing him up did you play piano, or harmonica, or both?

Always played both. Mostly piano. Charles loved the harmonica for the blues numbers, and we made a show of it.

What other instruments do you play?

Bass, and I started out on trumpet.

You had a hit once with a Bo Diddley song-- did you ever get to work with Bo? And what was that like?

Worked with Bo a lot in the 60s and 70s. Some pics at www.boog.com. He was special. Another groove master. We backed Bo, Charles, John Lee Hooker and Gary US Bonds at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago the night Chess was sold. Interesting conversation in the dressing room. (See: http://www.boog.com/Coolpics1/auditori.htm.) 

What other musical heroes have you had a chance to work with?

Helped Hubert Sumlin produce and release his recent album a few years ago with Keith Richard and Eric Clapton playing on it. Hubert is a breathtaking player. Actually one of the primal innovators. His body of work with Wolf sums up the electric guitar and rock. NOBODY played it better. He actually played on some early Chuck Berry tracks. Worked a lot of dates with Hubert. Muddy Waters, Tom Rush, John Hammond, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Corky Siegal, Jim Schwall, Rollo Radford, Sam Lay... off the top of my head. And now Bob Seeley and Martin Schmitt, two of the most unbelievable players you will ever hear.

(Note from Peter:  Check out Mr. Sumlin talking about his own musical education here: http://goheadon.blogspot.com/2009/09/hubert-sumlin-there-at-creation-creator.html)

People often describe Chuck Berry as difficult with promoters and such-- In your experience is that reputation deserved?

I have never found Charles difficult to work with. He's always been 100% professional and easy going with me. I think some of the rep is exaggerated. The whiners make a lot more noise than the satisfied customers.

Here's a story. One night we play a terrific two hour set. Charles gives it everything. We cover blues, ballads, backbeat rock and roll. Extended solos, hysterical crowd. I can barely stand up when its over. I mean, we've been thumping it for two hours without a break. Charles is drenched in the dressing room, having given out 200%. The crowd is out front, screaming for more. The promoter comes back and demands an encore. We look up in disbelief. The promoter won't quit, getting upset, demanding an encore, referring to the cheering fans. (Did I mention we played an hour over the contracted time?) Charles finally says to him: "Look. I love those people. But I'm not going to let them kill me."

Now, you can take a lot of things away from that incident. The man is a genius, a professional, and has a terrific perspective on what is happening. Does it make him easy to work with? Or difficult to work with? Depends on who is telling the story. The promoter can go bad mouth Charles for not doing an encore. Or he can say the guy is amazing for playing an hour over the contract. There wasn't anybody in that audience who would say they didn't get their money's worth. "I love those people. But I'm not going to let them kill me." If show biz had 10 commandments, that would be about 4 or 5.

You recorded two records with Chuck Berry. One is a favorite of mine-- the record that was called "Back Home." Can you tell us a bit about those sessions. My understanding is that Phillip Upchurch and Lafayette Leake were with you on those.

See above. I could write a book, or at least a long article about the sessions. Too deep for this forum. Esmond Edwards made his reputation as a jazz producer, but he didn't understand that we were playing jazz, or at least a form of it. Jazz is rhythm and improvisation over a blues form (see Wynton Marsalis). I once asked Charles what the difference was between what we were doing and jazz. His response was "I wrote about that. In ‘Rock and Roll Music.’"

Who played drums?

Maybe Fred Below? My memory fails. Check with Fred Rothwell. Or Phil Upchurch. Or that Swedish guy.

Was he ready with songs, or was he writing them during the sessions?


As I understand it "San Francisco Dues" was recorded with your band at your studios. Can you tell us about that?

Another book. Charles was completely prepared and focused. And spontaneous. And comfortable. I've never seen anything like his ability to concentrate. I've invited him back to do it again. We're ready. And I've heard the new material. It's classic.

What should we know about Chuck Berry that we might not know by now?

Deep down he's one of the nicest, most humble, gracious guys you will ever meet. And that's the truth.

Bob Lohr says you still show up at Blueberry Hill once in a while. What's it like?

I love doing it. I try to get down to St Louis on his birthday. Its great that Charles can still play regularly with a group he's comfortable with. And he can still do the duckwalk like a teenager. Jimmy Marsala and I are old friends, and the kids are terrific. Bob is a consummate pro with sensational chops. I remember the first time I met him. I was staying at Berry Park with Charles and we pulled up to Blueberry Hill in his Lincoln. I went in the stage door with Charles and stepped into the elevator. There was this guy standing there, holding a keyboard. I looked at him and said, "You must be the other attorney." We got along great after that. I find myself agreeing with just about everything Bob says, which is kind of unusual for two lawyers. Maybe we just haven't spent enough time together.

You're now performing as a duo with Bob Seeley. Can you tell us about that?

I'm the luckiest guy in the world. Just got back from another tour of Russia doing two piano blues, boogie and rock with Bob Seeley, recognized as the world's greatest stride and boogie woogie player. See: www.boogiebob.com. Also Left Hand Like God. We played the Chicago Jazz Festival this year, the Gem Theater in Detroit, The Glenn Gould in Toronto, many dates in Europe. I'm also playing with Martin Schmitt, a German who knows more about American blues, rock and jazz piano than anyone I know except for Seeley. And he can play the book from top to bottom. Rock and roll is really just boogie woogie played by guitars. I'm finishing up a documentary film - BOOGIE STOMP! - that ties this story together with some classic performances.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Daryl Davis (and Annieville Blues, Lauren Sheehan, Mojo Perry, and Jerron Paxton) in Port Townsend (New and Improved)

I sometimes wonder why I do a blog, but the answer comes on a regular basis—most recently at a three and a half hour blues performance in Port Townsend, Washington, something I never would have attended without this blog.

It goes something like this: About a year ago I heard that Chuck Berry would play at B. B. King's for New Years.  I wanted to learn more.  I asked at www.chuckberry.com if Mr. Berry's St. Louis Band would be playing. CBII responded that, no—“the amazing Daryl Davis” would be backing Mr. Berry. So I went on line to learn more about the amazing Mr. Davis and found a few youtube clips of a stupendous piano player playing boogie woogie and blues and teaching American musical history at the same time. I'm not shy with e-mail.  I wrote him, and he wrote back. He even agreed to an “interview” for the blog, and gave me 12 single spaced pages of material. (he’s also an author!) Then, months later, he did a behind-the-scenes review of Chuck Berry’s Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival appearance. All for this puny blog, and from Daryl Davis’s point of view, to put his friend and mentor Chuck Berry in proper perspective.

So recently I learned that Daryl was going to be in Port Townsend, Washington, a 90 minute drive or ferry boat ride from my home in Seattle. I decided to make a weekend of it. (A problem, because it was the weekend of my wife’s family reunion in Eastern Oregon.  But I'm lucky.  She understands these things.)

Davis was in town for the Centrum Blues Workshop and Festival at Fort Worden State Park. Although I didn’t attend, the workshop looks like an incredible opportunity for budding blues musicians—a chance to spend a week working with and learning from more than a dozen master musicians like Davis. When I got to Fort Worden to look around, students and teachers were scattered across the grounds making music in small groups. I saw Jerron Paxton, who I’d see later at the show, rehearsing with the local Port Townsend jug band that would back him for part of his performance. Corey Harris (my brother-in-law’s former college roommate!) walked by a couple of times. People with guitars spilled in and out of classrooms. The workshop itself costs about $500, and so does room and board. It seems like a bargain-- a chance to wallow in the blues, grow musically, and maybe perform publicly at the end.
Port Townsend is a pretty little town on the northern coast of Puget Sound. I realize now that I should go there more than once every 15 years. It’s a Victorian place, with great old buildings downtown and beautiful old houses scattered about the neighborhoods. The sound dominates all. There are cliffs that look like a dirty grey version of Dover. Best: in time-honored swords to plowshares tradition, the old military fort has been turned into a state park and arts center, with regular workshops, performances, museums, a campground and a long, long beach on the calm waters of the sound.

I opted to stay at the hotel where Davis was slated to perform—a big castle-like structure on the outside of town. It’s said to be haunted. The workshop ends with two nights of club performances. Most are downtown, and a single ticket lets you wander from club to club—but I was happy to make reservations at the hotel restaurant, nab a good table, and have dinner while the place filled up with people. I didn’t know the other two acts, but they sounded interesting-- a Seattle woman named Annieville Blues, who plays boogie-woogie and blues piano, and Jerron Paxton, a young man from Los Angeles (by way of 1919 New Orleans) who seems to play just about everything (the night I saw him he played piano, guitar, fiddle and a tiny mandolin-banjo.) I ordered food and drinks and settled in for a good time.

Annieville Blues is based in Seattle and is someone I should have known. I do now. (You can check out her website HERE. I’ll use the calendar to go see her at one of the local shows.)   (Editor's happy note. I made it to hear Annieville in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.  You can read about it HERE).  Here she is with Johnnie Johnson:

Although she came with a great bass player (Patty May?) some of my favorite moments were when Annieville was doing the soundcheck and playing alone. The rest of the performance was just ever-so-slightly marred by a sideman with some rhythmic deficiencies. (A bad night?  Maybe he couldn't hear? But it’s hard to enjoy music when you’re constantly waiting for the other foot-- or stick-- to fall off beat.)

But hey-- I enjoyed every minute of Annieville’s performance, and also liked the guests she brought with her—including Portland singer/guitarist Lauren Sheehan (here website HERE), author/musician Steven Cheseborough (also of Portland-- his website HERE), and several students at the workshop.  Next time she plays in Seattle, (and I see from her site that she will be in Ballard soon) I will try to be there. 

When Daryl Davis entered the room he was greeted by just about everyone, and brought another half a room full of people with him. He’s a big guy with giant fingers that pound out boogie woogie so forecefully that he only needs the left hand to keep the whole room pulsating. He brought a bass player from the workshop and used the same drummer that had backed Annieville Blues.

He began with a song called “Mississippi Delta Blues” by Willie Brown.

I’m going back to my old time used to be
Even though she done me wrong
Guess I’ll have to go ahead and forgive her
Because I’m so tired of being alone.

After that he played “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie” by Clarence “Pinetop” Smith. As usual, Davis explained how the song had been stolen by Jimmie and Tommy Dorsey separately and individually. I didn’t tape the performance, but someone else did once.  Here he is doing the same thing, at another show:

After Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” he played Chuck Berry’s “Wee Wee Hours,” doing descending ninth chords just like Chuck, and trills on the treble keys just like Johnnie Johnson. (No wonder: Davis is and was a friend to both men.)

Then he defended Chuck’s honor and title, (I did the same a few weeks ago when I was worrying about the “King” thing on this blog.  It's a sore spot for admirers of Mr. Berry.)  After a New Orleans style song he mentioned “The King.”

Someone yelled “Elvis!”

Davis said: “I loved Elvis. Saw him 14 times. Met him twice. Went to his funeral. But he didn’t invent rock and roll.”

Then Davis played a few bars of music. “What song is that?” he asked.

“Surfin’ U.S.A.,” someone yelled.

(“Sweet Little Sixteen,” I replied, obligingly.  I knew I was there for a reason.)

Said Davis: “This song was written the year I was born, in 1958, by the Father of Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry. Then in 1963 another group stole the melody and it became their biggest hit-- until Chuck Berry sued them. Now “Surfin’ U.S.A.” credits Chuck Berry as one of the authors."

And he played it, switching now and then from chorus to chorus:

"Everybody goes surfin', surfin' U.S.A."
"Everybody wants to dance with, Sweet Little Sixteen."

For the next several songs he invited friends and students from the workshop to contribute. A woman named Diana came first;  (don't know the name of her song, but it was funny); then Sonya Lee sang “Route 66” and “At Last.” A guitarist singer who calls himself “Mojo Perry” did  "Stormy Monday,” with blazing lead guitar on his acoustic and somehow putting a full vibrato on his ninth chords (find his extremely cool website HERE).  A woman named Temple (?) did a Patsy Cline number. (Said Davis: "I always said Patsy Cline was a blues artist.  She sang with so much feeling.")  Wish I could tell you more about these performers.

Davis finished with a long lesson in boogie woogie, starting with “Great Balls of Fire,” and then breaking it down to show how different pianists used their left hands: Jerry Lee Lewis, then Little Richard, then Fats Domino, then Ray Charles. Annieville Blues joined him for the finale and took over piano completely while Davis sang that he was going to “boogie till his woogie got sore.”  (When Daryl plays boogie woogie it sounds something like this):

Aside from great music, what the show gave me was a better sense of who Daryl Davis is: not only a musician and entertainer, but also an historian and teacher. He teaches the audience where the music comes from, and obviously takes great pride in teaching his craft to the workshop attendees and seeing them perform.

Last came Jerron Paxton, who comes from Watts but whose spiritual home is somewhere between New Orleans and Clarksdale.  Legally blind, he walked to the piano with a cane, pushed away all the microphones and then lit up the room with his music and his schtick.  He is a very funny man.  When one excited fan sang a few lines in a tiny whisper Paxton handed him a microphone and battled for five minutes trying to get the man to sing a verse.  ("It's fun to torture people," said Paxton, under his breath.)  Paxton plays old time music of all sorts-- blues, ragtime, bluegrass, tin pan alley.  He plays (minimally) piano, guitar, banjo and fiddle.  His comic timing is finely tuned-- (no small matter, I think, for a blues performer.)  He seemed to have the most fun with members of a local Port Townsend jug band, who backed him up, sometimes swapping instruments (Paxton did it Charlie Patton style, playing behind his back, or spinning his guitar like a top and strumming again as it fell into place.)   You can find his website HERE, or listen below as he tells how sweet the Centrum Blues Workshop is.  Makes me want to go!  And next year, maybe...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

More from Italy

Doug sent me a nice one of the first three songs-- you get to see the introduction and the excitement of the Italian fans.  My favorite here-- "Wee Wee Hours," at the end.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rollin' Over in Italia

Can't watch this with the limping wireless I've got at this hotel, but I'll try to post it!  (Do>mani, le notizie del concerto di Daryl Davis a Porto Townsend.) (Grazie Doug!)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Daryl Davis in Port Townsend

Today I'm off to see frequent Chuck Berry collaborator Daryl Davis perform at the Blues in the Clubs at the Centrum Blues festival in Port Townsend, Washington.  More about it HERE and HERE.


Here's a LINK to make me even more jealous!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Long Live Chuck Berry!

Maybe it’s just me—but as a Chuck Berry fan I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Elvis Presley.

I like some of his music a lot. And he’s an interesting character. I wonder what he was like. Like the rest of the world I like looking at him, hearing him, watching him dance.

At least in the old days. Once he donned white capes and glitter I was less interested. And I definitely wasn’t interested in any of the color movies. (“Jailhouse Rock” is another story. When I’m told he choreographed the inmate dance scene I can’t help but take interest. It’s good stuff. And I’ve seen a few minutes of the story and liked that, too.)

Who wouldn’t like hearing “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak hotel,” “Hound Dog,” Blue Suede Shoes,” or “even “Burnin’ Love?”

But I found Chuck Berry in the early 1970’s—either 1970 or 1971. I first saw him on stage backed by a local Sacramento band. He was in jeans and an orange shirt. He had a red guitar. He seemed sad. He played blues. And he played rock and roll.

In those days Elvis had a hit with “Burnin’ Love,” and I remember attending a movie of his live Vegas performances that I actually enjoyed despite the costumes. That movie’s recent re-release on DVD prompts this article.

A Brazilian who is a fan of both Chuck Berry and Elvis wrote something on the Chuck Berry website wondering why the song “Johnny B. Goode” had been stricken from the film on re-release. Just seeing those names together—Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry—cause another re-release from deep inside me: a re-release of the vague resentment I’ve always felt about the so-called “King” of rock and roll.

According to Elvis.com the title is undisputed. (Ask Little Richard if that’s true. I have a great Little Richard record from the 1970s where he sings that he’s the King of Rock and Roll. As I recall, the song begins with a Chuck Berry guitar intro!)

Elvis’s hardcore fans include people I can’t ignore, like John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

(Then again, no less an authority than Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother told Jerry Lee that Chuck Berry was the true King of rock and roll. If she told that to Jerry Lee, she would surely have taught Bobby and John the same thing.)

And I don’t dispute the “King” of rock and roll stuff.  In the 1980s I wrote an article about Chuck Berry for a local rock and roll magazine, The Rocket, where I said:

“Let Elvis be King. Let him have the pomp and circumstance. Chuck Berry, the lean man with the conked hair and cherry red guitar, is much more than a figurehead—he’s our father. Single-handed he gave us rock guitar’s vocabulary. Single handed he made intelligent, witty lyrics a tradition in rock ‘n’ roll. His songs are alive today as they ever were. Keith Richards keeps stealing his licks, and Sweet Little Sixteen, in bell bottoms when I was her age, is back in tight dresses and lipstick again.”

But the “King” stuff always hurt, anyway. Sam Phillips, who is as much of a father of rock and roll as anybody, purportedly said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” He found Elvis—and RCA made a billion dollars.

And that’s all right—that’s all right! Because Chuck did the same thing as Elvis. Or maybe Leonard Chess did the same thing as Sam Phillips. He found a black singer who had a bit of the white sound.

Elvis and Carl Perkins were Country singers who sang Blues and R & B. Chuck Berry was an R & B singer who dabbled in Blues and Country. That melding of forms is where the best stuff nearly always happens: Sharon Jones singing Woody Guthrie; Sly Stone yodeling Jimmie Rodgers; Little Richard doing a Hank Williams song; Chuck Berry mimicking Benny Goodman’s clarinet on a guitar; Otis Redding singing the “Tennessee Waltz.”

And in the case of Elvis and Chuck, it created the foundations of rock and roll.

But calling Elvis “King?” It always bugged me.

For one thing, by the time he got the moniker he was no longer playing much rock and roll. He was singing ballads and catching under-panties.

Chuck Berry never, ever stopped playing rock and roll. He’s still doing it now—and getting more punk all the time!

Then there was the question of talent. Elvis is probably the better singer, and both knew how to dance on stage and entertain a crowd. But I always remember that vaguely insincere question Chuck Berry poses to Little Richard and Bo Diddley during the interviews for “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It was something like: “Could Elvis really play that guitar?”

Chuck Berry knew the answer to that one, but he asked it with a feigned naivete.

On stage Elvis strummed a prop. Chuck Berry invented a language.

He’d deny it. He’d tell you something like (made up quote) “No, I took bits of Carl Hogan and T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian and mixed it up thus and so. Nothing new under the sun.”

But by mixing, and twisting and bending and doubling and reinventing and adding bits of this and that he created something absolutely new under the sun, and then did it while dancing and duck-walking. (He’d credit the splits and behind the back playing to T-Bone, who’d probably say it was all Charlie Patton’s fault!)

And then there are the songs. I don’t think there’s any rock and roll star (Johnny Rivers certainly tried) who’s gone farther on other people’s material than Elvis Presley. He even recorded a half a dozen or so Chuck Berry songs.

But Chuck Berry wrote his own.

And they were rock and roll poetry.

So if there were justice, (there never has been!), the whole “King” thing wouldn’t even be an issue—or at any rate, Chuck would be on top of Elvis in the line of succession.

But rock and roll isn’t a monarchy. It’s the most democratic music I know, created in basements and garages, often by incompetents. You don’t need to be able to sing, play or even entertain—although all of that certainly helps.

Anyway, I think I once heard Chuck Berry address the issue of rock and roll royalty, and he did it just right. He said if he wasn’t the King, he was probably the prime minister.

I like that.

And just to make amends: