Thursday, September 30, 2010

Act Now and We'll Throw in Maybellene at No Extra Charge!!!!

I love the movie "Sideways," possibly because it involves a dour, pudgy, middle-aged guy who drinks too much wine then somehow meets a lovely woman-- but also (waking from his derranged revery) because it's funny.  And one funny part is when the guy's friend tells a woman they meet that he does voiceovers for car ads.  He starts to rattle on in a low, glossy voice about "low, low prices" and she says "You sound like one of those guys!" And he says, "I am one of those guys!"

Well, it turns out they have those guys in Brazil, too!

(Thanks Doug!)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Blue Can Chuck Get?

I guess it has to start with "Wee Wee Hours.”  How else?  It was the fourth song on my first Chuck Berry record, and the second side he released-- maybe first in his heart at the time.  It’s got such a great sound: smokey voice, huge bass, a rippling piano that goes half mad, and steady, wet sounding drums.   The guitar is understated, half hidden by the drums, which are right up front with the singing.  (They were making this for the big beat generation).  The lyrics are simple and great, full of the regret and loss that fill so many of Chuck Berry’s best music.  If there was ever a time Chuck Berry got close to the Nat King cool that he longed for, this might have been it.  And if he’d never been a rock and roll star, this one might have lived on as a minor blues classic.

After that, for me, it’s “Deep Feeling.”  I remember an older friend who heard this one in the mid-1970s on a blues radio show.  Transfixed, and then bowled over when he learned it was Chuck Berry.  It’s a totally unique sound, somehow stuck between Delta Blues, Roy Rogers, and Dick Dale.  It’s slide guitar with a real melody.  They say Hubert Sumlin’s on it somewhere (anyway, I think Hubert Sumlin has said that Hubert Sumlin is on it,) evidently playing the rhythm guitar in the background.  The piano is ever present.  The drums are in the background now.

Berry did a similar number several times, but never in my mind as memorably until the closing scene of “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” when the camera floats across a decrepit swimming pool to find CB playing his old steel guitar again.  I think the melody there is closer to the version called “Surfin’ Steel,” but it’s a desolate, stark version that matches the mixed feelings you feel towards the end of that movie.  

The next one, for me, is “I Got a Booking,” Chuck Berry’s reworking of "Key to the Highway."  He's modern and cool.  Almost cold.

I got a booking, with the Airline
Packed up and prone to go
I’m gonna leave here by plane darlin’
Because railway is much too slow.

I’m going back to my home town
Where I’m better known
Cause you haven’t done nothin’ darlin’
But ruined a happy home.

The song opens with a blues intro I credit to Berry.  Maybe it’s borrowed-- but I haven’t heard it anywhere else.  It’s pretty much the same figure that begins some other favorites, like his 1972 version of “Mean Old World.”  Like a lot of the "Chuck Berry inn London" record, it's dominated by a wailing harmonica.  But it's a hell of a blues song.

Then we go to Mercury, where he rcorded lots of blues.  There are lots of interesting, slightly ragged blues on the "Live at the Fillmore" album, but my favorite is “It Hurts me Too.”  Must be one of his favorite blues (along with Every Day, and Mean Old World, since he sings them a lot.)  The Mercury records all suffer from what I think of as bad sound-- but listening again now, maybe I’m crazy.  The Steve Miller band was a great backup, anyway, capable of the swing Chuck Berry needs, and the album is filled with raw, wonderful guitar.

“Have Mercy Judge” might be Chuck Berry’s best original blues song-- and it’s got to be one of the most literary blues ever written.  The lyrics tell a wonderful story-- or rather, tell a horror story, wonderfully.
I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before.
Lord and I know he won’t have no mercy on me
Cause he told me not to come back no more.
He’ll send me ‘way, to some stoney mansion
in a lonely room and lock the door.
Lord have mercy on my little Tulane
She’s too alive to try and live alone.
I know her needs and although she loves me
She’s gonna try and make it, while the poor boy’s gone.
(She can’t do it, no no no)
Somebody tell her to live, and I’ll understand it
And even love her more when I come back home.
This is a song written by the author of Memphis, Tennessee-- someone who knows how to put half a novel into a few verses.  It's a song written in hard times.  There's no question Chuck Berry knows what he’s talking about in this one.  Like maybe he’s gone back, if not to the same judge, to the same courthouse, and that he’s been to the stoney mansion, that he’s lost Tulane.  It’s a hell of a song.  I think in his Autobiography he says he wrote the song “Tulane” in jail, which seems possible (people doubt it because they assume the novelties are drugs and that drugs are a 1960s phenomonon.  But there’s more than one kind of forbidden fruit in this world; and anyway-- drugs have been around a long time.)  But I wouldn't be surprised to learn he wrote this one there.

Chuck Berry’s toughest blues is "London Session’s" “Mean Old World.”  (Chuck Berry must have liked Little Walter’s music a lot.)  It starts with a similar riff to “I Got a Booking”  then goes into some wonderful riffing on open E and A chords.  The London Sessions album (and the Rocking Horse show taped a few weeks or months later) both show Chuck Berry playing some of his best guitar.  The stuff on this song just kills me.  Wild runs of triplets that just don’t stop, and the rest of it deceptively simple.  There’s some great rock and roll drumming on the song. 

Then there’s the one that got away-- my favorite of the moment, "Annie Lou," from the "Have Mercy" collection.  It’s just Chuck Berry and a guitar.  There’s a bit more static than you’d want-- but what a beautiful record.  Fred Rothwell called it an “intimate” blues.  That’s it exactly.  You feel like you’re in Chuck Berry’s living room on a night when he’s playing something for a friend.  I wish it had been released back in the early 1970s when it was recorded.  It would have blown minds and shaken preconceptions about who Chuck Berry is.  
He once told some magazine or another: “Look I ain’t no big shit."  Then he compared himself unfavorably to Muddy Waters.  

But Chuck.  

You were.  

You are.  

He's ALWAYS Known!


Nadine, Maybellene, Tulane, Sweet Little Sixteen-- Hey, the lesson is clear: if you want people to pay attention, write about women!  Or rather, let the women speak!  Never had so many readers until I asked a few questions of Karen, Judy, and Ida May!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The St. Louis Walk of Fame

Here's a nice St. Louis news story with Chuck, Joe Edwards, and some live shots.  I sort of feel like little by little he's getting more of what's due him.  http://www.kplr11.com/news/kplr-stl-walk-fame-chuck-berry-092710,0,804932.story

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Great Letters

to the editor of Rolling Stone in the most recent issue, a couple recognizing that Chuck Berry deserved the cover more than some naked TV stars, and all of which recognized his proper place in the history of our music and culture.  Nice to see!  And for fans of the Killer-- a short piece on Jerry Lee Lewis and his new record. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oh Well, Oh Well, I'm Feeling So Good Today!

Everything just changed!  Mercury retrograde is over!  (Yes, I "dabble into" astrology!)  As it turns out, and thanks to quick, impulsive thinking by my brother Paul, I'll see BOTH St. Louis birthday shows!

I got a booking
With the airline
Packed up and prone to go
I'm gonna leave hear by plane, Mr. Berry
'Cause railway is much too slow!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What I Will Miss a Month From Now

There's nothing like Blueberry Hill.  But I've got high hopes for The Pageant!

(Watch Keith Robinson's arms fly like the blades of a windmill, hitting cymbals while Chuck punches rhythm chords!)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

They Call It Stormy Monday (T-Bone's Just As Bad)

Here's a repost of an old story about T-Bone Walker for Mr. Lohr. 


So it's the early 1970s.

I’m down on J Street in Sacramento, next to one of the big, block long holes that used to pepper the downtown streets, and somehow find myself in conversation about Chuck Berry with an old man I don’t know. He’s animated. He’s laughing. He knows Chuck Berry.

“Yes sir, he’s a showman! He does all that dancing with the guitar!”

Down in the rubble beneath us you can see the crumbling lower floors of an older Sacramento, before the whole town got jacked up in an effort to keep it from being flooded every other year by the muddy brown Sacramento River.

The Sacramento River is a junior Mississippi—a big brown river with a big flat delta made navigable by rusting dredges that dug out the channel. We don’t have the delta blues, but there used to be river boats. In fact, the last real river boat on the Mississippi was actually a Sacramento River Boat-- the Delta Queen, a big wooden paddle-wheeler that my daddy used to ride from Sacramento to San Francisco. (This poor boy rode the Greyhound.) Its mate, the Delta King, is now a hotel and restaurant docked permanently in Old Sacramento.

And this man is telling me about a river boat, and better yet, about T-Bone Walker, who he saw performing on that boat, doing splits and playing the guitar behind his head.

This has me sputtering. I have only just discovered T-Bone Walker. I found him in the liner notes of a Chuck Berry album—or maybe in some article—and I’ve bought one or two of his latest records— relatively spartan stuff, recorded with small jazz combos instead of the rousing big bands of his classic work. I love it-- and sure enough, I hear some roots of Chuck Berry.

If you know the opening guitar work on Johnny B. Goode, or the solo in the middle of Maybelene, you’ve heard the “slur” where Chuck pulls or pushes a thicker string to until it meets the pitch of the next higher string.

“dwa-de, dwa-de, dwa-de-dwa-de-dwa”

Easier played than typed—but that “slur,” a fundamental component of “Chuck Berry” guitar, is T-Bone Walker.

Chuck Berry would be the first to admit it.

“What I do is just a portion of all that I’ve heard before me,” Berry told interviewer Tom Wheeler for Guitar Player magazine (Vol. 22, No. 3 March 1988) “Carl Hogan, with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, blues players like T-Bone Walker… Charlie Christian, too.”

In addition to the slur, Berry copped a sliding ninth chord from T-Bone. T-Bone probably got it from someone else. (A sickly, impotent version of this blues lick has been high jacked for erectile dysfunction ads where men and women sit in separate bath tubs and wait for inspiration to strike and/or blood thinner to take effect. That, B.B., is how blue you can get.)

And when Chuck Berry is on stage (and when Jimi Hendrix was on stage) there is a little bit of T-Bone Walker. That’s what the old man on J Street was telling me.

“He’s a showman,” the old man says, laughing. “Like T-Bone Walker! He got those moves from T-Bone—playing the guitar behind his head, doing the splits. That’s T-Bone Walker, man! I saw T-Bone Walker on a riverboat 20, 30 years ago. He was a showman, like Chuck Berry!”

It was a miracle to me, and still is, that I would stumble into a conversation with an old man who had seen my new hero, T-Bone Walker, playing the guitar behind his back, and doing splits, on a riverboat, before I was even born!
For me T-Bone Walker was trapped in records, or worse, in words.

(But that was then. Now I have YouTube! Who knew that he held his guitar flat, like a dobro!)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's a Family Affair

My Chuck Berry story began with my brother Stevo, who used to talk about Chuck Berry before I ever actually saw the man. Check the earliest posts.

But I come from a big family.

On the road today I was playing Otis Redding’s “Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul.” My brother Paul brought it into our house when I was 12 or 13 years old. It is one of the best, sweetest albums ever made, held beneath one of the best record covers ever printed. (I have one framed in my downstairs bathroom.) Otis wears a red jacket, vest and graduation cap. He’s leaning against the oversized Green “dictionary.” The words “My My My” line the bottom. The music is mostly country soul music, with ATCO horns, and thudding, wet drums, organ, guitar, and piano, and Otis Redding’s incomparable voice. I played that record at least a hundred times during Paul’s visit, then found a copy of my own for $2.54. Now I play the CD. I can’t get tired of it. My favorite song is “The Tennessee Waltz” turned soul masterpiece—“That Cotton! Pickin! Tenne! Tennessee Waltz.” But my favorite moment on the record is the climax of “Try A Little Tenderness,” when Redding moves beyond words to a series of barked syllables: “Na!Na!Na! Ah! Try a little tenderness…!” If I could sing like Otis Redding on “The Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul,” I think I could die happy, even at the age he unfortunately died, because I’d know I’d done something perfect.”

Paul is the oldest. My sister Rooney comes next. She introduced me to someone I’ll introduce to you. His name is Jerry Riopelle. This is a good tip I’m giving you, because Jerry Riopelle is one of the best well kept secrets in rock and roll. Especially, I think, his first three albums. And you can get them now, on a boxed set, along with everything else he’s ever recorded. Quite a deal. Riopelle is a star in some towns. Phoenix is one. And he made records for other people that you might know—at least as a Chevrolet ad. (“Day after day, the whole place shaking away!”) But my favorite stuff is what he recorded under his own name. If you don’t want the boxed set, you can find vinyl on eBay.

Maggie comes next. She took us to Tower Records and bought Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” I was skeptical—some young guy in a leather jacket. Then I heard it—a record that belongs just below “The Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul.” (The world became a sadder place when it started getting rid of real horns, drums, guitars and bass.) Where Otis was rough and big, Al is smooth and sweet, but with just as much religion.

Then comes Danny. He went to an outdoor rock festival in 1968 and came home talking about a screaming blues singer. Then he found the album—Taj Mahal, with Taj seated in front of a broken down mansion, plucking a National steel guitar. I didn’t know it then, but it is a “Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of the Blues,” with Elmore here, and Muddy there, Sonny Boy II in the middle, all sung in the voice of Howlin' Wolf, played by a wonderful band—Ry Cooder, Bill Boatman, James Thomas, Chuck Blackwell, and one of my favorites, guitarist Jesse Edwin Davis. It’s a great record. So are all the others that Taj Mahal has made over the years. He’s my translator of the blues—a man who takes ancient wisdom and puts it into modern tunings that I can sometimes figure out. God bless him.   (Amazing postscript:  Bob Lohr told me that, while searching for a sound for a NEW RECORDING, the man some of us call our favorite singer/songwriter/guitarist/entertainer referenced one of the songs on this classic disk.)  It's been reissued on CD without the stick on ducks and geese that irritated Taj, (but which some young hippie children sort of liked!)

Then Ann. She brought “The Harder They Come” to my house on my birthday in 1974. This was a true revelation— Jimmy Cliff singing sweetly, Toots of the Maytals sounding like a Jamaican Otis, one song, “Draw Your Brakes” sung in a patois I still don’t come close to understanding, but all of it magic—the music of an island that had suddenly found itself in music, the way specific locations sometimes do—(Chicago in the 1950s, Detroit and Mussel Shoals and Liverpool in the 1960s, San Francisco a little later, even Seattle in the late 1980s.) “Sitting in Limbo” and “Johnny Too Bad” will always be among my favorite songs.   (Once, at a wonderful show at Seattle's Paramount, Cliff asked for requests.  There was a tiny, fortunate lull when I raised my voice to yell "Sitting in Limbo."  And lo!  He played it.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

This Sunday in St. Louis!

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/atoz/2010/09/johnnie_johnson_tribute_jam_tickets_contest_sheldon_conan_o_brien.php

Sneak Peak

You can get a sneak peak at the new statue of actor Andy Griffith Chuck Berry by clicking HERE.  It would sure be nice if they unveil it when I'm in St.  Louis!

The Boogie Ramblers (Playing like Nobody's Business!)



This is, of course, Carmelo's band.  For more on minding your business, check out Mindin' Stefano's Business which I wrote before I knew about Carmelo or the Ramblers.  (Stefano, anche italiano, sometimes feeds the Chuck Berry band when they visit the fair city of London, which they would do again if promoters there could get their acts together.)  But I'm rambling!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry (From Ronny Elliott's 'Magneto" CD)

Several months ago I was lucky enough to publish an interview with singer-songwriter Ronny Elliott, who backed Chuck Berry several times.  That interview is HERE.  Mr. Elliott gave me permission at the time to post a story called "Ed Brown Meets Chuck Berry," from his Magneto album-- but I didn't know how.  Then along comes Peter Kaleta and gives me an idea!  Make a movie!  So here, I hope, it is. 

video
I love this story-- even though it's enormously bittersweet.  It shows a bit what it was like for an African American to tour in the 1950s, why people like Chuck Berry deserve a slice of Nobel Peace pie.  

I thank Ronny Elliott for putting it on his record, and I thank Mr. Brown (R.I.P.) for telling the tale one more time! 

More about Mr. Elliott HERE.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Maybe Someday You'll Actually Look Embarrassed

Only when I watched this video did I realize that, until a few minutes ago, I'd never seen Chuck Berry look embarrassed.  But watch him as he lip synchs "Johnny" in front of a bunch of stuffed teenage mannequins.  It's still fascinating.  Why'd they bring the amp if they weren't going to let him use it?  When was it filmed?  (By the jacket I'd guess mid 1960s-- Chuck Berry in London time; but my gut tells me it was later, an attempt at something "historical.")  I stopped watching when it became too painful, but the craziest thing is that when there's finally some action-- he's obviously doing the "scoot"-- the camera zooms in and only gets his face.  Anyway-- good to know that CB can be embarrassed.  After all, it happens to the rest of us all the time!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

One First song

I've shown you my bad drawings.  I've shown you my bad paintings.  I've shown you my bad writing every day.  If I could, I would show you my bad construction-- because that's what started this next thing. 

For years I've been threatening to build a music room in my basement.  I first thought of it when my daughter Jade was little.  She liked to make music.  Specifically, she liked to pound on a drum set that I used to play, (badly,) when I was a kid.  But I wanted it for myself, too.  I wanted a place where I could pound the drums myself, without driving my family and my neighbors crazy.  But the drums have just sat there, for decades, becoming vintage; and Jade's gonna have a baby of her own soon.

So then I had a second generation child.  And my other daughter, Gemma, started playing piano.  Well.  So I decided to ACT. 

A few months later, I bought two by fours.

A few months after that, I used them.

A few months after that, I bought wallboard.

A few months after that, I called an electrician.

A few months after that, I swore, coughed, broke wallboard, pounded nails, swore more, coughed, choked, and eventually had a room blocked off.

Then I rested.

A few months after that I taped, and painted, and got thoroughly sick of the whole thing.

But now it's basically done.

So.

I took down the old computer.

I loaded up some old software.

I found old microphones.

I installed a sound card.

I bought cheap headphones.

I carried down my amp.

I set up my drums.

I played bad bass.

And, in the course of an hour, I made my first recording. It's all me-- bad singing, bad voice, bad drums, strange blank spots, rattles, squeaks, and all.  (Two takes for the drumming-- one for the rest of it.  And nothing to cover the voice!)

Frankly-- it's *^%*&^%y.  But what the hell-- I'm sort of proud, anyway!

And I changed the "vocal."  It isn't better, but it doesn't have that Howard Dean's Last Stand quality to it, anymore.  It's just plain bad.

I'm not sure it will work, but  TRY CLICKING HERE!  (My hope is that this gets you to my folder, where you can scroll down and find the garbled mess that is my first recording.)

(I won't give up my day job.)

Michael Lydon: The Bitingly Fine Quality of Great Music Writing

This guy, Michael Lydon, wrote two of the best things I ever read about Chuck Berry.  The first I encountered was the liner copy on "Back Home," where he compared Chuck Berry to my other hero, Charlie Chaplin, and where he said that Chuck's guitar had "the bitingly fine quality of etched steel:" a perfect description of the guitar on songs like "Back Home's" "Fish and Chips" and "Instrumental."  (In other moods, with other recording engineers, Chuck's guitar has the bitingly fine quality of a railroad airhorn backed by a military spot.)
The other wonderful thing he wrote was an article about Chuck Berry for Ramparts magazine back in the 1960s.  My brother brought Ramparts into our home, and that copy sat around until I discovered Chuck Berry myself a few years later.  What a treat.  It told the story about Lydon's attempted meeting with Berry at Berry Park.  Didn't exactly work out.  One line from the story has stood out for me as distinctly as the etched steel line: as he shuts down the interview before it even starts, Mr. Berry says something like: "Standing in the sun ain't my shot."  I think that line all the time-- but it just wouldn't sound right coming from my mouth.  The Ramparts story was later published in Lydon's bood "Rock Folk," which can still be found on Amazon.com.  Bought mine about a year ago.  The book includes other good stories-- one about B.B. King stands out for me.

Here's his website:  http://www.michaellydon.com/

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Peek at Billy

Since I picked the wrong day to travel, I've got to travel back tired-- 'cause after Chuck Berry shuts down The Pageant, I'm hoping to see Billy Peek finish his show somewhere across town.  Here's why.



Peek, of course, played on at least a couple of Chuck Berry records from the 1970s.  (If I remember right, "Bio" and "Rockit.")  He got lessons straight from the man himself.  Elsewhere on this site I quote book that quotes Peek telling how Chuck would lean over and say "This is how you play that one, Billy."  (Read it HERE).

(Some people earn all the luck.)

Recently I was watching Chuck's performances in Italy back in the 1980s and was admiring the guitarist who starts playing about 8 minutes in.  I figured it was a local.  Then Chuck announces: "All Right?!!  Billy Peek!  St. Louis, Missouri!"

Well-- see for yourselves (why I'm going to try to get across town late that night, or early that morning):

They Left the Telephone Pole

Peter Kaleta's shot of the lot where the Cosmopolitan once stood.

Howdy Doody Must Have Written It

A "Visit St. Louis" website has the following description of Blueberry Hill:

Some favorites in town:
· Al's -- Italian/steak
· Blueberry Hill -- great bar food, kitschy atmosphere (Howdy Doody, Elvis, etc.)
That's some kind of hometown boosterism.  Maybe I'll go to Memphis instead, visit Graceland, and see the Chuck Berry stuff there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Plan ("Out the window! Wing it, boys!")

First-- arrive in St. Louis.  Hey-- the flight was free.

Then MetroLink to a fine hotel. 

Then, nada. Because I picked the wrong Wednesday.  But maybe some onion soup, and an IPA, and a cheeseburger at BBH, because I remember they were good.

Thursday: Devil at the Confluence, at the Children's Illustrated Art Museum?  We'll see.  Or maybe we'll rent a car, and remember Warrenton or nearby burghs.

Friday: Charles "Skeet" Rodgers and the Inner City Blues Band.  (Skeet currently being the only person or entity on MYSPACE  with fewer friends than me.  That will change.  If all goes well at the show Friday, I will befriend him on one or another social networking site.  Solidarity!)

Saturday: They'll be rocking at The Pageant.  I'll be up front, trying to figure out how to work my daughter's camera without any tear inducing flash.  Wish me luck.  I'm requesting a new song.  Big Boys?  Darlin'?  I'm not betting on it, but I'm requesting it.

Sunday, in the wee wee hours: off to see Billy Peek.  This is a man I've heard for decades, and who I admired without recognizing in the northern Italian show that Carmello attended.  I was thinking: that Italian man can play the blues.  But he was a St. Louis Blues musician.  Time to see him live.  (And speaking of St. Louis Blues: I'm creating my agenda using http://www.stlblues.net/gigsCalendar.asp?thisMonth=10&thisYear=2010&MusicianID=0&VenueID=0&MusicStyleID=0&locationQuery=&query=&viewMode)

And somewhere in between: the empty lot that was the Cosmopolitan; the street that was Goode Avenue; the river that is the Mississippi.

Of course: I'd appreciate any tips on how to spend the rest of my time, because I screwed up royally.  I coulda gone to St. Louis AND Maryland.  Or I coulda seen two shows back in old St. Lou.

Ah well.

Help!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

But if You Try Sometime

Okay-- so I probably won't get to see Chuck Berry twice in one week in St. Louis.  I was premature in my arrangements.  But tonight I saw Bob Dylan again, at Bumpershoot, and it was the happiest Bob Dylan I've seen or heard yet, playing great electric guitar, singing old songs with recognizable melodies, messing with the melodies of the newer songs, playing an organ you could HEAR, dancing, posing, blowing clear notes on his harp that sounded more like a French accordian than the Bob Dylan of record, making dynamite music for more than 90 minutes, and making tens of thousands of people as happy as he was.

And before Bob, Wheedle's Groove, a stagefull of Seattle soul and Funk musicians from the late 1960s and early 1970s playing their local hits and making a huge crowd happy.  It's an amazing story, and evidently now a minor motion picture, and you have to feel good seeing these incredible musicians reborn and recognized at last by the wider community outside the CD where they were once real local stars.  Heres a link to the  MOVIE.  And here, evidently, is a TASTE OF IT.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dang!

A sad moment.  Acting on news that Chuck Berry would play Blueberry Hill on October 13, and The Pageant on October 16, I booked tickets and a room and planned to spend four nights in St. Louis.  Alas, the BBH show is on October 20!

But here is some astrological advice from that fountain of wisdom, Yahoo.

Overview



Absolutely no pouting allowed! If you had a clear idea of what something was supposed to be like and it doesn't measure up to your expectations, tuck in that lower lip and face the circumstances gracefully. In fact, if you do your best to deal with the circumstances in a calm, cool and collected manner, you might just find that this 'disappointment' ends up being exactly what you needed all along.

She Don't Love Me Hear 'em Singing in the Sun

I never liked the tv shows with goofy big band arrangements to back Chuck Berry (or worse, little combos playing goofy big band arrangements).  It seems especially dumb that The Grammy Awards would have that kind of backup with all their resoures and musical connections.  It's rock and roll for goodness sake.  But oh well-- he did nicely anyway; and got a little tiny spoolful of the honor he deserves.



It's ironic.  Chuck Berry's early fantasy would have been to sit on a bandstand with a big band.  But his own musical legacy wound up being different-- ragged, invented on the spot, same thing, every day, but each time a little different, working the crowd, searching for the spark that would put it all ablaze.  It was hard work in the early 19080s, before the movie and the book.  When he sings "she don't love me" they show him under the bright lights looking like a man with a hammer and a long day's work ahead-- and you'll see her, out in the crowd, looking bored.  She don't love him.  But eventually they can't resist, and even raise their gloved, bejeweled hands, and smile.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Too Pooped to Post. Too Old to Scroll.

Chuck Berry fans with facebook know that there's now The Real Chuck Berry Page on facebook.  It's pretty cool-- but I still haven't figured out these "social network" pages.  A few minutes ago I got a chat message from a friend in Italy.  I was trying to respond when the friend signed off.  This was a complicated situation.  First, I had to try to remember some Italian.  Then I had to try to figure out how to press "send" on facebook.  (Never did figure it out.)  I'm sure my 6 year old could do it, and I know my 19 and 16 year olds do it 23 hours a day-- but I never found the button.  I just dont understand most of it.  What's my wall? 

It was always just as bad on myspace.  I'd receive glittering greeting cards and fabulous videos and have no way to respond. 

Ah well-- you are doubtless more modern, more in tune, and you will like it.  See regular posts from the musicians who've helped Chuck Berry make his music over the years-- or at least all the younger, tech savvy ones.  See old videos (if your computer agrees that you have "flash player."  (Mine doesn't-- no matter how Ioften I successfully download it.)  And see your friends from www.chuckberry.com/forum.  A whole lot of them are on facebook.

We're still waiting for Iowa, though.  First in the presidential contests, but lagging behind on social networking.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Grand Old Man, (at 43 years old!)

Jan Richter (read about him here) just sent me this dyptich to fix the sad version I reposted recently-- but when I saw all that detail (invisible on the cover itself) I had to give it its own space.   Funny how old everyone thought he was back in the day.  And at 83-- still younger than most of us. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Long Distance Information: An Interview With Chuck Berry Scholar Fred Rothwell

My favorite book about Chuck Berry, besides Chuck Berry's own Autobiography, is Fred Rothwell's "Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy"  from Music Mentor Books.  It's funny, well written, respectful (though not afraid to tell the truth about a bad recording) and always informative.  I've heard most Chuck Berry songs 32,000 times-- but after reading Rothwell's book I've heard new things in them.  (For example-- now I recognize when Matt Murphey is playing backup guitar.)  It helps that Rothwell appreciates many of the same records I do, and cringes at a few of the same ones, too.  But when Rothwell does become critical he usually does it with respect and humor-- good tools to have at your disposal when you're writing about someone of Chuck Berry's stature.

A few days ago I sent Rothwell a list of questions.  I wasn't sure what would happen.  Then, today, I got the answers.  Enjoy.  Then cruise on down to Music Mentor Books  and get yourself an education.

How old were you when you first "discovered" Chuck Berry? And what happened when you did?

I'm now 61 so I missed the first flush of rock and roll but as a teenager in the early sixties I fully embraced the exciting new British beat boom. It was such a breath of fresh air compared to Cliff and the Shadows and the dreary fare served up by the BBC. At the time very little American music was heard on mainstream radio and I wasn't aware of black rock and roll let alone blues. I loved to listen to the unusual sounds played at travelling fairgrounds and I do recall first hearing 'Sweet Little Sixteen' though the noise of the mighty waltzer ride.

However, it was the Rolling Stones that first caught my imagination, I loved their strange music and stranger image. I didn't have a record player but I did have a Grundig reel to reel tape recorder and in my ween-years I had taped lots of Elvis from Radio Luxemburg, the only station available at the time playing interesting music. When the Stones hit, poor Elvis was over-taped with the new sounds. I didn't have a clue about the blues at the time but now realise I had a pre-disposition for them from an early age as Lonnie Donegan was a big favourite and the one track that survived from my Elvis cull was 'Reconsider Baby'.

I started to check out the composer credits of the songs on the Stones LPs, names like Moore, Morganfield and McDaniel revealed the exotic artists Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and amongst them was the frequently recurring C Berry. Strangely, I didn't like the Stones versions of Chuck's songs, 'Come On' was a great story song and the harp was something new but it sounds embarrassingly bad to me now. Likewise I didn't dig 'Carol' because of the hand-claps and it seemed like the Stones were imitating the Beatles version of 'Roll Over Beethoven' which I didn't like either. However, 'Bye Bye Johnny' and 'Around And Around', both on Stones EPs were something else, in fact, I prefer there recording of 'Around' with its phenomenal piano by Ian Stewart to Chuck's which I don't think he fully realised.

So Chuck's music sort of crept up on me rather than hit me upside my head. If any one record lit the fire it was 'No Particular Place To Go' a UK hit in 1964 with its wonderfully humorous story, great vocals full of expression and passion and above all that superb ringing guitar. Even so, by this time I was hooked on the blues and soul music and Chuck's music was just one string on my musical bow. I didn't buy a lot of records and when I did it was blues and soul rather than rock and roll so the first Berry LP I got was the Golden Decade double, after which I was obsessively hooked.

When did you realize you were writing a book about his music?

I had a desire to be creative, to contribute something to the music I loved and to enthuse others. My first efforts was to co-compile 'The Complete Muddy Waters Discography' with Phil Wight. Phil had started compiling it and asked for information in Pickin' The Blues' (the fore-runner of Blues & Rhythm magazine) about a Muddy concert from about 1968 that had been broadcast and I happened to have taped on my trusty Grundig. I suggested we work together on the discography and when published it was a critical success – revised and re-published twice since.

I really enjoyed the detective work involved in compiling a discography, unearthing some minor fact that had been over-looked before gave my anorakish soul a jolt. So what better than to tackle my favourite rock and roller. However I needed more than just the dry bones of discography and decided to put some meat on the bones with my views about Chuck's music, the antecedents and influences of Mr Berry songs and his enormous influence on rockers worldwide. I also wanted to keep the work pretty light hearted (described by one critic as 'unprofessional' ) in the spirit of the music and Chuck's demeanour (I know many view Berry as a grumpy old scrote but I've always felt his music resounded with humour and wit in the manner of his idol Louis Jordan). My good friend George White had just started his Music Mentor publishing imprint and asked if he could have a go at publishing it. At first I declined because I wanted it published by a 'real' publisher. However, after sending a draft to several likely companies who all liked what I'd done but felt it was too specialised, I returned, cap in hand to George. And, boy am I glad I did because he did a superb job of editing and producing the finished book (driving me have mad with his exacting demand for absolute accuracy).

How long did it take you? And how did you get all that information?

I can't really remember how long but I'd guess about ten years. I had a full time, responsible job and I'd work on it as I felt and not let it become a chore. If anyone needs something to ease the stresses of everyday life, I'd recommend creative writing or detailed research into something that really interests them as a perfect antidote.

Again, where I got the information from is a bit hazy. I know there was a discography in the 'Golden Decade Vol 2' double LP which was a starting point. I also gleaned a lot from Howard DeWitt's book 'Chuck Berry – Rock And Roll Music' not so much from the main text but the excellent discography in the appendix by Morten Reff. During the development of the book I became firm friends with Morten and he was the single most important source for the book. As you know Morten has gone on to write his own Berry books and I avoided putting stuff in my book that would spoil his. What was really gratifying was I made lots of contacts with people interested in the music I love and from this several friendships have developed that have spread beyond the bounds of the music itself.

But of course what is absolutely necessary is to listen, listen and listen again to the music and don't assume anything written is correct without hearing it yourself – and then double check.

Did you ever get to look at original records from Chess or Mercury or the English equivalents?

I've never been a vinyl junkie and have always been more interested in the music in the grooves rather than the grooves themselves. I have a very modest Chuck Berry record collection but a huge amount of Chuck's music on CD including loads of stuff from collectors around the world on CDR. In fact, I have ninety nine and a half (but that just won't do) of everything laid on wax by CB including stuff even Chuck will have forgotten about. I guess my rarest LP is 'Chuck Berry – Tokyo Session' a Japanese issue on the Eastworld label (check out the great cover in Morten's book). So I don't have many original records but whenever something needs checking on a label, I know a man that does – Mr Reff.

What do you do with yourself when you are not researching and writing about Mr. Berry?

I retired from my full time job about five years back (yes I know – lucky bugger!). I was the technical director of a housing association and I've spent my whole life in building construction and surveying and since retirement I've dabbled in property development (a man after Mr Berry's heart!). I also dig gardening (gardening! that's not very rock and roll I hear you say – yes it is, it's the new R 'n' R).

But of course, music is my main thing. I'm currently working on 'Dynamite – Ike Turner's Recorded Legacy' an annotated discography of the 'Bad Man' himself. Hopefully this will be published by Music Mentor sometime this decade!!! I'm also toying with a Johnny Guitar Watson discography but that is at embryo stage. I also review blues and R&B CDs for 'Blues and Rhythm' magazine and write the odd article for 'Now Dig This' magazine – both worthy publications.

You sometimes write like you might play guitar-- are you a musician yourself?

No I cannot play a note, nor sing a jot. I was once in a R&B band in my teen years and lasted exactly three days before they chucked me out. I met someone recently who said I couldn't possibly review music if I couldn't play (he was a classical buff) and I do sometimes wish I knew more about the technicalities of music. However, I don't suppose many of my musical heroes knew much more about the technicalities and finer points of music but they can still make my hair rise when playing the music I love.

What is it about Chuck Berry's music that got you? Can you describe it?

To paraphrase the man himself, Chuck Berry's music is my life-blood. The more you listen the more you want to. It is a dangerous but beautiful obsession that gets better with age – my kids say I'm in a musical rut but I believe I'm in the groove! I never tire of Chuck's opening riff on Johnny B Goode and it always makes me sit and pay attention no matter what the situation. But better still are the glorious boogies he and Johnnie Johnson cooked up on tracks like 'Down The Road Apiece' or 'Little Queenie'. And he didn't need Johnnie to produce the goods – check out 'St Louis Blues' from his 'Berry In London' album or 'I Love You' from his 'London Sessions' LP. Then, of course, there are his wonderful lyrics. In one single 1956 session he wrote and recorded three masterpieces of rock and roll poetry, 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Too Much Monkey Business' and 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', any one of which would have secured his name in twentieth century popular culture.

How often have you seen him perform? Can you describe some of your memories?

I missed all his tours of the UK in the sixties to my eternal regret, I guess I wasn't that interested. I was a dedicated follower of fashion and most of my money went on clothes. I first saw Chuck in 1973 after his big hit at the Rainbow Theatre London and since probably 5 or 6 times since. Chuck's reputation is notorious for performing lack-lustre and short sets but I haven't experienced any all the times I've seen him. Sure, there have been no encores but if you know this is how it is, then there is no disappointment. I saw him play at the Capitol Jazz Festival, an open-air gig at Alexandria Palace, 22 July 1979. The papers later reported he'd caused a mini-riot by not encoring. Not so, it was the MC who didn't know Chuck's routine and wound up the crowd so much that they threw Coke cans at him. Muddy played the same day and I have a recollection that Chuck came on stage (but didn't play) and shook Muddy's hand (this could however be me just fantasizing). The last time I saw Chuck was July 2002 and I wrote a review for Now Dig This magazine in which I summarised 'To attend a Chuck Berry concert is to witness a rock and roll ritual, in which both performer and audience know what is wanted and what is expected and I do believe both parties left the theatre with satisfied minds'.

You tell a great story about meeting Chuck Berry. Have you thought about what you'd do if you get a second chance?

Last November, I had been invited to 'hang out' with Chuck and his band by Bob Lohr but unfortunately it was not to be as the tour was cancelled (maybe it'll happen in March) so I'd given some thought to what I'd ask the great man. I hoped to find out more about the totally atypical recording 'Go Shabba Go' Chuck made with Shabba Ranks in 1994. Where and when it was recorded but maybe more interestingly, why! Did he record his part separately from Shabba and the band and how it all came about. I have a poster of a concert from the fifties showing Chuck and Louis Jordan playing the same bill. I'd love to ask Chuck about his memories of Louis and what Louis thought of his music. Similarly I'd like to hear Chuck's memories of Little Walter and Elmore James. There is a rumour that Chuck recorded with Memphis Minnie when he first cut for Chess and Chuck has the tape. I'd want to find out if this is true and if the tape still exists. There is so much I'd like to find out that I fear I'd bore the guy and get turfed out!

In addition to the book, you've written some wonderful liner notes to the Hip-O Select packages. Can you tell us about your latest project for Hip-O Select?

Working on the Hip-O box sets has been a dream come true. I've been privileged to hear everything Universal has in its vaults from the original Chess studio tapes and help sort through them, catalogue and select the best stuff for release. You always hope for more but with Chess being sold and re-sold before purchased by Universal means some recordings have gone missing and very little documentation about the sessions has survived. Each week I would await the UPS delivery with great anticipation, wondering what new surprises were in store. The tapes are a complete jumble with recordings from different sessions mixed together and many duplicated tracks.

As you know two, four CD sets have been issued and the third is imminent. Titled 'Have Mercy' it covers Chuck's return 'back home' to Chess after three years at Mercury up until his last recordings as Chess finally disintegrated. Look out for unissued live cuts from the Lanchester Festival and some beautiful blues cuts including a very intimate 'Annie Lou' based on Robert Nighthawk's 'Annie Lee'.

Andy McKaie, Hip-O's main reissue man had originally planned a 14 CD box set of all Chess and Mercury recordings but for commercial reasons this didn't work out. The alternative has been to issue the 4 CD sets and we will soon have all the Chess stuff on 12 CDs. I'm hoping that the Mercury recordings will follow as a 4 CD set and this'll be 16 CDs worth in total exceeding my dreams by two.   Not quite 700 little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz, but who's counting?

Note from Peter:  I asked Fred to tell us about a favorite concert.  He sent a review of a 2002 show.  Check it out on a later post in the next day or two.