Wednesday, April 28, 2010

LL, JJ, BB, DD and RL

Fans of Superman will remember that many of the important people in the hero's life had LL names, like Lois Lane, Lex Luther, and Lafayette Leake

Wait!  Leake was a Chess piano player, who backed up Chuck Berry on lots of the big hits-- "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," Johnny B. Goode," and, of course, "Tulane!"  I think Leake is also featured in the Montreux session that produced one of the best moments in Chuck Berry film history-- Chuck Berry backing T-Bone Walker on "Every Day I Have the Blues."

Of course, not all the Chuck Berry piano players had two Ls in their names.  Take Johnnie Johnson, for example, or Bob Baldori, or Daryl Davis or ... Dang!  Except for Robert Lohr, four of Chuck Berry's five long-standing piano players have double initials!

But that's nothing.  After all, 40% of them are lawyers.

Robert Lohr-- the exception that proves the rule.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Big Joe Williams and Chuck Berry, Luthiers

When I was at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale I saw Big Joe Williams' nine string guitar-- a do-it-himself sculptural and musical masterpiece.  Chuck Berry's ES355 is beginning to take on a bit of the same luster, with it's scratches and duct tape, electrical tape and bits of hardware screwed on.  You know he did it himself, too.  After all, he started out as a carpenter.

Chuck and Ludvig, BFF

It was an amazing act of precognition (is that a word?) for Chuck Berry to tell Beethoven to "roll over."

It was the tenth song he ever recorded-- about two years into the odyssey that we call rock and roll, and less than a year into Berry's own public life. And there he was, telling one of the most important composers of all time to get lost.

He wasn't the first young person to get boastful. But he sure pulled it off.

The United States has produced a number of composers who equal the classical masters. Duke Ellington, for sure, and Thelonious Monk. But even they didn't have the overall cultural clout of Chuck Berry.

His influence is just everywhere.

He's not a composer, and never pretended to be. But he's a cultural giant up there for eternity with the biggest and best ever.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Riding Along In The Automobile (Leonard Chess Lights Up)

"[W]e were riding along in the car and all of a sudden we heard Chuck Berry’s first record – 'Maybellene' on WIND – the pure white station and my Dad just lit up. My Dad always used to say that if Chuck Berry was white he’d have been bigger than Elvis."  Marshall Chess, speaking to Simon Cooper and  You can find the full interview by clicking the link here.  (Photo taken from the same website.)

I found the clashmusic interview because I was looking for a photo to go with this very recent Reuters interview.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ann Arbor Michigan-- Almost Live!

Here's a great shot of Chuck Berry and "Boogie" Bob Baldori in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1981 or 1982.  The shot comes from Baldori's website,  Baldori and his band The Woolies backed Chuck Berry throughout the 1970s and beyond, and also on the album San Francisco Dues.  (Baldori also played harmonica on the Back Home sessions.) 

Recently a sound recording of the Ann Arbor show turned up on youtube, and it's a beauty.  You can hear it below.

Here's another picture from Baldori's site.  Looks to me like the color photos on the youtube are from the same show.  Pretty cool. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Like Nobody's Business

One of my favorite singers:

Otis Spann was on a couple Chuck Berry records, and a LOT of MuddyWaters records, and his own, too!

Gladys, Chaka, Etta, and B.B.

She's 13 or 14.


This amazing picture of Chuck Berry serenading a woman before leaving the April 2010 Blueberry Hill show was taken by fan Rob Couder.  Dang! 

(If you're a fan of the man, you need to get to St. Louis.)

Mindin' Stefano's Business

In a comment on my posting about family and privacy, Stefano, from London, mentioned the Chuck Berry song "It's My Own Business." 

Here's a link Dave Edmunds doing it.

Here's a group called the Boogie Ramblers doing an energetic version.  (Stefano, if this is their facebook link, sono tutti italiani!)

And here are the lyrics:

I am tired of you telling me what I ought to do
Stickin' your nose in my business and it don't concern you
It's my own business.  It's my own business.
Seems like the ones that want to tell you
They don't ever know as much as you

If I go buy a Cadillac convertible coupe
And all I got at home to eat is just onion soup
It's my own business.  It's my own business.
If I would rather ride around
In my own Cadillac convertible coupe

If I's a dignitary on Capitol Hill
And up and married me a waitress in a hot dog grill
It's my own business, it's my own business
Because I am not a juvenile
And I can go out at my own free will

After workin' on my job and then drawin' my pay
If I want to go out and have a ball and throw it all away
It's my own business, it's my own business
'Cause I don't wait until tomorrow
To do something I could do today

He might have added that if he was a rock star and wanted to give a girl a job at his club, etc.  But the song comes from a long line of American Blues and Country songs.  Here's the wikipedia on "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do," a song from the 1920s.  And here's the great Freddie King playing it:

(Yes, Freddie, I can feel it!)

Hank Williams wrote a good version, too.  This is a terrible video, but a great song, so who cares.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Check Out Reason Number 9

Not the Beatles' song.  Rolling Stone, April 29, 2010, p. 62.  (Gonna be harder to get tickets.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Just him and his guitar"

There's a scene in "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll when Keith Richards and Chuck Berry are rehearsing "Carol!" Keith wants to play lead. Chuck wants to play lead. And Keith says something like: "You don't want to play lead and sing at the same time, do you?"

"Well I did it," says Chuck.

And how. This clip shows him in England at his peak of virtuosity in the early 1970s-- with rhythm, lead and singing all intertwined. The best moments come when the band gets quiet and it's "just him and his guitar." ("Got it and Gone").

When people talk or write about Chuck Berry doing short uninspired shows with bad pickup bands I know I've been lucky. At South Lake Tahoe and in Monterey, California I saw him like this, playing inspired music with great pickup bands. (I saw some less inspired shows, too; but he always pulled it out in the end.)

Another thing about this song: it's proof that you never see Chuck Berry play a Chuck Berry song the same way twice. He's like Bob Dylan in that respect. The songs are alive. They only exist while he's playing them. There aren't "tunes" per se-- there are chord changes. The lyrics morph. (I like how the car becomes a Mercedes here in Europe). The guitar just happens. The band may or may not have played with him before. It's never the same.

Nowadays he doesn't play with the virtuosity you see here.   (The difference may simply be not doing a show ever day of the year.)  Some days his playing is strictly garage style punk-- loud, honking, approximate. But it still works. What he lacks in fine motor skills he makes up with experience, chunking out weird rhythm chords that are as much a part of his playing as the famous intros.  And every now and then you see him light up and hit the old notes the same old way.\

This one, though, is pretty special.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Self Deprecation

Chuck Berry was quoted in a great article in the British newspaper The Independent.  (There was a link, but it faded with time.  Alas.)

"Look, I ain't no big shit, all right?... My music, it is very simple stuff. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn't blue enough. I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic. I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that's nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal: to look at my bank book and see a million dollars there. That satisfy you?"

Well, except that, Mr. Berry, you are a big... 

Well, a really, really, really important man.  Up there with Muddy, and George Washington, whether you like it or not.

Picture courtesy Sky.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Nice Version of Maybellene From Las Vegas

This next one wasn't doing to well on my computer, but it's nice, too-- a relaxed version of "Roll Over Beethoven" in front of thousands of knowledgable fans.  The man's having yet another "comeback."  But he never left-- he's kept playing, week in, week out, for 60 plus years.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It Came a Long Way from St. Louis: A Great Photograph of Chuck Berry and his Guitar

I just received an 8 by 10 original of this photo by U.S. Mail.  Thank you Busseybootleger!  It's a great picture that becomes even better when you look at the real thing.  You're first drawn to the face, of course, and the sweep of the hands.  But it doesn't take long to find the guitar, all battered and bruised.  This guy really was and is the Father of Rock and Roll.  Think how much a second generation rocker might pay for an old beauty like this, with it's battle scars and scratches.  And has there ever been a less elegant, more beautiful use of duct tape?  I saw the big yellow strip when I went to Blueberry Hill, but I hadn't seen the nuance-- the bits of blue and black above the lower f hole.  The gold plating on the pickups is practically gone.  I don't know if that's a scratch going from the center of one knob to through a knobless knob and on down to the bottom, or is just some hanging debris?  (I'll have to check other photos.)  The photograph also brings out the color.  You'll see it described as wine red below.  I always thought of it as brown but it's not at all brown. 

There were a lot of guitars in between ("Tools, you know?  Deductible!")  but two are supreme in Chuck Berry's performance career.  The first is the big blond Gibson enshrined at Blueberry Hill.  You can tell that was a well loved, well cared for guitar.  It's in nearly perfect shape.  And then there's this one, which I have seen several times over the decades, also well loved and well cared for, but probably played a lot more times than the blond, which seemed to be retired from condert use within 7 or 8 years.  Chuck Berry's son describes this one as purchased in the late 1970s.  He would know-- but I know I saw him play one a lot like it in Monterey in 1974.  (Can't make that one any bigger.  I hope to get to the source of it one day.  I was standing next to that right foot!)

Ah!  News flash.  I just poked around the and found the following comment from CBII:

"I can remember 2 of the "Wine Red" 355's. The one you guys have seen him playing is a 1978 and the other a 1972. This footage has to be with the 72. That guitar is still in the inventory but has been retired due to the neck having a crack in it. I guess it could be fixed and put back in service but the 78 is the better sounding guitar." 

Read it HERE.

So I probably saw the '72 in '74 and the '78 in '89, '98, and '09!) Anyone interested should check out the Chuck Berry website and read what CBII has written about Chuck Berry's guitars over the years.  He gives this one special praise for it's sound.

 At any rate, thank you Doug.  If I make it to Blueberry HIll again, I will line up with this one and hope!

And wouldn't you like to see "the inventory"!?!?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sheer, Delirious Speculation

My wife and I went out tonight, and spent the last hour or so at a neighborhood restaurant that features live music on the weekends. And at some point the band leader took out a tiny recorder and said “We’re going to record it. It’s the only way we’ll get better. Not that I’m going to listen to this. But someday when the biographies are written…”

It was a pretty funny.

Then Rebecca said “Imagine if Chuck Berry had recorded his first shows!”

And it hit me.

Who’s the man who recorded “Memphis” at his office?

What did he take to Chicago?

Who wore the same $8 trousers at least 25 years?

Who’s the guy with the list of all the shows he’s ever played?


And he’s still got the tapes!  (That's the speculation.  Sheer and unadulterated.)

I’m betting he’s still got Ida Red—the one he played for Leonard Chess in 1955!

I'm betting there are shows recorded before "Maybellene," with blues and country and Louis Jordanesque material.)


Like an early draft of the Mona Lisa.

Oh, please let it be true!

And if it is-- oh please, let us hear it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It Goes To Show You NEVER Can Tell! (A recycled post about Family)

When three generations of Berrys and probably several branches of the family tree showed up on stage at the Pageant Theater the other day, it made me think of that consistent theme:  Family.  (Think "Memphis."  Think "Back To Memphis."  Think "Rain Eyes."  Think of Johnny's mother and the pawn shop loans.  Think of the family "standin' and waivin' at the kitchen door."  Think of the "hurry home drops" and the "tears from her happiness."  Think of the great scene with Chuck's own father in "Hail! Hail!)  So here's a repeat of an earlier post.

Chuck Berry’s often described by tired writers as a quiet, closed up, surly sort of fellow, a loner who’s stingy with interviews and stingier with details of his personal life. (This despite a 300 page Autobiography).

There’s a famous scene where he shuts down an interview with his wife during “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” (Good for him. The interview was turning into a sensationalized surprise attack worthy of Fox Cable “News.”)

My theory is that everything he really wants to give us is in the music—either on record, or live.

But shutting down the impudent questioning of his wife shows another side of the man. And it’s there in the music, too.

One of his early songs is bouncy, sweet instrumental called “Ingo.”

My guess—and that’s all it is—is that the song is named after his daughter, Ingrid, who was featured in the movie “Hail! Hail!,” on the album “Chuck Berry,” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and who frequently performs with Berry in St. Louis and elsewhere, singing backup and blowing harmonica-- right next to her brother, Charles, Jr., who plays backup guitar, emcee, and personal bodyguard to Berry at every show now. Charles, Jr. is always there to help his dad with a forgotten lyric, and sidles close when, at the end of the show, the women and girls get on stage and dance for Chuck Berry’s attention.

Charles, Jr. is the very accessible moderator on, where he often shares the enthusiasm of fanatical fans, and sometimes offers amazing tidbits of history. My favorites have been his descriptions of a an old redish brown Gibson that Chuck Berry has played for the last 35 years or so (as old as those red pants he’s worn half the times I’ve seen him!) The guitar is bandaged, taped, scratched, busted, with missing knobs and other parts tossed as useless for the purpose.

Charles, Jr. says it’s the best guitar ever made—an accident of the assembly line, probably, with the tone of a railroad airhorn. (There’s a video on youtube of Charles, Jr. and the band doing a sound check in France. With the Gibson in hand, the genetic link becomes clear. Charles bends those double string notes in a way that would make me jerk with recognition from down the street.)

When Chuck Berry celebrated his birthday at the Pageant Theater in St. Louis last fall, Charles, Jr. brought his own son to play. The trio were featured in a wonderful photograph in Rolling Stone. And the kid can play. Search, and you’ll find a home movie of (Charles III?) playing blues like an elder. Watch out for that one.

Other grand kids have shown up on news shows. One granddaughter is evidently a singer. Another described what it’s like to have such a famous grandfather.

There are less public kids, too. Just a couple weeks ago I read somewhere about a daughter named Isalee. That’s also the name of Chuck Berry’s music publishing company.

It’s nothing new. Chuck’s sister sang backup on some of his records. And check out the family scenes in Hail! Hail!, with Chuck and his sister surrounding their dad and telling stories. (I’m doing this from memory, but the man was either deaf or blind as a child, until they pierced his ear, and cured him!)

There’s a British news segment about Chuck Berry with a short interview of Charles and Ingrid. It’s pretty wonderful. Again, I’m doing this from memory, but they talk about their dad still mowing his own lawn at age 82. And then, I think I heard something like:

"Yeah, he makes crop circles!"
"Pretty weird, right?"
"I think they’re beautiful."

Me, too. And I haven't even seen them.