Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ronny Elliott and a Very Famous Man (some things are meant to be.)

If you read this blog a lot you've probably bumped into Mr. Elliott, who described his early days backing Chuck Berry and whose friend Ed Brown tells the best Chuck Berry story you'll ever hear (you can find it on this blog.)  Well, Ronny Elliott met Chuck, and even got invited to Berry Park.  But he also met this guy.  And has a very good story to tell about it (he's in Ed Brown territory) right here.

(By the way-- it's not Ghadaffi.)

Report of the Chuck Berry Astronomical Society Committee on Historical Investigation and Minutiae

Members present: Peter K. and Peter O.
Question raised: Was he observing, or simply posing?
Working Hypothesis: Actual Astronomical Observations.
Evidence: Shadows, Aperture, Apparent Age, Apparel.
The Committee observed that all shadows are directly behind the subject.  This would indicate that his telescope is pointing directly at the Sun.  Committee also observed that aperture of scope appears to have been reduced significantly at front end.  This would indicate use of antique solar filter.  Use of filter also supported by current absence of blindness in left eye of subject.  Mr. K. presented data showing two annular solar eclipses visible from State of Missouri during subject's adolescence: April 19, 1939 and April 7, 1940, each of which seems consistent with subject's apparent age in photograph prior to major growth spurt.  Subject's identity confirmed by shoes, which are substantially similar to shoes in painting below (by el padre de Enrique).  Subject's other clothing appears consistent with spring weather conditions.  Subject is located on roof of building-- a perfect location for solar observations.  Additional spooky anecdotal evidence: Eclipse Restaurant's location directly between Pageant and Blueberry Hill.
Conclusion: Evidence indicates that Mr. Berry was an amateur astronomer, making observations of a partial solar eclipse in the spring of 1939 or 1940.  Evidence also indicates that both the photograph, and the painting, are quite wonderful.

Michael Lydon in the New York Subway:La Vie!

One of my favorite writers on the music and significance of Chuck Berry is Michael Lydon, who once published a great piece on Chuck in Ramparts Magazine, and who also wrote the liner notes to the album Back Home.  (Mr. Lydon's Ramparts piece was reprinted in his excellent book Rock Folk, which you can find easily on line, and which you'll enjoy for its equally good essays on folks like the Rolling Stones and B. B. King.)    Lydon gave me two lines I will never forget.  The first was a description of Chuck's guitar style on Back home.  Lydon wrote: "his guitar, when not ringing like a bell, has the bitingly fine quality of etched steel."  It can't be said better.  The other line I'll never forget is one that Chuck uttered when escorting Lydon back to his car after he refused an interview at Berry Park.  Says Chuck, "So, standing in the sun ain't my shot."  And then he walks away.  Lydon went on to write a great essay about the man-- but you can't imagine how many times I've tried that line out for myself.  "Standing in the sun ain't my shot."  I'm not sure what my shot is.  It ain't standing in the sun.  But the words don't fit me at all, and I repeat them with a bizarre fascination, the way you might stare at photos of a crime scene.

Anyway, Michael and I have become imaginary friends.  He read my efforts to create a book of my own, and sent me one of his.  And then this-- an ancient documentary that just resurfaced showing Michael playing guitar and singing in the streets of the New York subway in 1991.  You'll note that the song owes more to Edith Piaf than Pierre and the Mademoiselle.  But check out the guitar!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Still a Pioneer! (More from San Bernadino)

This is interesting-- after he hands off his guitar he tells the crowd that he's got an ear problem that makes it difficult to hear some of the keys.  I wrote some time ago about the book Musicophelia, by Oliver Sacks, which talks about this-- a common problem for musicians with longevity.  When your hearing goes (mine would be gone forever after one day in front of Chuck's Dual Showman) pitch can go, too.  A properly tuned instrument can sound out of tune.  Oliver Sacks wrote about a composer who thought his piano was out of tune-- but it wasn't.  It's an incredibly tough thing to deal with for a musician-- but Chuck seems to be doing it.  Lately his guitar playing is sounding better than it has for several years.  I think they're learning to adjust the sound so that it works.  He's been a pioneer all his life, and, as his friend Daryl Davis once told me, he's being a pioneer in his old age, laying down the law about how to play when you're 85 years old!  Go, Chuck go!  (Obrigada Ida May.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

John Davidson Interviews Chuck Berry

My First Chuck Berry Experience

(Excerpted from a book I hope to publish some day.  E-mail me and I'll send it to you!)

One day I’m listening to the beginning of The Mike Douglas Show, a day time talk show and after school favorite of mine.  I like Mike, who seems genuinely nice, and who takes time to talk to the musicians on his show.  I first saw B. B. King talk about his guitar Lucille on the Mike Douglas show.  And this day, I see Chuck Berry for the first time.

It is October 22, 1970.  

(I learn the date 40 years later from a reference book called “The Chuck Berry International Directory” by a Norwegian named Morten Reff, a man, by all evidence, even more obsessed with Chuck Berry than I am.)

And because of the miracle of YouTube, I’ve watched the performance again.

Mike Douglas sits with Cher and Sonny.  He says: “In the rock era of the fifties he was an innovator, with tunes like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode.  Here is Mr. Chuck Berry!”  Sonny and Cher applaud without enthusiasm.  

Chuck is standing on a series of risers that look like giant building blocks about four feet tall and three feet square.  He’s crowded by the mike stand.  One misstep and he’s an innovator with a limp. 

He’s wearing yellow pegged slacks that tighten about three inches above his shoes and show skinny ankles.  He’s got the purple paisley shirt I’ll see in hundreds of pictures and at a couple of performances over the next 20 years or so.  His upturned pencil mustache is mimicking Salvador Dali or Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.  He has giant sideburns and slicked back hair.  He has the high cheek bones I envisioned, and he might have freckles, but the pompadour is not blond.  

The guitar intro is flawless.  When he starts to sing he recoils from the volume, but someone adjusts it and he settles into a grim, nearly joyless performance of “Johnny B. Goode.”  No wonder I wasn’t overly impressed.  The band plays a lifeless arrangement with bass and drums that are too neat and horns that are dorky.  (A comment posted on YouTube says : “Man, that band is really dragging Chuck down. That bass player flat sucks!”) During the instrumental break Chuck has to climb down from the riser without tripping over his guitar cord and killing himself, all the while picking a complicated solo.  You can see his relief when he finally gets to the stage where he can dance and do his “scoot.”  With his shorty short pants he looks a bit like what Michael Jackson will look like 10 or 11 years later at the Motown 25th anniversary show except that he’s totally uncool.

I remember this much distinctly: I watch, interested, but unchanged.  

Why I remember that show I’m not sure.  The actual obsession wouldn’t hit until I saw him live, four months later.  It is a testament to whatever Stevo told me about the man, and how he told me, that I remember a performance that otherwise didn’t do it for me.  Stevo’s words were like an injection of live virus for which I had no antibodies—cells that would multiply and become a chronic disorder.

And here it is.

Write up of San Bernardino Show

Itsy-bitsy review of our man in San Berdoo.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Witness to Bickerstry

Looks like Bobby Keys will be joining Taylor Hackford to talk about "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" in Minneapolis soon. Read about it HERE.

Monday, September 19, 2011

More Chuck Berry in San Bernardino

Incroyable! Formidable! Encore!

I'm glad this one is still here.  Watch every bit of this incredible performance from 1965!  (Merci a CB II for posting.) (The second number, "Wee Wee Hours," is just incredible.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More Chuck Berry in San Bernardino

He's had some sort of guitar revival.  (He can hear himself!)  Here he is reciting poetry and playing up a storm.

Do yourself a favor and start this one about two minutes in. (But at least it's short.) (I won't say WHAT's short.)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chuck Berry in San Bernardino

Well I'm guessing this is San Berdoo.  And sounding very good!

RIP Willie Smith: Pinetop and the Willie "Big Eyes" Smith Band at Jazz Alley, Seattle, May 2010

(Willie Smith died yesterday.  Here's a story I wrote after being lucky enough to get myself , my wife and my daughter down to see him perform with Pinetop Perkins.)

Remember the game where you connect actors to Kevin Bacon? It works so much better with the Blues.

Last night we went to see Pinetop Perkins and the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith band at Jazz Alley in Seattle. The connections were everywhere.

Boogie woogie and blues pianist Daryl Davis, who often backs Chuck Berry, had told me to send a hello to Mr. Perkins, who is a friend and mentor. I tried to oblige while Perkins was signing autographs after the show but Davis had beat me to it: “Oh, I just talked to him,” said Perkins’ manager. He’s doing a show with Pinetop in Washington, D.C. next week!”

Drummer “The Amazing” Jimmy Mayes announced one of his own connections early in the show, when he sang “Bright Lights, Big City.” “I had the honor of doing this one with Mr. Jimmy Reed shortly before he passed,” said Mayes, who wore a light pink suit and had his hair slicked back and hanging. Mayes smiled throughout the show, looking immensely happy to be a part of it.

And who wouldn’t be? Bob Stroger, who Smith called “The Best Dressed Man of the Blues,” wore a black suit and hat and kept a steady beat and an impish, enlightened smile on his own face all night. He sang “Key to the Highway” in a low bass voice that matched his guitar while he flirted with the women up front. Stroger is new to me but not to the blues—his connections include Odie Payne, who drummed on a number of Chuck Berry and other Chess numbers. He played with Otis Rush and Jimmy Rogers. He got his start in the music business after watching his brother-in-law play with J. B. Hutto. (There’s a page on this site devoted to Hutto, who was in Seattle for a while in the late 1970s—a minor miracle, at least for me.) We sat close to Stroger and it was a delight to watch the fingers of his right hand glide effortlessly over pickups.

(If you want to learn more about Bob Stroger, here’s a great interview:

Guitarist “Little” Frank Krakowski is the youngster of the group, but has spent about half his life playing with Smith and Perkins, and other legends like Hubert Sumlin. Read about him HERE. He played a Les Paul without distortion—clear, sweet notes, all night, with even a couple riffs from Mr. Berry thrown in. “He’s been with Pinetop and me since he was 16,” said Smith, “And he’s become a fine guitarist.”

Smith himself came out in a giant grey pinstriped shirt and grey pants, his grey hair pulled back into a bit of a pony tail. He was a modern, stylish contrast to formally stylish elegance of Perkins and Stroger. When he played harmonica he danced, kicked, stooped, bent and knelt with youthful abandon. I wrote about the Waters biography “Can’t Be Satisfied” some months ago. Smith was an important source for that book, and his story peppers the later pages.

Smith carried the show for five or six numbers, blowing his harp, singing, sweating and smiling. He knelt down a couple times to blow solos for an appreciative ten year old girl who was sitting up front.

Then came Pinetop, slowly, escorted past the bar and up to the piano. It sort of looks like the pope arriving, but better, a dapper black hat bobbing just above the heads of seated patrons, causing a slight ruffle of turned heads. When he got to the piano I couldn’t even see him. The first few notes were tentative. The band got quiet and seemed a little flustered, eyeing each other, playing soft, searching for a groove. After the strength of the preceding numbers I was scared of a musical disaster. And then the hammers started plunking a steady blues, and out comes a voice, clear and strong from behind the music stand of the Steinway. I got up and ran to a different spot where I could stand and see.

Perkins is 97 years old. His spine is bent. His hands look like my mother’s hands when she was 93. But he is travelling, leading a band, singing the blues, and playing a strong, boogie-woogie beat.

When I went to Blueberry Hill I was touched to see how the band supported and surrounded Chuck Berry. There’s nothing frail about Chuck Berry, who is, after all, a sprightly 83. But when women were invited on stage his son moved protectively to his side, and when he forgot a lyric Jimmy Marsala was always there to remind him.

Perkins doesn’t seem to be forgetting the words—but there’s a similar reverence and support from the bandstand. His friend and former Muddy Waters band mate Smith rallies the audience. There’s a sense of love on stage that’s amazing.

And he makes them work, just like Berry. I heard them scrambling at least once to find the key. “It’s G!” said Krakowski, while Smith searched for the proper harmonica.

After the show the band hung around to talk, sell CDs and sign autographs. Drummer Mayes flirted with my daughter when she ran to get Pinetop’s signature. Smith posed for photos and bent carefully to get my daughter’s name right. I heard someone say it looked like he was having fun on stage. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Smith. “I see these poor guys going off every day to work at a job they hate. That’s not for me. I’m up there doing what I love.”

And Pinetop? He wasn’t talking, but he sat behind the reception desk signing CDs with a little smile.


Here's a link to the band:

And here they are all performing in Chicago.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Chuck Berry Live Recordings from 1972 on Have Mercy

One of the things that excited me about the “Have Mercy” set is that I learned it would have more cuts from the 1972 Coventry concert that produced the hits “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and “My Ding-a-Ling,” along with a rock solid accidental medley of “Bye Bye Johnny” and “Johnny B. Goode.” (Chuck starts singing “Bye Bye Johnny,” till a thousand Julian Lennon voices in the audience start screaming “Go, Johnny, Go!” After that, Johnny went.)

The concert, as produced on The Chuck Berry London Sessions, seemed like a great one. I have my issues with his “Ding-a-Ling,” but who can argue—as recorded in Coventry, it’s a work of pure comic genius. (One that should be shelved now that we know all the punch lines. Please—don’t request it!) And “Reelin’ and Rockin,’” just as funny, really rocks. Chuck’s guitar is in perfect form, moving from delicate rills to hard rocking riffs. And the band is in sync. Chuck and the piano player finish each other’s lines the way Chuck and Johnny Johnson used to do, and by the end of “Johnny B. Goode” the drummer is doing the same thing, accenting Chuck Berry’s stop-start guitar riffs with slamming pops of the snare. By the time the song is ending I can visualize it all. When Chuck Berry slides his pick slowly over a treble chord four or five times I know he is sticking out his tongue and doing some sort of glazed-eyed fish-mouth face at the laughing crowd. And a few seconds later when he begins a double note slur at the highest frets of his guitar, I know he is backing off stage, bowing, his guitar out front as the crowd roars. Then comes five minutes of chanting from a crazed audience while “management” asks for “just thirty seconds! I can explain, if you’ll give me just thirty seconds!” Forget it. “We Want Chuck! We Want Chuck!”

It’s just a taste of what I remember from my favorite Chuck Berry concerts.

But now that I’ve heard the rest of the show, I wonder: did the band just get it together by the time "Reelin' and Rockin'" started,, or is producer Esmond Edmonds actually a genius?

Because even though Chuck Berry is fine and entertaining throughout, some of the other cuts-- well....

“Sweet Little Sixteen” is marred largely by Too Much Audience Participation. They sing the whole song. Which would have been fun if you were there, but doesn’t make for much of a record. As for the band—well, not in sync yet.

Things get a little better on “Roll ‘em Pete,” a nice jump blues number where Chuck tries out some of the riffs that will make "Reelin' and Rockin'" and "Johnny B. Goode" special a bit later. But this is when it begins to occur to me that the drummer in this band has a bit of a foot pedal problem. Maybe that thing they advertise on television now—“restless leg syndrome.” He keeps throwing in a bit too much drumming—especially with his admittedly speedy foot on the bass drum. And it must have occurred to someone else, too, because on the single edit of the song that shows up later (as it turns out, the only Chuck Berry single I ever bought), the backup band from the stage show is gone, replaced by a new rhythm section, and some backup guitar that’s got to be our man himself. (It’s an interesting hybrid of a live cut—not outright falsified like on Chuck Berry On Stage, but certainly doctored. Works, though.)

Then comes the aptly titled “It Hurts Me Too.”  What hurts me is to hear that drummer, who's now gone mad with his crazy bass pedal. But he must have gotten a dirty look, because after a few verses he quiets down some. Still— there’s no reason for this version to have gone out, with a good live version already done at the Fillmore.

On “Around and Around” the band occasionally gets the idea that the song stops and starts. And on occasion they don’t. Chuck keeps plugging gamely away. I would have enjoyed it live. (I would have enjoyed all of it live, despite the flaws I’m complaining about here.)

On “Promised Land” things basically start to click. It’s a good version of the song. No complaints from me. Maybe the band is starting to get it.

And then come the hits. And they are beautiful. Suddenly the band is complementing riffs that Chuck tried out in earlier songs. He gets quiet, they get quiet. He stomps and so do they. They stop when he stops. They start when he starts. The foot pedal disappears.

Some of this, clearly, reflects learning. In the course of an hour, they have begun to know what it takes to back Chuck Berry. And some of it, undoubtedly, was done in the control room by the recording engineer.

Anyway, if nothing else it’s a study.

For the best live Chuck Berry shows I’d still recommend just two: the BBC show recorded a few months later in London, where a good band gets out of the way and let’s Chuck Berry shine; and the Michigan show recorded with backup from the Motown session players a few weeks after Chuck Berry got out of prison back in 1963. If you want more, try cuts from “Let the Good Times Roll.” Or those original live cuts from The London Sessions.

The other live cuts finally released here? Not so much-- but interesting, and good enough to help fill a long drive with something that's old and new at the same time.

Joe Edwards, Blueberry Hill and Chuck

Thanks to Judy F. for this one about her (two) friend(s).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"You Can Walk Down Beale Street, Honey, Wearing Your Pajamas..."

The poet Chuck Berry's "mamas" were always encouraging (borrowing money to buy Johnny's guitar, telling him his name would be in lights some day, standing and waiving at the kitchen door...).

So was mine.  It's her birthday.

Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs from the otherwise sad Mercury years.   (This one would would really nice done slow, with horns, on a new record!)  On the Memphis record it was done fast, with horns and great rhythm guitar.  The words are perfect poetry.

Back to Memphis

I've been struggling up here, child, trying to make a living

Everybody wants to take, nobody likes giving
I wish I was in Memphis back home there with my Mama
The only clothes I got left that ain't rags is my pajamas
No brotherly love, no help, no danger
Just a great big town full of cold hearted strangers

I went hungry in New York and Chicago was no better
But today, my dear mother wrote and told me in her letter
Son, come back to Memphis and live here with your Mama
You can walk down Beale Street, honey, wearing your pajamas
You know home folks here, we let do just what you want to
And I born you and raised you right here on the corner

I'm going to leave here in the morning and walk down to the station
I've got just enough money to pay my transportation
I'm going back to Memphis, back home with my Mama
If I have to ride that bus barefooted in pajamas
Back home in Memphis, no moaning and groaning
I know everything will be all right in the morning

By the way-- my dear mother always accepted me and my Chuck Berry problem.  ("Home folks here we let you do just what you wanna!")  After seeing the opening scene of "Let The Good Times Roll," where Chuck Berry plays "School Day," she admitted to being downright thrilled.  "I think now I understand why you get so excited about it," she told me.  "That was powerful!"

She'd be 96 today.  That's why it's so cool he's still out there singing those great songs.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chuck Berry and his Band in San Bernardino on Friday!

Chuck Berry and his St. Louis band will be in San Bernadino, California this Friday.  Read about it HERE.  For California residents, this is how you want to see Chuck.  The St. Louis band-- Jim Marsala, Bob Lohr, Keith Robinson, Charles II, and Ingrid, know exactly how to back the man.  If you're within 100 miles or so, don't miss it.

Read about the beautiful California Theater HERE.  I love it because this one will come a couple of days after my mom's birthday.  She was born in San Bernardino.  She always supported my Chuck Berry problem, letting me sing myself silly in the backseat of the car, and accompanying me at least once to "Let the Good Times Roll."  Maybe she'll go!  Maybe he'll play "Route 66!"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ancient Sketches (Ancient Obsession) (Ancient Post)

Lest you think I come lately to this cause, or this illness, I show you some some old sketches my mother kept for me in a steel box. I obviously made them after the album Bio appeared-- so let's say 36 or 37 years ago. (I won't admit to anything more recent than that.) At any rate, long enough for the scotch tape to have seeped through the back of the young Chuck and to have disappeared completely from the other side.

What's amazing to me about this photograph is how much the young Chuck Berry looks like my friend Dando G., whom I met in Togo, West Africa, 30 years ago.  Dando and I had an instant connection that was at least as solid as the connection I instantly felt to Chuck Berry's music about ten years earlier.  Something about the eyes and the little grin here are just about identical.

I looked for these for another reason. My trip to Mississippi revived old longings of all sorts. I pulled down a book I have on Delta Blues guitar. During this same period of frantic sketching (I figure it lasted about three weeks) I also drew Skip James from the cover of the book. I'll post it later. Anyway, the book itself is one that I have felt guilty about for about as long as these pictures have been mouldering in that steel box. I could never figure it out. But now I have more of the records. So today I got out my Charlie Patton record and a capo and tried my best to make a few of the sounds. The book was suddenly helpful. It at least got me to a few of the chords, which in Patton's case, are regular old Cs and Es and As. I'm still no Charlie Patton. He wasn't a friend of mine, and I didn't know him, and I'm not him. But I'm a step closer. (That's why I keep my stuff forever.)

This one comes from the cover of another book of sheet music-- an old Chuck Berry book that's long gone. It wasn't terribly helpful as a book because all it really gave you was piano music, and I don't read music. But I'm always optimistic about learning, so I bought it, failed to learn it, and then drew the picture. Looking at it now, all I can see is that I made one pupil much larger than the other-- and that the chin on that side is bigger, too. Maybe that's the scanner. Ah well.

(Editor's note:  Actually, I've looked at the picture, and others, and realized that Chuck's chin is a little bigger on one side.  Saw it again in a recent photograph.)
And followers of this blog will know that earlier this year I revived my artistic side just long enought to start a painting featuring CB as the subject of a painitng in a gothic cathedral. (Unfinished view to left.)  It shows general deterioration of both skills and mind-- but that's what can happen, right? In the meantime, the painting has suffered from additional layers of confusion and obscurity-- but I'm hoping that someday it will turn out just right.

Buyin' Danny's Guitar at a Broker's Shop (The Rhythm of "Bye Bye Johnny")

I remember that at a Chuck Berry concert in about the year 2000 he instructed a bass player on rhythm.  (It was a night of instruction.  He spent some time teaching the piano player the riff on "Wee Wee Hours." I learned a few things.)

He strummed it on the guitar: ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. When the wide eyed the bass player started doing the same thing he got one of those big Chuck Berry stage smiles and Chuck returned his attention to the rest of us.

The bass player never changed that beat again all night.

It was a lesson in how to play Chuck Berry by Chuck Berry that I will never forget, and over the years I have paid more attention and heard that heartbeat rhythm in various songs-- but certainly not all of them.

And then the other day I was listening to the original mono version of “Bye Bye Johnny.”

“Bye Bye Johnny” has always been a favorite--- probably of everyone. I remember my same brother Danny singling it out as a favorite when he was learning to play guitar. Danny was (perhaps is) especially good at rhythm guitar. He first took up the instrument while living in a cave in southern Spain in a neighborhood of Gypsies and Flamenco dancers. He first bought a beautiful, cheap Spanish classical guitar. In those days (1968?) it cost the equivalent of $50. It would be worth $1000 today. (He’s still got it, but it’s got a Willie Nelson hole worn from his pick through the soundboard. Remember, he likes rhythm.) One day back in 1969 or 1970 Danny and I drove from Sacramento to Reno in search of an electric. His theory, probably true, was that musicians with gambling problems would leave good ones at the pawn shops in Reno.  He found an old Fender with a name I don’t recall—sort of Stratocaster shape, but obviously a lesser model of some sort. Someone had painted over the original glossy finish, but given its age—probably an early 1960s Fender-- it was probably a hellofa good guitar.

Anyway, it is fitting that on this pawn broker shop guitar Danny took to playing ‘Bye Bye Johnny.” He liked the squeaky guitar lick that Chuck Berry twisted between the cries of “Bye Bye,” but he also liked the rhythm that distinguished “Bye Bye Johnny” from “Johnny B. Goode.”  I remember him talking about that rhythm.

In those days my friends and I had a band—the worst band that ever played on stage—and my job was the drums. And during our practices Danny would inevitably appear and ask us to back him on “Bye Bye Johnny.” I flailed in my normal artless way. Being the world's stupidest budding musician, it never occurred to me to go listen closely to the original (which I’d heard hundreds of times without hearing). I somehow thought that would be cheating. So I pounded pointlessly while Danny strummed and sang.

So: the other day I’m reading my “Rothwell,” (we should all do it more often), and I notice that he distinguishes between two “Bye Bye Johnnies,” one in mono, and the other in stereo. I recall that my version of the Golden Decade was “electronically altered for stereo” and I want to hear what makes the mono version special. So I search them out on “The Complete 1950s Recordings” and play them.

And there it is—the beat Chuck Berry was teaching that Seattle bassist.

It’s not the bass, it’s not the guitar, it’s Odie Payne, the drummer, launching each half measure with two whacks on his snare drum. (Count “one and two and three and four” and then add some accent “And-one and two and-three and four.”) It’s the train that chugs through this song, and although you hear it on the stereo version, it’s up front driving the entire train in mono.  And it's hard to do on drums.  Your hands want to slap the two and four, not the "and one."

I always knew it was there—I just didn’t know what I knew. I knew this: that it drove me crazy when “The London Sessions” came out and Chuck was obviously playing “Bye Bye Johnny” and the crowd sang “Go Johnny Go!” I don’t know that I ever heard “Bye Bye Johnny” live so it struck me as an opportunity lost. He switched gracefully over, or tossed the lyrics, and the show ended. But there it is again—that chugging rhythm, this time on guitar, which the bassist picks up.  (The drummer plays it like I did.)

I think the beat means more to me after googling “Odie Payne” and finding that video of him in a tiny blues club and imagining the possibilities of meeting him there and figuring out that he’d drummed on “Bye Bye Johnny.” This year of blogging has benefits.

It’s a great song in every other way, too. The lyrics are full of the rich detail that makes Chuck Berry songs Chuck Berry songs: The Southern Trust, a brokerage shop. And that mom—gatherin’ crops, borrowing money, standing and waiving at the kitchen door, tears falling from happiness—this song is as good as it gets. If I were on Dick Clark I’d give the lyrics an 11 and the beat a 15. 

Out of ten.

P.S.  It only occured to me after realizing that Danny bought his guitar at a brokerage shop that I bought my first guitar-- a fake fender telecaster called a Copy Kat-- back in 1973 from my earnings picking honeydoo melons west of Sacramento.

In other words, money earned from gatherin' crops.  But I f*&%ed up and bought the guitar at a music store.  That's probably why I became a lawyer.