Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Today Bob Dylan, Next Year Chuck: Why Chuck Berry Should Get the Presidential Medal of Freedom

                                     Picture by Alan White http://www.earlyblues.com/

I sent this more than two years ago.  I will send it again.  Maybe YOU can, too-- or cut and paste mine, add your own sentiments, and send it.  It's an idea that should happen.  Medal of Freedom is perfect-- after all: Who delivered us from the days of old?

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

May 29, 2012

    Re: Charles Edward “Chuck” Berry
          Presidential Medal of Freedom

Dear President Obama,

You have a full plate.  Not much of it looks fun.  But here’s an easy decision for you.

I’m asking that you honor Chuck Berry with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Chuck Berry is often called one of the architects of rock and roll music. He’s credited with nearly inventing rock and roll guitar. He is often called the first poet of rock and roll. He’s a first class showman who continues to play at age 85.

The songs he wrote are the basis of rock and roll: Maybellene, Nadine, Rock and Roll Music, Roll Over Beethoven, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell), Johnny B. Goode, No Particular Place to Go—and that’s just for starters.

His music helped change the world. When Chuck Berry and his contemporaries first started playing big shows, a rope separated black from white—but as the music caught fire, the rope fell down, and kids mixed and mingled, dancing together despite segregation.

Chuck Berry built his success the old fashioned way—he worked for it, putting on thousands of shows, in hundreds of towns and cities around the world. He often travelled alone, carrying his guitar and an overnight bag, teaching his songs to the backup group in a matter of minutes just prior to the show.

In the segregated south Berry sometimes slept in his car, and often cooked his own food on a portable hot plate rather than knock on the back door of a restaurant.

When Chuck Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” was released, in 1955, the record included two “co-authors” who had no part in writing the song. Berry fought hard to get the rights restored to his name. He managed much of his own career.

He has made mistakes. So has our country. In the late 1950s, at the height his success, Chuck Berry was arrested and tried three times on trumped up charges that he violated the Mann Act. The first conviction was overturned because of the blatant racism of the trial judge. The second trial ended in acquittal. The third time was the charm for the prosecution—and just after releasing “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry spent two years in prison.

He didn’t waste his time there. He studied business and typing. He practiced. He wrote songs. And when he was released, he hit the ground running, putting on shows wherever his parole officer allowed, and releasing new classics such as “Nadine,” “Promised Land,” You Never Can Tell” and “No Particular Place to Go.”

His music was the foundation of the so-called “British Invasion” of the early 1960s. Ex Beatle John Lennon once said that “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." Stevie Wonder said "There's only one true king of rock 'n' roll. His name is Chuck Berry."

He Performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1975.

In 1977, his song “Johnny B. Goode” was launched into outer space on Voyager 1. (In one Saturday Night Live episode, Father Guido Sarducci announced that the first message from extraterrestrials had been received. Once decoded, the message stated, "Send more Chuck Berry!")

In 1986 he was among the very first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1987 he published his Autobiography, writing every word of it himself.

In the year 2000, he was honored by the President at Kennedy Center.

At age 85, Chuck Berry continues to tour and perform. Once a month he puts on a show at a St. Louis bar and restaurant called Blueberry Hill. (He just did his 175th Blueberry Hill show!) These hometown shows have become legendary, drawing fans from around the country and around the world to see one of America’s musical legends perform among friends in a small room. His backup group is something of a family affair, with longtime friends and with his own son and daughter helping out with guitar, harmonica and vocals. If he’s feeling inspired, Mr. Berry even performs his famous “scoot” or “duck walk.”

Mr. President—most of what you do for us is hard. You’ve said that if a decision is easy, someone else makes it before it gets to your desk.

Well, here’s an exception to that rule.

This decision is yours alone. It's an easy one.  And it’s a great one.

As Chuck Berry turns 85 this year, “deliver us from the days of old,” and honor him and his work with the Medal of Freedom.

Thank you.



Wednesday, May 23, 2012

All ABOARD! (Newingburg, Kingston, Albany & On We Go!)

Chuck Berry songs are often about geography and transportation. There are Fords, de Villes, Jaguars, trains, planes, Airmobiles, souped-up jitneys and Greyhound busses. Johnny plays guitar by the railroad track and gets on a bus to go get famous. And there are cities, states and towns galore—most in the United States, some foreign. Havana’s moon, and a desert outside of Bombay.

Flying cross the desert in a TWA
I saw a woman walking cross the sands
Walking thirty miles on route to Bombay
To meet a brown eyed handsome man

Another one on the international scene, there’s Havana Moon. The original is wonderful. The remake, done for 1979’s Rockit, is weird and—in a weird way—sort of wonderful. There’s a bit of the “ra-daka-daka” style backup of “Almost Grown,” and a weird beat that Chuck Berry evidently called “disco.” No one would do the Hustle to this one, but it sticks to the brain pan like old pancake batter to steel bowl.

Here's a version by Santana:

Back in the USA, we know they’re rocking in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, deep in the heart of Texas, in Frisco, St. Louis and down in New Orleans. Close to New Orleans, too.

The song “All Aboard” is the pure poetry of place names.
All aboard!
Newingburg, Kingston, Albany & on we go
to Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.
Erie, Pennsylvania, Cleveland on the lake shore
Whistle at Lorain, Sandusky to Toledo
Let her roll, hello Indiana by Ohio
South Bend, Gary change trains in Chicago
Charleyette, Bloomington, Decatur, make a right flank
Springfield, St Louis on the muddy banks
Switching locomotives catching MKT making Whizville
Boonville and K.C. cutting to Topeka no more little bitty
Towns where she stops till she hits Oklahoma City

Most of the songs look south from his home town of St. Louis, or west to California.

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

Maybe the song should be heard in history class, too. When he gets close to Montgomery, Alabama, there’s something like a bus boycott. A struggle and a breakdown, anyway (things are always breaking down in Chuck Berry songs. Think of “Move it!” “Dear Dad!”)

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

It might mean nothing that Berry was released from prison a month after the white terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a landmark event in the civil rights struggle, or that the song was recorded five months later. But our hero makes the point of riding “cross Mississippi clean” during the next phase of his journey. Then New Orleans and Houston, where he gets put on an airplane. From there everything’s cool, with T-Bone steak ala carty. He’s flying cross the desert again, but this time high over Albuquerque.

The late 1970s song “California” is also about the promised land, and mostly celebrates the Spanish names of a state that used to be Mexico. (Then again, Redding, Needles and Barstow made the cut!)

San Francisco, Sacramento
Will I ever go to Los Angeles or San Diego?
To Redding or Fresno?
Needles or Barstow, California I have so far to go.

(San Jose isn’t represented. But Chuck Berry used to tell people he was born in San Jose. He bought a bus there, too. He must have first seen it back in the day when there were blossoming orange trees and purple mountains, and not the multi-million dollar tract homes and silicon that plaster hundreds of square miles of that valley today.)

Alabama is well represented. “Let it Rock” takes place in Mobile. Memphis shows up in a lot of songs, and Louisiana comes up as often as Memphis--first in “Sweet Little Sixteen” and more famously in “Johnny B. Goode.” Pierre and the Mademoiselle drive to New Orleans to celebrate their anniversary in “You Never Can Tell.” The boat-full of Bordeaux is floating down there somewhere. My favorite reference is in a beautiful, little known song called “Oh Louisiana.”

Oh Lou’sana
Creole baby, Cajun queen
Great porches and windows
Filet de gumbo and basil beans
Your beautiful delta
And bayous of green
Ohh-ohh! Lou’sana!

The song is from a record called San Francisco Dues and was ruined just a little by the temporary insanity of a wah-wah. But the music, poetry and geography are fine.

Oh Lou’sana
I’m flying on Delta 903
Right over St. Louis
High over Memphis, Tennessee
On southward to the sea
Where I long to be
Oh, Lou’sana
(Decades ago I sang “Oh Louisiana” on the streets of San Francisco. I wasn’t much of a singer or guitar player, and most people contributed money only because I was skinny and barefoot and they were moms. But as I sang “Oh Louisiana” a tall African American man with whiskers, sunglasses and an African cap came, listened, and nodded to me. My fantasy is that it was Taj Mahal. I think it actually was. Alas for me, I know that whoever it was nodded because of the song, and not the singer.)

Maybe Someday You'll be the First Inductee

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Just Him and His Guitar (A Repost)

I was at the gym, pedaling furiously, getting steadily fatter, and watching a bank of silent television screens. On one, as usual, was Lady Gaga. I have to admit I don’t know Lady Gaga. I wouldn’t recognize her music. I wouldn’t necessarily recognize her—except that I’ve come to associate her with any series of extremely fast edits and costume changes: patent leather, bubbles, bright lipstick, that sort of thing.

I have nothing against Lady Gaga. Gag if you will, but I figure that most of the people we see on screen have worked hard and have talent. There are undoubtedly people who’ve worked harder, and have more talent who never make it to the big screen or the little screen, but that doesn’t take anything away from those who do. Lady Gaga seems like an original presence with ideas.

But when I watched the fancy video production, the quick edits, the costume changes, the makeup, the boys, the girls, and thought of the hundreds of other talents behind all that—directors, musicians, make-up artists, costume designers, editors, techs, you name it—I thought of our man, travelling alone for decades with a guitar, a briefcase, some well worn clothes and a rental car. He didn’t even bring a band to 90% of his gigs. He certainly didn’t bring a retinue. No agent. No manager. No roadies. He’d show up, and whether the band was good or bad, he’d play—and usually bring down the house and send them all home happy.

What’s funny is that these independent activities have given him a reputation. People complain that he wants the right amplifier, or that he wants the money that was promised.

Every artist wants the right amplifier! Every musician wants the money!

Most of the famous ones don’t have to ask for it themselves. The road manager handles all of that.

Chuck Berry has done it all on his own, in minimalist style—a good guitar, a cord, a bag of cash, a stage, some hopeful and hopefully competent musicians standing ready leaning to get a hint at the key he’s going to choose waiting for their moment of history.

I was in Sacramento a few weeks ago, wandering around the beautiful brick barn of an auditorium where I saw Chuck Berry perform three times and it set me to wondering: where did he park? How did he find these places without google maps? Who saw him walking up to the back of the auditorium with his guitar? Which door did he knock on?

Once, not that long ago, I saw him leave the basement parking of the EMP rock and roll museum in Seattle a couple of hours before his show began. It’s a spot where I now frequently go to pick up my daughter—a circular driveway leading out onto Fifth Avenue. I was with both daughters that day, and we lurched forward towards the black Town Car, but he lurched forward, off to some destination in Seattle. He wasn’t alone that day—he had someone that I suspect was a travelling partner from St. Louis; but who knows. It’ might have been someone from the EMP guiding him to wherever he was off to.

On stage it’s “just him and his guitar.” I got an e-mail from one disgruntled musician who said he played with a wah-wah once, and that after his solo Chuck Berry said something like “I don’t play with toys—I play guitar.” Decades later the poor guitarist remains scarred—but it’s true. The sound he fought so hard for (whether right or wrong in that instance) in “Hail! Hail!” is the pure sound of a Gibson guitar, a Fender amp, and Chuck Berry’s inimitable hands and rhythm.

Without the crews, the managers, the make-up, the costumes, the smoke and mirrors and special effects Chuck Berry swung the guitar around like it was lighter than air, dancing with it, doing things most people can’t do without any burden, and doing it all while spitting out those amazing double string bent notes, making faces, making us dance, making us laugh.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tonight at Blueberry Hill: Show Number 7001? 8001?

How often has this happened? There’s no authoritative or complete listing of the shows he has performed in his 60 years as a professional. Author Morten Reff lists as many of the international shows as he could find and it is a bigger number than I care to count—well over 500. But I can make some reasonable (and I think reasonably conservative) estimates. Let’s assume that from 1955 until 1961 he did an average of 200 shows a year. That makes 1200. Let’s say that from 1963 until 1971 he worked a little harder—say 225 a year. That’s another 1800. Then comes his “Ding a Ling” and even more work—let’s say 750 shows over three years. We’re up to 3750. Then let it cruise at 125 shows a year for the next 10 years. That’s probably conservative, but it’s now 1986, and we’re at 5250 shows. But he’s only 60 and still going strong. Let’s assume 100 shows a year until he turns 70, 75 a year until 75, 50 a year till he turns 80, and then slow him down to something like 25 shows a year when he enters his 80s. By my reasonably well educated (and carefully manipulated) fantasy count we’re at 7000 shows and counting.

It’s guesswork on my part, but you get the idea. The man has worked. This isn’t some superstar who plays golf 300 days a year and then regroups for a tour every ten years to refill the coffers. The man worked, and still does.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Who is Chucky Checkers??!?!?

Someone calling him(her?) self Chucky Checkers is putting a slew of old Chuck Berry videos on YouTube.  Thank you Chubby!  And who are you?

Here's a great version of "Maybellene."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Something's Happening Here

And this much is clear: Jan, Peter K., Enrique, Dominic and Ida May are finding tons of NEW OLD THINGS on Yahoo.  Here's just one of them.  (Haven't even heard it yet.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Live from The Howard

Thank you Doug for this clip from The Howard Theatre.  I love, around 18 seconds in, a few bars that sound like "Woodpecker," the instrumental from Bio.  Haven't listened/watched it all because I'm on my way out of town, but at the beginning he's hitting everything.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Chuck Berry at The Howard Theatre: A Review

Here's a really thoughtful, respectful REVIEW of Chuck Berry's show at The Howard Theatre.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

New York City, 1957, and the Alan Freed Rock and Roll Show

Here's a cool blog post about The Paramount Theater in Manhattan, Alan Freed, and a show of stars that included you know who.  (Same show made it to my hometown of Sacramento on Chuck's birthday in 1957.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Daryl Davis at The Triple Door in Seattle, May 17, 2012

Chuck Berry fans (and fans of boogie woogie and blues) won't want to miss this.

Here's Mary Flower.

Orville Johnson and Grant Dermody

Son Jack, Jr. and Michael Wilde, at the Triple Door