Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chuck Berry in Moscow!

The recent meteorites showed me that Russia is Youtube central.  Now, just a few hours after Chuck Berry's show in Moscow (tonight, last night?) you can already see just about all of it.  This rough and rousing piece will get you started.  (And as you watch it, remember, 86 1/2 years old, after God-knows-how-many-hours of plane flights and airports!  Pretty amazing!)

Also worth considering is how times have changed.  The guy started his career during the first, early blasts of the Cold War.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Back in the U.S.S., I Mean, Russia!

An Interview with Author Morten Reff: The Chuck Berry International Directory

(It seems worth repeating this interview in honor of the recent publication of Volume 4 of Morten Reff's The Chuck Berry International Directory.) 

For years I called myself the world's biggest Chuck Berry fan.  Boy was I wrong!  Here is a picture of Morten Reff,  author of a growing number of volumes of The Chuck Berry International Directory, surrounded by gazillions of Chuck Berry records, including the one that must be his favorite.  He kindly agreed to a short “interview” and when I got the picture I couldn't help but run it again.  Biggest Chuck Berry fan in the world?  My own collection consists of a dozen or so tattered LPs, a nearly unused Chess Box, four or five individual CDs, the Charley "poet" set, and the three boxed sets from Hip-O Select.  This guy, on the other hand...)

How did you first get interested in Chuck Berry and his music?

I heard his “Let It Rock” on Norwegian radio in the Autumn of 1963 ( I was almost 14). It was the swingiest music I have ever heard. The next day I ran down to the nearby shop and bought the Pye single, coupled with “Memphis, Tennessee”, and I was saved.

I grew up with swing jazz from my father’s collection. People like Benny Goodman (Charlie Christian), Lionel Hampton, Fats Waller (Al Casey) and Eddie Condon caught my attention. And my brother (6 years older) had singles with Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Little Richard and others, and this was something that appealed to me. I didn’t fancy the ‘60s beat stuff, never have, never will.

You must have a ton of his records. Can you tell us about your collection?

I have the most. Some 800 LPs, and about the same amount of singles and EPs, from all over the world. The latest achievement was an album from Hong Kong (1976), the very first I have seen.

The only important record I know I miss is the French EP on London from 1958. I have the vinyl but miss the EP cover. It’s a terrible situation.

But I also collect Berry cover versions and soundalikes. I have around 700 singles with different artists covering a Berry tune, and 100s of albums, both LPs and CDs, tributes and you name it. Berry’s music appeals to all kinds of artists and musical styles. That’s what makes it so interesting. I listen to music I am sure I would never have considered if it wasn’t for Berry’s music.

Can you describe what it is about the music that got you hooked?

The beat, the beat, the beat !

And of course his guitar playing and the lyrics. John Lennon said that Berry wrote intelligent lyrics when people were singing about “Be Bop A Lula”, “Long Tall Sally” and “Great Balls Of Fire”.

How many times have you seen him perform live? What are some of your best memories of that?

The first time was in 1975, in Paris at the Olympia (2 shows), which is also the most memorable moment. I thought he would never make it to Norway. Well he did, in 1977. He’s been to Norway another 7 times, and I have also seen him in Sweden once, in 1984, when Johnnie Johnson joined him for the very first time outside the US.

Who are some of your other musical heroes?

I am also a big fan of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Narvel Felts, Tommy Steele (UK), Willy DeVille (bless his soul) and would you believe Garth Brooks. But I also dig Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash (before ’94), and Elvis (‘50s & ‘60s).

You keep churning out books about CB-- can you tell us how that started?

It began already in the mid ‘60s when I started writing down cover versions, soundalikes and everything that had to do with Berry’s music. I wrote small articles for various magazines both in Norway, UK and USA. In 1982 when US author Howard DeWitt wrote a book about Chuck Berry “Rock N Roll Music” (the very first) I found that it was quite defective so I sent him a heavy envelope with material and we collaborated on the second editon in 1985. It included a discography for 100 pages. Now when the new book titled “The Chuck Berry International Directory Vol.1” came out on Music Mentor Books (UK) in 2008 the discography had expanded to 500 pages, so the one I did in 1985 was quite defective too.

What's the next one?

In 2009 came Vol.2 of the CBID, and this year will see the publishing of Vol.3 and 4. All books will have around 500 pages. Check out the web site of Music Mentor Books for contents,

What do you do in your other life (when you're not writing about Chuck Berry?)

Besides being married, I work daily in a nearby building supply business. However, I did run a record company, Fox Records, here in Norway from 1991-1994. I released albums with 3 Norwegian artists, one Swedish and also with Linda Gail Lewis and Narvel Felts.

Have you ever met the man?

Yes once, in Paris in 1975. That was very quick(!) In any case I have the picture.

Let's imagine you had a chance to sit down to eat with him at Berry Park. What would you want to tell him? What would you want to ask him?

That’ll be the day! Anyway, this is a very hypothetical question, but I would at least have asked him about who actually wrote “Run Rudolph Run”?*

Anything else you want to say about him?

No, but I love the music.

*Editor’s note: I think there’s only one person who could write the lines “Run, run Rudolph, Santa's got to make it to town! Can't you make him hurry? Tell him he can take the freeway down!” Freeways were a big deal in the 1950s, and celebrated in at least a couple of other Chuck Berry songs. (”Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeways?” ”New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours...”)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Why Beethoven had to Roll

This is somewhere back there in one of the old posts, but it's worth repeating. (Thank you Mr. Rothwell).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The House of Blue Lights

More precedent. The opening chatter might not be PC, but I'm betting Chuck Berry heard and enjoyed this one. The scat singing is identical. (Of course, Ella Mae may have learned it from someone else, too.)


Here's another blog's post on Ella Mae Morse:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beauty: The Battered Guitar of Chuck Berry

Photo by Peter K.
There’s a great scene in the Chuck Berry movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” where he’s walking through an airport talking about how he travelled back in the day—i.e., toothbrush, guitar, and a roundtrip ticket. And when he’s asked if he checks the guitar he says something like:

“Oh yeah, each one about six months, then a new one. Deductible. Tools, you know!”

Years ago I used to see him with a cherry red Gibson, but for decades he’s often been seen with a "wine red" one.

I assumed it was one of many—tools, you know, deductible.

But if you look at, you’ll find wonderful details about that particular guitar—a beat up, scratched up, battle hardened, Gibson ES 355 with missing knobs, a missing tremolo bar, and duct tape (or something like it) stuck carelessly along the base. And the details come from "a reliable source"—his son and backup guitarist, Charles Berry, II (a/k/a CBII, a/k/a “Son of Rock and Roll.”)

You can and should go to the original sources on the forum—but I can't help sharing some of it here.  From what I gather, this particular old guitar is one helluva specimen. Says CBII: “It has a tone like very few Gibsons I have ever heard. They (Gibson) really built that Guitar to perfection! Other than an electrical conduit brace being added, the only things that have been done to it are string changes, setups, and me polishing it on December 13, 2008 before a show here in St. Louis.”

I can testify personally to this much—when Chuck Berry plays it, it has a sound of its own, like railroad airhorns, beautiful to hear.

In another post CBII describes the guitar in more detail: “It's a 1978 ES-355. My father bought it new here in St. Louis. It's a true work horse of a guitar. What's really special about it is the tone. For it to be from the 70's, it's one of the best sounding 355's made (excluding of course the one's made in the 50's - mid 60's). Yeah, it's been beat up but it has a really rich sound quality to it. The newer ES-345's have a REALLY, REALLY good tone to them as well."  He says a little later that it was a factory second, with blemishes of some kind, stamped "second" somewhere.

But first in our hearts.

My favorite story on the website is about a time when CBII tried to do his dad a favor, and fix up the old guitar just prior to a show at Blueberry Hill.  He put on new knobs and a new tremelo bar.

“They were off the guitar before we went on stage,” says Charles.

(You may have seen Berry react to someone's effort to adjust the sound on his amplifier in “Hail! Hail!” The man knows his mind.)

Read all about it here. And here. And here.

Guitars can be beautiful things.

I got my own guitar in about 1975—so evidently I've had it even longer than Berry's had his wine red one.  Mine is not a Gibson—but I bought it because it looks like a Chuck Berry guitar-- except prettier, maybe, with a light natural finish-- spruce up front, and maple in the rear.  It's pretty gorgeous, to tell you the truth.

But it's also one of the weirder guitars on the planet—an Ovation semi-hollow body called something like a “Thunderhead.” I have only seen two others outside the internet. One was held by David Cassidy of the Partridge Family in a publicity shot.  The other was played on stage by a guitarist for Zydeco star Queen Ida Gillroy at the Sacramento Blues Festival sometime around 1975 or 1976. The Partridge Family guitar made me feel pretty ridiculous, but the Zydeco blues guitar made me happy. I loved Queen Ida, I liked her guitarist, and he was a real musician playing my slightly unreal guitar.

Even if you’re not Chuck Berry guitars wear out, and after 34 years I’d worn certain frets on my Ovation down to the rosewood. And the action got bad, especially up high.  So a few months ago I took it to a Seattle luthier with the very contradictory but poetic name of Cat Fox.  (Find her here.)  Her initial plan was to file down the frets, but when she got started working on the guitar she realized there was no hope for the little filaments that remained.  She called me to say that we needed to replace them all.

I was happy.

I had an immediate vision: Chuck Berry’s beautiful yellow guitar encased in glass near the front door of Blueberry Hill.  The guitar that played Maybellene.  The guitar that rocked the Apollo and the Brooklyn Paramount.  I remembered staring at the fretboard and those beautiful frets, thinking what had come off them and how those sounds had affected my life.

“I want those big fat frets,” I told her.

When I picked up the guitar a few days later, it was better than it ever had been—the action low, the hardware tight, the neck straight! The jack slipped in with a hearty clunk and stayed put. The strings glistened millimeters above big fat frets.

Ah, ‘twas a joy.

(She even took out the Ikea battery that my youngest child had inserted into the guitar at some point long ago, and which had been clunking loudly and helplessly for several years!)

I’m not much of a guitarist. I have a certain feel for music, but not much technique or talent. But I love my guitar and play it all the time.  (Or one of them anyway.  There are others.)

And I love that Chuck Berry seems to love his guitars, too, and that he's kept the one so long. In an old interview in Guitar Player Magazine he fondly remembers one of his first electrics. In his book he talks about his first four string.  Somewhere else he talks about fat frets. In his “poem” he talks about playing his favorite old guitar to the sound of rainfall. (“Sometimes it will be classics, and sometimes lullabies. But mostly rock and roll, which I’ll surely improvise.”) In a song he sings a lot these days-- "Love in 3/4 Time"-- he mentions his liking “my best red guitar.” And as you'll see above, his son can go on and on about the details of various Gibsons.

If you play guitar, or want to, you probably understand.

(Hey, check out the rest of the blog by hitting the title, or you can read my book about a life infected by Chuck Berry starting HERE.  It's free!)