Thursday, July 6, 2017


One thing I loved about the new album “Chuck” even before I opened it was the cover: a beautiful drawing of an iconic photo and the name “Chuck” up top in block letters that look, to me, like the most common Black Lives Matter poster around Seattle.  I’m reasonably sure the resemblance isn’t deliberate, but I like it.  And I like the picture— Chuck Berry in his early 1970s prime doing a thoughtful split in full rock and roll regalia.  It was a picture I first saw back in 1972 when I opened the new London Sessions album, and one I stared out for many hours as a teenager.

Opening the cover is just as rewarding, with two beautiful black and white photos of the elder chuck, one in a prayerful or just tired looking pose in front of a mirror in what looks like a restaurant booth, and another with Chuck embracing his banged up, scratched up, doctored up old Gibson.

Below the photos something important: credits showing that the Berry family and the musicians who backed Chuck Berry for decades in St. Louis and internationally are the main performers on the album.  This made me instantly glad.  I remember back in 1973 purchasing  T-Bone Walker’s last studio album, a massive and polished thing produced by Lieber and Stoller featuring Lieber and Stoller songs and dozens of great jazz and blues musicians.  They used T-Bone Walker’s voice.  It was sweet, I still like it.  I loved where for a moment he spoke, saying “Thibaud!  Thibaud!  It’s a French name!”   But the record didn’t match the man.

This record, on the other hand, is pure Chuck Berry, but treated with all the love and dignity his band and family and Dualtone records could provide him.  There are a few “stars” (notably Gary Clarke, Jr. and singer Nathaniel Radcliffe) but the real stars are the songs, Chuck himself, and the production.  What stunned me right off the bat was the sound— strong, deep, with a ton of bass, great drumming, a touch of reverb, and the sort of rippling, rollicking piano you heard on early Chuck Berry.  It’s a record I like to turn up loud enough that the neighbors probably hear it, and every crank on the volume just makes it sound better.

Which is a miracle considering how it evidently was made, from Berry’s tapes, with other most musicians filling in their parts later.

I love all Chuck Berry records one way or another, and grew up on the “new” Chuck Berry records of the 1970s, but I also always felt that some of those had a flat feel, or showed inconsistencies when a single album drew from different sessions with different bands and different studios.  Here there’s a consistent whole.  It’s an album— the best Chuck made since 1970’s Back Home.  The sound is consistent, modern, but with the feel of his early stuff.  And there’s a little of everything you think of when you think of Chuck Berry: the well written boogie rockers, a few blues, a bluesy standard, some country, a funny live performance, a poem, female harmonies, and one wonderful bit of 1950s style country choir.  A perfect ending.

It starts with Wonderful Woman, which starts with a vibrato chord on the keyboard and then an exuberant shout from Chuck: “Oh well, lookie here now, this just makes my day!”  And of course, it’s a woman, or some combination of his wife Themetta and every wonderful woman Chuck Berry ogled from stage.  

Big Boys comes next— a song about a little kid figuring out what the big boys (and girls) do.  It’s the catchiest song on the album with a descending double string guitar lick that works its way into your ear quickly and excited cries of “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” from Chuck and backup singer Nathaniel Radcliffe.

The next two, although covers and not Chuck Berry songs, are my favorites.  You Go To My Head is a jazz standard done Chuck Berry style.  It reminds me of the standards he played during rehearsals for Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, but with a thumping blues beat.  Love in 3/4 Time (Enchiladas) was a crowd favorite at Blueberry Hill, a funny waltz with what I assume are some new added lyrics.  Its images are nearly perfect for Chuck, with red guitars and El Dorados and a funny line about software and hardware.

Darlin’ is another favorite of mine.  I first read about it years ago in The New Yorker.  (The writer was visiting Chuck while Chuck made quick phone arrangements for his last Seattle show— a quickie visit to replace the ailing Jerry Lee Lewis at the EMP.  I was there!)  It’s a great song sung to (and with) his daughter about growing older to a loping, western beat.

The rest, for me, are a little like the minor characters on Gilligan’s Island in the show’s original theme song (“and the rest”) but I like them all well enough.  Lady B. Goode be pretty goode.  She Still Loves you sounds great, but the lyrics don’t quite cut it for me.  Jamaica Moon is cute but Havana Moon was better.  Dutchman’s chief value for me is that Chuck Berry acknowledges he wrote music that some consider superb.  And Eyes of a Man is chiefly wonderful to me for that voice, but when I heard Charles, Jr. discuss it in a television interview I began to understand it better (men's work crumbles, women's work endures).  But they are all good, and I’m happy to let the CD play on.  (I haven’t played the LP yet, but I’d wear out Side A several times before I put a crackle on Side B.)

Jimmy Marsala, who played more shows with Chuck Berry than anyone, plays great bass throughout; Keith Robinson supplies the best drums for Chuck since the days of Odie Payne and Fred Below; and Robert Lohr on piano resurrects the spirits he learned from: Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake, Johnnie Johnson and Professor Longhair.  Berry family members Ingrid, Charles and Charlie all add their parts, which are especially perfect because Chuck Berry’s music was always a family affair, on stage, and often, with his sister and daughter, in the recording studio.

As a lifelong fan I could hardly have hoped for a better ending— an honest, adult, great sounding record with a couple of first rate new Chuck Berry songs and a lot of good ones, a summing up, in a beautiful package.  Thank you Mr. Berry!  Hail! Hail! Grammy time!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Band B. Perfect

This picture, which I've not done justice by reproducing with my phone, was taken by my friend Doug, at Blueberry Hill, and does a perfect job illustrating the beautiful musical and working relationship of drummer Keith Robinson and Chuck Berry.  Robinson was the best drummer I ever saw live playing with Chuck Berry, and the two of them obviously loved playing off one another.  Chuck never lost a bit of his rhythm on stage, and he loved bouncing riffs off a drummer who could match him.

I just saw a hack review of CHUCK in Rolling Stone magazine.  Rolling Stone has some great political writing, but it rarely did justice to Chuck Berry.  Except for a collage that included virtually everyone, he made the cover only once before he died, back in 1969.  I don't guarantee this, but my fading memory tells me that The Captain and Tenille also made the cover at least once.

But it wasn't just the covers.  Rolling Stone also blew the reviews.  As I recall, their write up of the mostly brilliant album "Back Home" complained that Chuck Berry had not kept pace with the music he invented-- that he hadn't "grown." "Back Home" was a great Chuck Berry record-- a joyous return to Chess Records after a three year stint at Mercury-- with Lafayette Leake on piano and Phil Upchurch on bass and more swing than you could find in the rest of 1970 combined.

After that, and after his death, you'd think the magazine would try to make it up to the guy who started what they write about, but not so much.  Easier to fall back on the same old bullshit.  At best, an appearance or two in Random Notes, and an occasional (and these I appreciated) ranking in Top 100 Guitarists, or Song Writers, or Whatever.  And of course, he made the cover again when he couldn't see it.

Anyway, in the hack review the hack reviewer calls the backup on CHUCK a "bar band" and suggests that the album could have been improved with a drummer like Charlie Watts.

No disrespect from me to Charlie Watts.  He's great.  But the drumming on CHUCK is great, too; a perfect fit, with all the pounding, beautiful energy of the best early Chuck Berry records.  And so is the "bar band"-- a core of incredible professionals who've put down the best rhythm section I've heard on a Chuck Berry record since the 1950s and early 1960s.

Yes, they've played in a a lot of bars.  And if you've been to some of those bars, you'll know that St. Louis has some of the best blues and r&b in the world.

But better yet, they played with Chuck, for years, and in one case, for decades.  He couldn't have found, hired, recruited a better band for the last Chuck Berry album anywhere.

So, Rolling Stone writer.  Thelonious Monk's band were often "bar bands."  B.B. King's bands were "bar bands."  Muddy Waters' band was a "bar band."  And so, in his final years, was Chuck Berry's.

But none of them were hacks.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bye Bye Johnny B. Goode

Years ago I wrote about meeting Chuck Berry and giving him a framed picture of himself as a child.  Peter K. had given me the photograph and we'd had fun trying to figure it out.  In the picture Chuck is on the roof of a building, dressed to the nines, and using a small telescope.  It's daytime.  The telescope is pointing skyward.  And it doesn't take long to figure out that all the shadows are behind Chuck: in other words, that he's pointing it at the sun.  I wondered in an e-mail if it might have been an eclipse, and sure enough, Peter K. found out there had been two in St. Louis at around that time.

When I gave the picture to Chuck he was visibly excited.  He said something like "Ooh, wee!  Where'd you get this?"  Then he said, "I'm going to show it to my friends, and you're going to be there when I do!"  And off he went, running down the hallway to another hall where a bunch of people enjoyed his reaction to the picture.  What made it even better is that my friend Doug was there, and my wife, who did some math with Chuck and his son to determine the date.  (American history and practical math.  We lived it!).

Here's the thing: You never know when you'll see a person you love for the last time.

I wasn't able to go to Chuck Berry's funeral, and I never went to another show, so it turns out that was the last time I ever saw the man.  He was glorious that evening.  He'd just put on a very good show.  He was dressed all in black, with a black leather jacket and dark glasses.  And the very, very last thing he did, before he went down the hall and into the street, was to stand in front of me, lift his dark glasses, and say "You look like Seattle!"  And then he was gone, like a cool breeze.

Whatever that means, I'll take it.  And what a blessing to have my last glimpse of Chuck Berry be up close, personal and so direct.  Thank you again, Mr. Berry.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Valentine's Day in 1971, when I was just 14, I walked into a nearly empty Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento and saw a lone figure on stage backed by a local rock band.  He was playing the blues when I pushed open the door and looked as sad and alone as anyone or anything I'd ever seen. Within a few minutes he picked it up and got us all on our feet and kept us there until, mercifully, he could leave Sacramento.  But eight months later he was back with a full crowd rocking from the very start.

I haven't added to this site in a long time.  I'll have two more posts, at least.  A summing up, and a piece about his long awaited new album.  In the meantime, I've shut down some of the more recent posts for a time to put my "book" about Chuck and my own peculiar love affair with him on top again for just a bit.  Hail!  Hail!  Love you Chuck!