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The Promised Land calling…

Fifty years ago this month the folks at Chess Records were preparing the release of a new Chuck Berry album called St Louis to Liverpool, containing the first new recordings since his release from jail a few months earlier. The album’s title, of course, acknowledged the effect of the British Invasion: the sudden takeover of the US charts by the Beatles, the Dave Clark 5, Freddie and the Dreamers, and others. Berry could hardly fail to have taken notice, since most of them were playing his songs.

Among the new numbers on the album was one I believe to be among his half-dozen finest: “The Promised Land”, the story of a poor boy making the trip from his home in Norfolk, Virginia to a new life in Southern California. The journey takes him through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, where — in Houston, with the aid of friends — he’s put on a jet plane for the final leg of the journey, over New Mexico and on to touchdown in Los Angeles.

The form of it is inspired by Bobby Troup’s “Route 66”, made famous by Nat King Cole but chopped and channeled by Berry into a beat-group classic. He wrote his new song in prison, and was initially turned down when he asked for a road atlas of the US to help him with the geography, on the grounds that it might help him escape. After an appeal to the governor, the request was eventually granted.

The trick of the song is that, like the journey it describes, it never turns back on itself. There’s no chorus. Nothing is repeated. The title emerges only in the song’s very last thought. As well as precise geographical information, it’s full of beautiful details — the through-train ticket on the Midnight Flyer, the silk suit, the T-bone steak à la carte — and whole lines that, once you heard them, you never forgot, like that amazing penultimate verse: “Swing low, chariot, come down easy / Taxi to the terminal zone / Cut your engines and cool your wings / And let me make it to the telephone…”

It’s a song that seems quintessentially American, perhaps especially to a non-American who fell in love with that culture when it was at its jet-engined, tail-finned, jukebox and blue jeans height. I happen to harbour a special reverence for the version Elvis cut at the Stax studio in Memphis in December 1973, because (as I wrote in a piece in my book Long Distance Call) the combination of singer and song seems to incorporate so many myths and legends, dreams and desires. And, of course, Elvis sings the hell out of the song, like he’d written it or lived it. He really is the boy whose first instinct, on arriving in the place where he plans to make a new life, is to call home.

At the top you’ll find a YouTube clip of the man who wrote the song delivering his masterpiece in a TV studio in Paris, I’d guess during his European tour in January 1965. The pick-up rhythm section would obviously rather be playing “How High the Moon”. There’s a lovely moment when the stand holding the vocal microphone collapses. Towards the end of the song the bass-player retunes his D and G strings in mid-flow with a rather unnecessary fastidiousness. And Mr Berry is, as ever, his own sweet-and-sour self, a true genius of rock and roll.


23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for another fondly remembered piece Richard. Personally my favourite rendering of Promised Land was by Johnnie Allan in 1971 who replaced Chuck’s guitar with a blistering accordion solo by Belton Richard.

    October 22, 2014
  2. Chris Michie #

    Great piece! Glad you mentioned your book (I’ve ordered it already on A**zon – a used copy; sorry!). I missed that one, probably because I lived abroad for 30 years. I did, however, pay full price (65p) for your first book, the Phil Spector bio, and was mightily impressed by it. You were at the time by far the best writer on rock/pop music and I don’t think much has changed. Keep it up!

    October 22, 2014
  3. John Axon #

    Thanks for that. The Elvis cover was unfairly usurped by the wonderful cajun arrangement, complete with almost deliberate fumbling, by Johnnie Allan, but Elvis works the song as it was written, in hard time, and features a driving solo from James Burton imperceptibly speeding up as the Tupelo kid nears the Pacific shore. A neglected classic which has to be played loud.

    October 22, 2014
  4. Say what you like about the backing combo, the drummer is swinging that snare, to my ears. Genius lyrics, of course.

    October 22, 2014
  5. Wonderful, wonderful piece. So glad you have started this blog . . . and people are reading it; and responding to it.

    October 22, 2014
  6. Kevin Cheeseman #

    Great piece – I’ve always loved this song. I haven’t seen this clip before and it’s terrific for all the reasons you mention. However, as others have written, the Johnny Allan version is my own favourite, it’s the cajun accordion that does it. Notwithstanding that Allan gets the words wrong: you’d think he’d realise that terminal ‘gate’ doesn’t rhyme with telephone and do another take!

    October 22, 2014
    • eric #

      I also loved the Johnnie Allan version, and indeed used to believe it was the original version.

      Mention should also be made of 70’s band Ducks Deluxe who released an album called Taxi to the Terminal Zone. Will Birch will remember them I’m sure.

      October 22, 2014
  7. A great post. Many thanks for this. Makes me feel good.

    October 22, 2014
  8. Nobly commemorated, neatly argued .. and well formulated as ever, Richard.

    A few rough impressions to add to the well-honed mix:

    1. Tho the song narrates a nationwide individual road trip in one of Chuck’s worshipped cars, that title, with its obvious gospel note of deliverance (cf. Go Down Moses) surely also hints at the
    aspirations of the Civil Rights movement? A prefiguration, or contemporary allusion? – I’m unsure when it was written. The cadences of the melody might also suggest a MLKing-likepersevering trek to freedom, rather than a leisurely drive for fun – okay, I’m madly mixing my metaphors here!

    2. I think your inclusion of the song in a top half-dozen Berry’s is more obviously valid than that contentious “masterpiece” tag that is your twitter lure to here! 🙂

    Surely most would nominate Johnny B. Goode if there has to be just ONE top of the Berry pops? (Always a bit artificial to name a sole #1 anyway!)

    Personally and FWIW, I rate Maybellene (car song again!), the later No Particular Place To Go (a lyrical and emotional advance on Ring, Ring Goes The Bell, taking up the same tune … and again featuring – yup – a car), and the knowing, urbanely ironic and zestful You Never Can Tell at the very top of the Berry bush.

    I’d have nominated Run Joe too – except of course it’s a Louis Jordan song, and even better done by him than by Chuck. Always potentially dodgy, those faux-Jamaican parodies – right down to Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, … – but the best ones are a challenge to the solemn puritan order of their day, and perhaps better arguments for human understanding than for social discrimination.

    3. A weakness of Promised Land, to me at least, is the almost endless catalogue of placenames. “I’ve been everywhere, man” is a song that maximises that, to the point of a joke. You explain very well in your piece why a freedom to roam the entire country at will, as one pleases, was so precious to CB at the time and in the conditions in which he wrote it. But it finally makes for an arid element to the song too, to me at least. Woody G’s This Land is Your Land (did Chuck have this in mind? – see the title!), and a bit more ambivalently Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy stop when they’re winning, at the coastal horizons of the great continental homeland.

    4. If you feel Chuck’s backing band looks as if it might have been happier on How High The Moon (or perhaps the “C Jam Blues” – How High The Moon is a more interesting tune … 🙂 ), have you seen his trad backing band on Jazz on a Summer’s Day? 🙂 To be fair, they give Berry a fair vamp to boogie on. But in their eyes, you see “So this is what the youngsters like now, is it? *sigh* ” …..

    October 22, 2014
    • Actually Chuck Berry needed musicians with high listening and improvisation skills. Like many a bluesman he was apt to miss or add a bar or three at times. Watch the later version of him performing Promised Land on You Tube and you can see the backing band struggling to keep up. I suspect he never performed anything the same way twice.

      October 22, 2014
  9. Thanks Richard, lovely piece on one of my favourite Berry compositions. Don’t forget The Band’s version on Moondog Matinee. Its far richer in texture and rhythmic complexity than most. But they never fumble it. The 1958 Chuck Berry Paris videos were on You Tube in wonderful hi res but seem to have been replaced with disappointingly low res versions. Berry’s performance of Johnny B Goode from those sessions is worth checking out if only for his wonderful balletic moves. One of the few guitarists who could dance and play at the same time. Oh and a brown eyed handsome man for sure.

    October 22, 2014
  10. Matthew Wright #

    Agree with the comments about the merits of Johnny Allen’s version with Belton Richard – for a while around 1974 the Oval Records compilation “Another Saturday Night” hardly left the turntable in our flat. Got us in the mood for a night at the Half Moon or the Kensington.
    I have to take issue with the comments about Jazz on a Summer’s Day though. I always felt that Jack Teagarden appeared to be enjoying it and Jo Jones certainly enters into the spirit of things with great accompanying licks. These guys were not unfamiliar with R&B and didn’t see so many musical barriers as we’d like to think.
    On a different topic, congratulations on the Berlin appointment.

    October 23, 2014
    • Thanks, Matthew. As much of a surprise to me as anyone…

      October 23, 2014
      • Congrats also, a smart appointment! Hope it won’t reduce the flow of insightful and very enjoyable posts on this site.

        October 23, 2014
    • Re: Berlin. Yes congrats from me too! An enlightened invitation indeed. Someone in Beartown clearly recognised the depth of knowledge, the breadth of interest – and the richness of vocal delivery – and preferred this to the standard pop-up claqueur type of MC!

      October 23, 2014
    • You may be right and I may be wrong about JoaSD, Matthew. Jo Jones was always a musical genius, not only a star drummer, and game for anything vital. I think I just remembered Jack’s rather tired smile, along with his likably lived-in fizzog … and perhaps was going too mujch from memory. Jogged by Richard’s mention of not-entirely-compatible backing bands for the young tearaway rock’n’roller.

      October 23, 2014
  11. Loved that. Great song. Thanks Richard.

    October 23, 2014
  12. Peter Brown #

    Nice entry, Richard (yes it’s me, late of The Times). I’m enjoying your blog, which is annoyingly devoid of mistakes. Great video, too. It reminded me that slipping mikes were a not infrequent problem to those of us trying to emulate Berry back in the ’60s and ’70s. Presumably at some stage the technology improved.

    October 23, 2014
  13. Great song. The clip above is great – Chuck’s solos are awesome! I, too, love the Elvis version but a recent delight is Joel Scott Hill’s take from his unjustly neglected L.A. Getaway album from the early 70’s – get a listen, if you can find it.

    October 23, 2014
  14. Paul Crowe #

    Yet another brilliant piece, Richard. Pity CB tarnished his glittering output with the unforgivable “My Ding a Ling”.

    Congratulations on the Berlin appointment also and let’s hope it doesn’t divert you a great deal from this superb blog !

    October 24, 2014
  15. Vincent Price #

    Perhaps the latest recorded version of promised land is that by Harry Dean Stanton on his album ” Partly Fiction “, A wonderfully emotive rendition as is all the album?

    October 25, 2014

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