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.