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Posts tagged ‘Chuck Berry’

The real rhythm and blues

ChessWilko Johnson’s new autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, received an eloquent recommendation from Mark Ellen in the Sunday Times at the weekend. To coincide with its publication, Universal’s Spectrum imprint is issuing a 40-track double CD set compiled by the former Dr Feelgood guitarist called The First Time I Met the Blues: Essential Chess Masters. Its appearance prompted me to dig out the records you see above: three 45s from my all-time Top 100 box, plus two magnificent albums, all licensed for release in the UK on the Pye International label in the early ’60s.

That red and yellow label still triggers an emotional response, particularly when the centre and the paper sleeve carry the “R&B Series” logo, as the copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” pictured above does. Why it didn’t also appear on records like Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” is a question that someone out there might be able to answer.

It’s a good compilation, equally valuable to those who no longer have their original copies and to newcomers who would like a compact introduction to a golden age of Chicago rhythm and blues. There are masterpieces here: Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Goin’ Down Slow”, Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'”, John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood”, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” — the songs that those of us who were in British R&B groups in 1963-65 were required to know.

Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — recorded in 1948 with Ernest “Big” Crawford’s stand-up bass accompanying the singer’s bottleneck guitar, the two of them sounding like the whole band Waters was soon to assemble — remains one of the great moments in American popular music: magical and mysterious, a perfect integration of voice and instruments, an endlessly fascinating essay in rhythmic subtlety. “Louisiana Blues”, from a band session two years later, runs it close in that respect. It’s interesting to think about the way these particular tracks sounded before a drummer came in to tie down the beat: they float so loose and free (Elgin Evans is credited on “Louisiana Blues”, but his contribution is practically subliminal).

In some ways, however, my favourite among the 40 tracks has to be “Hi-Heel Sneakers”: a record that, in the early weeks of 1964, any young person with the slightest pretension to coolness simply had to own. It amazes me now that this modest little 12-bar blues could become not just a mod classic in the UK but such a big hit on the pop charts: No 11 in the US (Billboard), where it had the benefit of a huge number of black record-buyers, and No 23 in Britain (Record Retailer), where it didn’t.

Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) sang and played organ on his own song. That exquisite and unforgettable guitar intro seems to have been played by Dean Young from Ripley, Tennessee — a member, along with bassist Brenda Jones and drummer Bo Tolliver, of Tucker’s regular band, who negotiated a then-fashionable chord pattern that echoed Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”. The producer, Herb Abramson (an original co-founder of Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun), wisely left them to get on with it. They cannot have dreamed for a single instant that it would still be listened to and loved more than half a century later.

* This post originally credited the new compilation to the Ace label. Once the error was pointed out, I corrected it. The relevant label is Spectrum.

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.

 

Where the Stones were fourth on the bill

Odeon, NottinghamIf you look carefully at the top of the building in the photograph, you’ll see the faintest shadow of the long-gone neon sign that read ODEON. I took the picture on a raindy day a couple of winters ago, while passing through Nottingham, my old home town. How many of the hundreds of people walking along this pavement every day know that it was here, in this cinema on Angel Row, a hundred yards or so up from the Old Market Square, that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played, in 1963 and ’64? And now it’s finally vanished. The demolition crew have done their job and the construction workers are in, filling the space with a building apparently intended to provide housing for students.

Buddy Holly played the Odeon in 1958: three shows on the night of March 8, during his only UK tour. I missed that one, being only 10 at the time (although I’d already saved up to buy the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” on 78), but three years later I saw Cliff Richard and the Shadows, just after Brian Bennett took over from Tony Meehan on drums — a source of some regret, since Meehan was my first drumming hero. The screaming meant that not much could be heard. But at least Hank Marvin gave me my first sight of a Fender Stratocaster in action, and they were still doing the famous Shadows walk, much copied by we schoolboys in front of bedroom mirrors.

OK, I’ll own up: I missed the Beatles there — three times, on the first occasion with Roy Orbison — and the Stones. Absence of cash, I expect. I wouldn’t have been able to hear them above the hysteria anyway, although I’ve always kicked myself for not making it to the Stones’ show in October 1963, since it also featured the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, all of them above the Stones on the bill when the tour started. My friend Phil Long remembers Little Richard’s set: “One of the best I’ve ever seen. He jumped off the stage, ran all the way round the theatre, then got back on the stage and started taking his clothes off and throwing them to the audience… there was a riot.”

The most memorable concert I did manage to attend at the Odeon was on May 12, 1964, the fourth date of a 22-night package tour headlined by Chuck Berry, with support from Carl Perkins, the Animals, the Nashville Teens and King Size Taylor and the Dominos. It was great merely to see Chuck, who provided so many of us with the inspiration for our own bands, but he gave a pretty uninterested performance — as indeed he would do on every subsequent occasion I saw him. He was accompanied by King Size Taylor’s excellent band, and I seem to remember that about half the set consisted of throwaway instrumentals; has any great songwriter ever taken a less obvious pride in his achievements? But it was enough to hear those guitar intros ringing out, and to witness his perfunctory demonstration of the duck walk.

Carl Perkins was not exactly spectacular, either, in his very short set. And so, curiously, the musical highlights were provided by two English bands. The Animals, of course, were excellent. “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, copied from “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on Bob Dylan’s first album, was nudging the Top 20, and their act still had the R&B edge honed in Newcastle’s Club A Go-Go. But they also played their epic four and a half minute version of another song from Dylan’s debut: “House of the Rising Sun”. It hadn’t yet been released, or heard on the radio, and its arrangement — featuring Hilton Valentine’s arpeggiated guitar, Alan Price’s wailing Vox Continental organ and Eric Burdon’s baleful vocal — was nothing short of stunning. Five weeks later it would enter the charts, on its way to No 1.

It was the same with the Nashville Teens, whose set included John D Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”: another dramatic song, its structure and mood inspired by the compositions Willie Dixon provided for Muddy Waters and other blues stars. The group, from the Surrey stockbroker belt, did an enthusiastic job of impersonating the sound of the Chicago stockyards, and by July they were on their way to the UK Top 10. By August “The House of the Rising Sun” was on its way to No 1 in Billboard‘s Hot 100, while “Tobacco Road” topped out at No 14 in the US a month later. Heard for the first time in live performance, both made an immediate impression.

And now the Odeon has disappeared. I suppose it’s not exactly like losing the Cavern or the Marquee. But it would be nice, when they finished its replacement, if someone thought it worth putting up a plaque to remind passers-by of former glories. Buddy Holly, The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard. Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry. Not bad, eh?