Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry RIP

Chuck Berry was born October 18, 1926, at 6:59 a.m, at 2520 Goode Avenue, St Louis. Mother and Father were members of the Antioch Church Choir, which rehearsed at the Berry house. "My very first memories, while still in my baby crib, are of musical sounds -- the assembled pure harmonies of the Baptist hymns, dominated by my mother's soprano and supported by my father's bass blending with the stirring rhythms of true Baptist soul."

For twenty years up to 2015, Chuck played a regular monthly gig at St Louis' landmark Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and music bar; Chuck's endorsement: "I don't come here for the music. I come here for the wings".

Chuck leaves us with a catalogue of over 200 songs - there's some we all know, but each has its own fun with rhymes, narrative, rock and roll, cars, girls, crime, food. He usually started with lyrics, but with a guitar in hand. Johnny B Goode took him two weeks of "periodic application"; he edited "colored boy" to "country boy" with an eye to record sales. He believed his great-grandfather had lived in a log cabin outside News Orleans "way back up in the woods among the evergreens".

But he could also write fast. Starting out from St Louis for Chicago, he took a version of "Ida Red" (by Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys") to Chess Records. On his demo it was called "Ida Mae", but Leonard Chess called for a re-write to get "fast cars and young love in". Ida became Maybellene, the top-selling cheap mascara, with the spelling altered, and produced Chuck's first hit, at the age of 29.

Chess Records gave the disc jockey Alan Freed a co-writing credit (and also some cash) in exchange for playing it on the radio - in theory, legal at the time, but later outlawed as "payola".

Berry wrote another great narrative tale, "The Promised Land", while in prison for 20 months from February 1962. Berry was 35; he'd hired a 14-year-old girl he met on tour in Mexico; she was an Apache Indian, on the run from her home in Arizona; he said she was going to work in his St Louis Club as a hatcheck girl.  Berry used a prison atlas to work out the lyrics - his Promised Land was California. He was out on parole in 1963, and allowed to tour England in 1964.

Here's a favourite of mine, Tulane, from the 1970 album, Back Home, marking a return to Chess Records for Berry. Bob Baldori on harmonica.

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