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Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Chuck_Berry_1958

Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

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Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.

The Real King of Rock turns 80 December 5, 2012

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Today marks the 80th birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a., Little Richard, one of the most important of Rock n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers,” and arguably the real king of the genre.  “The cat with the ten-inch crew cut” was rocking and rolling at the very beginning of the music, and kept on rocking long after others hung it up or had softened into balladeers.  But he was also a great innovator, coming up with rhythms that spoke to the essence of the genre, using the funkiest of saxophone backings than others, played the piano more frantically than others, and combined it all with over-the-top, gospel-style singing, along with wails and moans.  It all added up to the hardest rocking and rolling of the era when the music was born.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, Richard had been performing on stage since his early teens in 1945, but started recording in earnest as early as 1951, the same year that Ike Turner’s band recorded what most historians consider to be the first Rock and Roll song in “Rocket 88.”  LR started making an impact in the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Get Rich Quick” that same year.  The tune clearly has the influential finger prints of R&B pioneers such as Roy Brown, and Richard seems to be channeling him to an extent on this and other tracks he cut around the same time.  The following year, 1952, he showed that he could cut strong, moderate tempo songs with his R&B hit “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens.”  He took things to a higher level in 1953 with “Little Richard’s Boogie,” using a percussion instrument that nobody would associate with a Little Richard song, as none other than Johnny Otis (of “Hand Jive” fame, 1958) himself played the vibraphone on that track.  Fans who already know Richard’s more familiar tunes can easily sense the direction he was taking in developing his music in terms of the rhythmic pattern.

And what a pattern!  Little Richard took inspiration from the sound of trains that he heard thundering by him as a child and molded that idea into a unique 2-2 time, boogie-woogie tempo that helped him drill down to the very essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself as the music and its era exploded onto the scene by the middle of the 1950s.  Indeed, by September of 1955, he joined Arthur Rupe’s Specialty label, and really began to fully hit his stride.  Not even 23 years old yet, he cut a hit in “Tutti Fruitti” that year, and thus helped demonstrate that the new era in youthful music was not just a flash in the pan, and it set the template for many other hard-charging hits to follow.  Even today, “Tutti Fruitti” ranks as a great pre-game hit at football stadiums to enliven the crowd, as well as to psyche players up before taking the field of battle.

While it reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1955 (and was also covered by Elvis and Pat Boone[!]), what “Tutti Fruitti” also did was help open the floodgates for many other awesome Little Richard records to soon follow – 17 hits in three years, to be more exact.  A good bulk of those hits came the following year in 1956, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “She’s Got It,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “All Around the World” and even “Lucille.”

But one tune that stands out above all others that year was his inimitable “Long Tall Sally.”  That recording exemplified the freight-train effect rhythm that Richard gradually crafted to perfection, and in so doing, achieved the holy grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Giving the sax solo an extra eight bars certainly did not hurt, either!

One can hear that defining tune prominently played during the helicopter scene in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie “Predator” from 1987.

To be sure, Little Richard did not save his recording energies for only “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.   That same year yielded some other gems, including one of the hardest-rocking tunes he ever cut in “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” though that record was not released until 1958.  Same thing goes for “True Fine Mama,” a true, hard-core gem, where Little Richard augmented the funkiness level with a call-and-response vocal backing; recorded in ’55, but not released until ’58.

The year 1957 was also a strong one for Richard, in that “Send Me Some Lovin’” (the flip side to Lucille, and a good example of his ballad capabilities) charted, but he also had hits with “Jenny Jenny,” – one his most vocally energetic hits of them all, which is saying something! – “Miss Ann,” and one of the hardest rockers he ever did in “Keep A-Knockin.” Those who doubt the early influence of the swing era on rock ‘n’ roll from later decades clearly overlook that Louis Jordan had a hit with the same song – albeit a more comparatively sedate version! – in 1939.  If that were not enough, 1958 also yield two more marvelous, rocking holy grails, such as “Ooh My Soul,” and the ever-timeless “Good Golly Miss Molly

Richard’s hits on the charts started to wane not because he lost his recording energy, as so many of his contemporaries eventually did, but rather he was making major transitions in his life of the spiritual nature.  In 1958, he enrolled in a theological seminary and soon started recording gospel music instead of rock ‘n’ roll, though by 1962 he made the return back to secular music, and even started touring in England that year, where his records were still selling well.  A fine example of how he still maintained his energy that decade can be seen in this 1964 live performance of “Lucille” in that county (it is arguably a better version than the original 1956 recording):

Little Richard’s influence and legacy spread far and wide throughout the popular music world.  Otis Redding claimed that he entered the music business because of him.  The Beatles cited him as an influence in general; Paul McCartney idolized him while still in high school, and wanted to learn to sing like him.  Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones also referred to LR as his “first idol.”  Jimi Hendrix actually recorded with Little Richard in 1964 and ’65.  George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Rod Stewart, band AC/DC, and even Michael Jackson have claimed LR as a primary influence to some varying extent.  One can hear his influence in popular recordings of later years on one’s own.  Surely one can recognize, for example the direct influence that the opening drum riff on “Keep A-Knockin” has on the ever-famous opening drum riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

Over the past 30 years, Little Richard has appeared on TV and in films as an actor as well as in dozens of soundtracks.  Even within the past few years, Richard has still managed to remain in the spotlight, having appeared in a Geico commercial, as well as one for Zaxby’s.

But as good as it is to casually remain in the spotlight, these recent examples must not obscure his real cultural contribution as being one the greatest standard-bearers Rock ‘n’ Roll has even known.   His unmatchable energy in his recordings and on the stage, along with his everlasting legacy of some of Rock ‘n’ Rolls greatest, most timeless, most energetic records demonstrate time and again that Little Richard is, and ever shall be, in a class by himself.  Happy 80th birthday, your majesty!

Cleve Duncan, R.I.P.: “Earth Angel” shall forever live on. November 22, 2012

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Cleve Duncan, second from the left, was the lead tenor on the Penguins when they recorded “Earth Angel” In 1954, a hit for the ages.

Cleve Duncan, the tenor vocalist who sang the lyrics to the immortal doo-wop hit “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, died earlier this month at age 78.  Their huge hit, which to this day has sold 10 Million copies, was recorded in June of 1954 (released later un September of that year) and peaked at No. 1 on the R&B charts at the beginning of 1955.  Do the math, and that means that Duncan was only 20 years old when he sang/recorded one for the ages.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary/tribute piece on Duncan.  Anybody familiar with the well-known film “Back to the Future” would be apt to recall that the band playing at the high school dance sang that song during one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, demonstrating the song’s incredible popularity the year most of the picture took place (1955) as well as the previous year.

A recent copy of the 1954/1955 hit “Earth Angel.” The look of the independent, black-owned label did not change in over 30 years. The label’s original address was 9514 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles. (from author’s collection)

The song itself is a reminder that it does not necessarily take a gigantic production with sophisticated equipment to have a huge hit.  The only instrumentation was a piano, a stand-up, acoustic bass, and drums.  Some of the drums covered with pillows so that when struck, their sound would not overwhelm the vocalists.  To top it all off, the song was recorded in a garage (!).  More interesting history of the song and of others can be found on this great site.

The strength of the record is the sincerity of Duncan’s singing.  That sincerity is what touched the nerve of the buying public 58 years ago, and has continued to do so for generations since.  The irony is that it was initially the “B” side of the single, with “Hey Senorita,” the “A” side (not a bad recording in and of itself).  But DJ’s soon flipped the record over and treated “Earth Angel” as the “A” side.

In a little bit of doo-wop/Oldies trivia, the Penguins started off as four students from Fremont High School in Los Angeles, and when they formed as a group, they first called themselves the Flywheels.  But they re-named their group the Penguins after the mascot on a pack of Kool cigarettes, demonstrating, if nothing else, that certain stereotypes are indeed based on truths.

But that aside, Duncan himself thought that the song would have long-term staying power in our national memory.  “I never get tired of singing it,” he said, “as long as people never get tired of hearing it.”

Addendum, 12-01-12:

Given that it is now the Christmas season, it is more than behooving to mention that the Penguins, Duncan included, recorded a fantastic d0o-wop Christmas record on the Mercury label in 1955.  Enjoy!