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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)!”

America’s Greatest Music: I’ll Be Seeing You December 4, 2013

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“I’ll Be Seeing You” qualifies as one of the lower-echelon selections within the Great American Songbook.  That said, it stands out uniquely for the reason that it originated from one Broadway show but later became the namesake in a movie several years later.

Written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal in 1938 and first performed that same year, it soon became a jazz standard and has been recorded by many notable artists over the course of the decades.  The show for which it was written was “Right This Way”, but six years later it was the title song in the 1944 film “I’ll Be Seeing You” starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten.

Billie Holiday recorded a version of the song the same year the aforementioned film was released.  Other artists, in no particular chronological order, who have covered the song include Bing Crosby (same year as Billie Holiday’s version), Anne Murray, Jo Stafford and Carmen McRae (both 1958), The Five Satins (1959), Brenda Lee (1962), Ray Charles (1967), Barry Manilow (1991), Etta James (1994), Rod Stewart (2002), Linda Ronstadt (2004), not to mention Jimmy Durante, Liza Minnelli, Mel Tormé, Michael Bublé, the Skyliners, even Queen Latifah, and a host of others.

But the one that clearly stands above the rest is definitely the Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey version from 1940.  A simple listen will verify this:

Not surprisingly, during World War II this song became an anthem for those who were serving overseas, what with its strongly emotional power, a power that Frank and Tommy capture very subtly in their landmark 1940 recording.

America’s Greatest Music: A love song “twofer” from 75 years ago today. September 15, 2013

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A 1938 Cadillac is shown on the right and a 1935 Packard (similar to a 1938 model) is shown on the right. This image montage is included for visual reference to some of the text below. Photos by the author.

Sometimes certain recording sessions prove to be particularly fecund, if not downright one for the ages.  That was especially the case, for example, when Artie Shaw and his band cut the legendary record “Begin the Beguine,” in addition to other greats such as “Any Old Time,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Yesterdays,” and so on, all on July 24, 1938 for RCA Bluebird.  It happens that way in recording sessions, sometimes:  things just happen to click, and one great record after another is put to acetate for all of posterity to appreciate.

Such turned out not to be the case with the recording session the Billie Holiday undertook 75 years ago today (Sept. 15) for the Vocalion label (a Columbia subsidiary at the time), this being contrary to that which I wrote in this very article earlier.  I apologize for misleading the readers, as I did get my discography information incorrect, which led to the inaccurate info.  Nevertheless, these are two incredible, timeless records that were produced in 1938, and both just so happened to be the [arguably] definitive versions of two songs that definitely belong in the Great American Songbook.

One is “You Go to My Head.”  Written by the relatively obscure duo of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie — interestingly, the same pair that wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”; seriously! — the song itself has been recorded by numerous artists and has become a venerable pop/jazz standard over the course of three-quarters of a century.  Nan Wynn and Teddy Wilson (on piano, naturally) took a stab at the song the same year Lady Day cut her version.  Marlene Dietrich recorded a version the following year, and in the years since then, luminaries including Frank Sinatra (1946 and 1960), Lena Horne, Doris Day (1949), Charlie Barnett, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington (1954), Dinah Shore, Patti Page (1956), Louis Armstrong (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (of course; 1960), and many others all have a version under their respective, figurative belts.

An outstanding yet relatively obscure version was done live in 1938 by Benny Goodman and his band during a Camel Caravan radio broadcast from Chicago, with Martha Tilton on vocals.  Goodman’s sound and ‘take’ on the tune certainly did it justice, as is the case with most Goodman records.  But the one that stands out above all is Billie Holiday’s version from that same year (she actually cut this track on May 11, 1938, not Sept. 15, as originally posted).

How could it not?  The very first thing the listener hears — and never forgets it when he/she does for the first time — is a fantastic opening tenor sax solo by Babe Russin (a member of Goodman’s band at the time, though the year prior capped off the legendary Tommy Dorsey record “Marie” with another great solo!) that simply oozes Art Deco imagery in the listener’s mind.  For best effect, try hearing the record while beholding the styling craftsmanship of, say, a 1938 Cadillac or Packard!  Claude Thornhill on piano and Cozy Cole on the drums make for a nice touch, too.

But that’s just the beginning.  Holiday’s expressiveness was practically tailor-made for the lyrics, and how they so accurately personify the incredible sensations one experiences of adoring “the one”, the potential significant other, despite how diligently the rational side of our minds tries to remind us of key apprehensions.  Hear for yourself!

On a related note is another love song, one just as timeless, and that being “The Very Thought of You.”  (And this was recorded on Sept. 15, 1938!)  The lyrics focus more so on the pure adoration aspect regarding the feelings one has for a significant other, and how “the one” tends to become the center of one’s focus.

Sid Ascher — later the manager of Tony Bennett — wrote the song in 1934, and sold the rights to the great British bandleader Ray Noble, who cut a fine version of it that year with Al Bowlly providing the vocals.  Bing Crosby himself did his own version that same year.  Vaughn Monroe recorded his rendition a decade later, and the inclined movie connoisseur can hear a band-accompanied piano instrumental of the song during a scene inside Rick’s Cafe Americain in the 1942 hit film “Casablanca.”  Doris Day later sang a version of the song for the 1950 film “Young Man with a Horn.” Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole all have their respective versions (the latter of which is particularly lovely), and Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett recorded a duet of it together.

But as is the case with the previously-examined song, Billie Holiday’s version stands out above the others.

A rather modern, repeated reference to this record can be heard throughout the 1992 film “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson; the song being used as something of a constant, a source of continuity, a bridge to two very different eras and how certain things were meant to stand the test of time, much like the song itself.

America’s Greatest Music: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby August 15, 2013

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Whenever you meet a girl whom you instantly recognize as a cut above the rest, this tune instantly enters your mind.  You know that even further when this tune pops up on the radio (assuming you’re tuned in to the SiriusXM 40s on 4 channel) and without hesitation you start singing along to the record.  But the question becomes, along with which version do you sing?

Such is a valid question.  After all, like many legendary tunes in the Great American Songbook, it has been recorded by many a legendary artist throughout the ages.  At different times, Artie Shaw, Lee Wiley, Perry Como (1946), Rosemary Clooney, The Crew Cuts — who made their mark on the business by doing cover versions of early ’50s R&B and doo-wop hits — Vic Damone, Joni James, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra have all taken their individual cracks at this song.  Let us also not forget Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin (1961), The Dave Clark Five (1967), or Michael Bublé (2001, which, compared to the years of the previous records, might as well be literally yesterday).

But this does not even acknowledge the spate or recordings made of this song when it was written (1938) by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics — figures!).  That year, Tommy Dorsey recorded his version with Edythe Wright on the vocals.  Chick Bullock — who provided the vocals for some of Bunny Berigan’s small group recordings on the Vocalion label in 1936 — also rendered his version that same year, as did Russ Morgan.

Yet the version that clearly stands out above all others was also recorded the same year the song in question was written (1938, in case you skipped the previous paragraph), and it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby (recorded on the Decca label, of course!).  It is this version that sticks out in one’s mind when a guy meets a girl that stands out from all the rest; it is this version that you joyous sing along with in your car when it comes on the radio….and it swings!

For anybody who doubts that Crosby owns the definitive version of this song, take a moment to notice its reference elsewhere in popular culture.  In the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” (1950) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, an obvious reference to this record surfaces in the middle of the show.

A scene depicts Elmer Fudd coming across, by happenstance, a down-and-out Bugs.  Of the four characters that Fudd passes up before reaching Bugs, the first is a caricature of Al Jolson (“mammy” being a lyric often found in some of his songs), the third is a caricature of Eddie Cantor, and the fourth is obviously a satirical depiction of Der Bingle himself, singing a line of from the featured recording of this very article.  Watch for yourself!

Such humorous references to contemporary pop culture were a hallmark, and indeed, a distinctive competency (to borrow a business term) of the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoons!  But as hinted previously, this very reference also demonstrates that Crosby’s version stands apart from all others, much like that special lady.