Posts Tagged ‘Chuck Berry’

RIP Chuck Berry

March 21, 2017

Another year, another rock legend passes away.  While not quite as shocking as some of the losses in 2016, this is a loss of one of true pioneers of what we know today as rock n’ roll. He’s got to be on the Mount Rushmore of Rock.  That doesn’t mean he was a saint. I’ll leave those less savory aspects of his life to the NY Post, though combining those things with his stage theatrics and style contributed to his other enduring legacy, the creation of the rock star.

You know all the hits the man put out so there’s not a lot more I can say about songs like Johnny B. Goode or Roll Over Beethoven.  I was listening to some live albums of his today and what struck me was how easy it is to draw the straight line from him to some of the Sixties’ biggest bands like the Beatles and Beach Boys.  Go listen to early records of those bands, particularly their live sessions and they were jocking Berry hardcore.  Several years ago I even did a post comparing Berry’s Back in the U.S.A. against the Beatles Back in the U.S.S.R.

The other thing that I noticed is how on those live recordings is a rawer and looser approach to both his singing and the music than in his studio recordings.  After hitting his height of fame, he started touring solo and would just pick up backing bands when he rolled into town, famously proclaiming that every band should already know how to play his songs.  Apparently that led to live performances that were a little too loose, but damn if that isn’t rock n’ roll, even punk.

One of my biggest concert regrets is never getting to see him live.  I thought I was going to get my chance in 2008 when he was scheduled to play the Virgin Fest festival in Maryland.  Sadly, he canceled for unknown reasons on the day of the show.  Luckily there’s plenty of live performances to find out there on the web of him to keep you happy.

And god bless him, his only number one song was “My Ding-A-Ling”.

I’ll leave you with a live version from a 1969 concert in Toronto of one of my personal favorites of his, Reelin’ and Rockin’.  There’s a boatload of different versions out there, but I think this one is pretty representative:

 

 

The T.A.M.I. Show

March 9, 2010

Funny that I just wrote about Chuck Berry and then the concert film, “The T.A.M.I. Show” is on public television tonight here in DC.  It’s part of their pledge drive, guess it hasn’t been shown in years.  Berry leads off the show with two songs, starting solo with Johnny B. Goode.  Good stuff.   The show was taped in Santa Monica in 1964 in front of 2000 screaming teenagers, and was one of the first shows to include American and British acts of the time.

Highlights:

  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in matching white suits, even choreographing a move where they take off their suit jackets and later, their exit from the stage.
  • Marvin Gaye comes out with three female backup singers.  Then a curtain of what looks like balloons drops down and it’s goodbye backup singers.  The curtain later rises.  At one point he’s also joined by four gyrating dancers that would have made Ed Sullivan spontaneously combust with the amount of hip shaking going on.  Marvin had one of the best voices of all time, but based on the display I just witnessed, dancing was not his forte.
  • Jan and Dean as emcees.  To introduce Leslie Gore they are wearing sweaters that say “GORE” all over them.  Wonder if they dusted those off in 2000.  After Gore, they drop the emcee gig and sing “Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”  The teenage white girls in the audience approve.
  • Gore gets a bunch of the artists to come out and stand around looking awkward while she sings “I’ll Cry If I Want To.”  Except for Berry, who is doing dance moves I can’t describe but he is having fun for sure.
  • The girls go even crazier for the Beach Boys.  Some tight-fitting flat front trousers and candy-stripe button downs are fashion statements.  Bad ones.  A young Teri Garr can be spotted as a backup dancer.   Despite the bad outfits, it’s a good performance and they’ve gotten the most airtime so far.  A crowd shot shows an out of place looking white dude in dark sunglasses just sitting while all the girls around him are screaming and jumping around.  Where was Roman Polanksi when they were taping this?
  • Supremes play Baby Love, which I’ve written about before.  Closeups of Diana Ross’ hairdo show that there is a solution to the NFL’s concussion problems.  People would just bounce off that.
  • One of Jan and Dean, I don’t know which is which, douses the other with a fire extinguisher in the intro to James Brown (his backup band is the Flames).  What?  Aren’t those things toxic?
  • Holy crap can James Brown dance!  He is moving constantly throughout the upbeat “Out of Sight” and he still sounds great.  That’s talent.  He slows it down for his next number, but that still can’t stop him from moving.  Even when he screams, he sounds good.  He is sweating like Patrick Ewing right now, but think he’s definitely working harder than Patrick did in this stage of his career.  He hits the floor three times during this number and his black pants have scuff marks in the knees.  Each time he has a band member come over, help him up, put a cloak on him and try to lead him away from the mic, but he keeps coming back as the band member tries to convince him not too (in some of the worst acting this side of this).
  • Have to break this up into two bullets.  James is still going, back to the uptempo Nighttrain.  The camera cuts to possibly two of the only African-American kids there.  James breaks out dance moves I’ve never seen before, including something I’ll call the Flamingo.  Another cut to the crowd, he’s got the crowd doing a call and repeat with “Night” “Train” but there is a young black girl just standing up, transfixed, and still.  I think if I was there that would have been my reaction.  They were hyping this as the best live performance ever.  And well, I’m not sure I could disagree.  That was amazing.  And lost in the greatness of Brown, the backing band the Flames rocked the house as well.  I guess when you have all that energy up front it’s infectious.
  • The Rolling Stones have to follow James.  Mick is trying his best to outdance James in their opener.  A valiant effort, but he’s not close.  Slow it down for bluesier numbers, including Time Is On My Side.  They definitely seem to be wanting to pay homage to their American influences here.  Keith Richards looks old in 1964.  Whoa, they just did a crowd shot of a guy who could have been a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain.  Jagger breaks out two sets of maracas for I’m Alright and prances out on the catwalk to the approval of the crowd.  The Supremes come out and sing backup on their last number, and the rest of the performers follow.  James Brown is front and center again.  Chuck Berry is on the side, seeming to be enjoying Keith Richards blue licks.  And that concludes the telecast, though apparently there is more to the concert.

I’d recommend this to music fans even if you’re not a huge fan of some of the acts.  It’s quite the spectacle.  And the James Brown set should be required viewing for any music fan.

Versus

March 8, 2010

Back in the USA – Chuck Berry V. Back in the USSR – Beatles

Think this will become a recurring post topic, cause I love covers and remakes of songs.  This isn’t exactly a battle of covers, but a song by the Beatles at least in part inspired by a song of one of the pioneers of rock n’ roll.

I was obviously familiar with the Beatles song, but didn’t hear the Berry song until I recently downloaded his best-of CD.  I thought Berry’s song was a response to the Beatles.  Berry was one of the originators of rock n’ roll, and it had to bother him a bit that these four kids from across the pond had become the biggest band on the planet.  But, in fact, Berry’s song was first, almost ten years before the Beatles song.  The title of the Beatles song was in tribute to Berry’s early song, and the chorus is actually a play on the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

Enough with the history lesson.  Berry’s song starts out with a riff identical except the key to the one in Johnny B Goode, which is pretty sweet riff, but then it fades and the guitar really takes a back seat to the drums and organ.  The Beatles start out with a sound effect of a plane taking off, then the drums kick right in with some guitar stabs, then the piano.  The sound effect works, but its repeat throughout the song gets annoying to me.  The piano/organ are really the star of both of these songs. Surprisingly, Berry doesn’t have a guitar solo, while the Beatles do.  Except for the chorus and the sound effects, the main instrumentation of the Beatles song could be the backing track to a Berry tune.  Musically, a tie.

The Beatles take the traditional verse/chorus approach to their song, while Berry begins with the chorus.  It works because instead of having a chorus you’d expect along the lines of “Back in the USA”, the chorus is a playful combo of woah-hos, yeahs and hee-dill-has.  It gets your attention.  The Beatle’s chorus doesn’t have that grab-ya, and the fact it’s just a tongue-in-cheek ripoff of the Beach Boys that seems to have just been plugged into the existing song gives an advantage to Berry.

Lyrically is where Berry’s song wins it for me.  The Beatles song is obviously a parody, and the lyrics are understandably silly.   Berry though seems to be singing from the heart, and his happiness at returning to the simple pleasure of a diner with a jukebox and sizzling hamburgers is great.  And he ends the song with the line “I’m so happy to be living in the USA”, which is a testament coming from an African-American man in 1959.  Game over.  The teacher beats the pupil this time.

Another related Beatles/Berry note.  I was psyched to see Berry play two years ago at the Virgin Fest in Baltimore. I mean, yeah he was 82, but still this would have been like seeing Jerry Lee Lewis or Muddy Waters.  He was going to be playing with the Silver Beats, a Japanese Beatles cover band.  Unfortunately, he canceled at the last minute.  The Silver Beats were tolerable, but I was sad to miss one of the pioneers of rock n’ roll.