Showing posts with label chuck berry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chuck berry. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 2, 2020



When I'm writing I've found that my best soundtrack is rock and roll from the fifties. I don't want anything too jarring to take me out of my head, yet I need something in the background. We like to remember the fifties as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard; but frankly the majority of charted hits in the fifties were soothingly bland -- three-girl groups, Bobby Rydell, groups named after shapes -- The Platters, The Diamonds, The Coasters. Maybe it sounded subversive at the time; we all take our rebellion where we find it; but it was in reality conformitive. Music producers didn't want to push the envelope too far and offend straight-laced sensibilities. 

The fifties were before my time. My older sisters lived it -- I lived the sixties. I didn't latch onto fifties music until a couple of decades later, via K-Tel compilation LP's. All my music up 'til then was tied up in my life experiences. I was born in 1955, so my first cognition of music was sometime around 1961. But as someone who gobbled up music, I was keen to learn. No offense, but I think my sisters were focused on the wrong music.They bought singles, as many as their collected pennies allowed, but they kind of missed the gems. They bought things like this:


Instead of this:


I know they liked this:


And you know how I feel about Elvis. But they missed this:



And this:

I don't condemn anyone for their taste in music. Music is tied up in memories, a conduit for recalling our past. Lord knows I don't claim most of the pop music from the seventies, even though it happened during the prime of my life. And something happened in the sixties that hadn't been dreamed of during the Eisenhower years.There is a clear dividing line between the middle of the century and what came after. That's not to say there wasn't seminal music created during Ike's time; there was. My sisters, though, had only American Bandstand and nervous AM radio as their guide. I was six years old when my sisters were sixteen and seventeen. They collected few physical albums. One I liked, but didn't know why, featured this song:

I now know why. It was country music, which I'd never heard of at age six. I bet my sisters didn't know about country music, either.

Fifties music had its gems. Every decade has its own. 

Nevertheless, as I'm struggling with my novel, listening to the fifties soothes me and informs me. 

And I don't want to simply let it pass by.



Saturday, May 9, 2020

Little Richard

1950's rock was so joyous.It may have had to do with the times. Music reflects the culture that begets it. From what I know of the fifties, the times were bland. Think Dwight D. Eisenhower; Arthur Godfrey; Perry Como. A boxy wooden radio in the kitchen; squiggly lines on a black and white TV with rabbit ears. "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window". White T-shirts and jeans with thick rolled-up cuffs.  Bobby socks and saddle shoes. Felt skirts and Peter Pan collared blouses. Kids were itching to break through the dreary fog, but they had no idea how. Listening to Dad's music -- Pat Boone, Patti Page, Paul Anka, and Rosemary Clooney -- just wasn't cutting it.

Then along came some crazy flamboyant acts -- out of nowhere. A greasy-haired pompadoured guy from Tupelo, Mississippi who could wiggle his hips; a poet from St. Louis who had a way with words and with a Telecaster; a Lubbock, Texas hillbilly with a hiccup in his voice; a New Orleans piano master with a deep voice; a Sun Records phenom with a straggle of blond bangs who set the black and white keys afire. And a Macon, Georgia black eye-lined, lipstick smeared screacher.

What was this? You mean there's life out there? People can be emotional? Show some enthusiasm? Mom told us that was bad. Our priest warned us against it.

What the hell...

Some guys from Liverpool covered the song, but not as well:

I learned that Little Richard employed unknown artists such as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix as members of his backup band. I also know that a Minnesota artist named Prince cut his teeth on Richard Penniman songs. It's rare to be a pioneer -- there's not much to discover anymore. Little Richard was a real one.

Rest in peace. You saved a generation.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

C'est La Vie ~ You Never Can Tell

Every so often a song I've heard a million times catches my ear. Back in my songwriting days I would study songs, trying to figure out what made a song stand out. It's a futile exercise. One cannot replicate a superb song and expect the result to be anything but dreck. Great songs are gossamer.

One of my favorite sayings is, "it's deceptively simple". I think that applies to Chuck Berry's songs. A member of the rock 'n roll class of 1955 (!), his chord work wasn't fancy. A lot of Chuck's songs had essentially the same melody ~ three chords; no minors, no suspendeds; no fancy stuff. It was Berry's wordplay that made the songs shine.

As I was a'motivatin' over the hill
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville

Motivatin'? Awesome made-up verb! 

'Cause my uncle took the message
And he wrote it on the wall

That conjures vivid imagery.

My big brother first introduced me to Chuck Berry's songs in 1964. Chuck had a hit with "No Particular Place To Go", which in hindsight was pretty racy, but it was catchy and I liked the way the words rolled off his tongue.

Ridin' along in my calaboose
Still tryin' to get her belt a'loose
All the way home I held a grudge

For the safety belt that wouldn't budge

Did you know that "calaboose" means prison? Makes no sense in the context of the song (or does it??), but it doesn't matter. It's the onomatopoeia that matters.  

But it is this song ~ the one I heard on the radio the other day ~ that shows Chuck Berry in all his story mastery.

It was a teenage wedding 
And the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle

And now the young monsieur and madame
Have rung the chapel bell

"C'est la vie", say the old folks

It goes to show you never can tell

They furnished off an apartment with
A two room Roebuck sale

Coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin' 
Worked out well
"C'est la vie", say the old folks

It goes to show you never can tell

They had a hi-fi phono 

Boy, did they let it blast
Seven hundred little records

All rock, rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down
The rapid tempo of the music fell
"C'est la vie", say the old folks

It goes to show you never can tell

They bought a souped-up jitney, was a cherry red '53
Drove it down to Orleans to celebrate the anniversary
It was there that Pierre was wedded to the lovely mademoiselle

"C'est la vie", say the old folks

It goes to show you never can tell

Who can write like that? Not me! 

It's a two-minute novel.


I admit, this is how I was first introduced to the song (featuring an unnaturally bushy-haired Rodney Crowell):

And who can ever forget this sequence with Travolta pretending he doesn't know how to dance?

I had to get my Chuck Berry post in under the wire, before country music month begins.

This is how great songs are written.



Thursday, October 11, 2018

Rockin' The Cradle

How far back does memory travel? I was born in 1955 and I readily admit I don't remember snoozing in my crib. I don't remember being bald, but I apparently was. I've always had hair problems. By the time I entered elementary school, my mom had obviously thrown up her hands. Photos of me from around that time tend to feature the high-bangs look. The remainder of my hair just lay in an unformed clump around my skull. I think moms in the early sixties were required to scissor bangs as close to their kids' scalps as possible.

Worse were the Toni home permanents. My mother, I'll admit, was not handy with hair, which is even more reason not to try to give her kid a perm. My philosophy of hair, then and now, is just leave me the hell alone. But I digress.

I think my earliest memory was of the time I almost drowned. I either remember it or the story was told so many times that I've simply imagined myself in that perilous situation. I think it's a memory. There was a coulee across the road from our farm, and I liked water. I really liked water. Today I can't imagine myself slashing through grassy, slimy weeds taller than me to reach a "pool", but I guess I was determined. My flashback is of lying on my back in water that was oddly warm and my entire family bending over from the bank, reaching for me. Five people. I can clearly see my eleven-year-old brother's face, and my dad's. My sisters and my mom were there, too. They all seemed peculiarly concerned. I was not. I definitely was not panicked. I frankly did not see what the big deal was. Didn't they know that I needed to do things? My nosy family assuredly killed my buzz. And, I guess, saved my life.

Musically, the charts chugged slowly. Songs hung around, a couple of years, generally. Perhaps it was because fewer records were released or simply that life moved at a slower pace. We had the opportunity to savor songs and imprint them upon our brains, which was not always optimal. We always think we remember the good songs, but we actually don't. We remember the annoying ones. The Buddy Holly tracks we only caught much later. I don't remember being cognizant of "That'll Be The Day" until sometime in the early seventies, when I purchased one of those compilation LP's, K-Tel's "Best Hits of Any Damn Era We Choose To Glom Together".

No, the songs I remember are essentially thanks to my dad and his infernal Magnavox kitchen radio.

Songs like this:

No wonder I wanted to drown myself.

By the time I entered kindergarten in 1960 and discovered that there was such a thing as "showing off" (or "show and tell", as my teacher called it), I was keen to bring records to class that I could perform to. My fellow students were mere onlookers as I executed my best dance moves. I'm guessing some of them pulled their cotton rugs from their cubbies and settled in for nap time as I sang about "making love to you".

My awareness of 1957 songs seems to have gelled about three years later (again, attributed to the slow gait of life).

My mom took me to my very first concert around that time, at the Grand Forks Armory. I don't know why she took me -- maybe my dad was busy -- because, frankly, Mom didn't like taking me places due to blushing embarrassment. We saw Marty Robbins and his band...the..."guys in the band"...(I have no idea what Marty's band was called). Mom and I sat in the third row and saw Marty perform this song:

When the show ended, Mom nudged me in the ribs and prodded me to go up and get Marty's autograph. I flatly refused. My thinking was, what if he speaks to me? I have never been a good talker. And, by the by, why didn't she queue up to get his signature? Don't be pushin' a five-year-old to do something you're scared to do for yourself. On the plus side, I did get a chance to see Marty Robbins again in concert, when I was in my twenties and had tow-heads of my own. Yes, Mom was there, too. I still didn't get his autograph. I will point out that she didn't, either.

I never liked this song, nor did I like Sonny James. I don't think Dad liked him much, either, but I definitely remember this track from '57:

And seriously? Five background singers? That's just egomaniacal.

You might only know Pat Boone from shilling for Relief Factor, and the obvious question is, Pat Boone is still alive? But he was using a sharp stick to scribble stuff in the grit in 1957:

I don't remember Elvis. I remember Rick(y) Nelson because he was on a TV show. I have a faint consciousness of Fats Domino and, most likely, the Everly Brothers.

This I remember, because who could ever forget?

My sisters could fill in the blanks better than I. They were older -- twelve and thirteen -- and at an age when music sheared like a knife. I was just a dumb toddler who took what was presented to me and called it "music".

Oh, and I remember some guy who people say "created" rock 'n roll:

I don't know about that. I guess I'd have to ask my dad.

Friday, July 14, 2017


As a music sociologist, I try to understand popular music from before my time. For example, I now like Frank Sinatra. I'm a Big Band fan, which took no effort on my part, to be honest. I truly appreciate fifties roots music -- I love, love Jerry Lee Lewis; doo-wop is great; Buddy Holly was a man before his time; the whole Little Richard screamin' thing had a primal honesty. Carl Perkins doesn't get his due.

Elvis? I've really tried. To be honest, all of Elvis's popularity wasn't before my time. I remember "Return To Sender", which I, as a young child, misinterpreted as "Return To Cinda", which I thought was a derivation of the name "Cindy". My dad liked "Wooden Heart", but he was sentimental that way. Since my best friend, Cathy, and I, as obedient Catholic schoolgirls, attended only the Sunday matinees that our church bulletin labeled as "A" movies (although we really wanted to see the "B's"), we saw practically every stupid movie Elvis ever made, so I definitely remember this one (which wasn't bad, in the larger scheme of his expansive catalog):

Generally, however, when an Elvis song comes on my (Sirius) radio, my first thought is, "Is this a parody?" Elvis was one of the few artists who truly became parodies of themselves. I know the whole back story -- he was controlled by an opportunistic manager (who called himself a "colonel") who forced him to record dreck. And then, of course, there were the pills. However, I'm a big believer in controlling one's own destiny, and therefore, Elvis, to me, was complicit in the trashing of his own career.

This is the song that set me off tonight:

Sure, he's got "the look", but what's with the Bing Crosby buh-buh-buh's

At least "Return To Cinda" had something:

People say, well, if you knew him when -- but actually, that's not true. When was "when"? Hound Dog? "Blue Suede Shoes" was done better, and more honestly, by its writer, Carl Perkins.

Truly, we kids in the early sixties were just supposed to like Elvis. It was decreed. Elvis was "the guy", so we had to like him. No matter that Roy Orbison's voice soared like the heavens. Elvis was everywhere. He was on our movie screens. He was there, in black and white, on the twelve-inch TV in our bedroom. Elvis was a staple, like the wide-lined paper we were forced to write on, even though it was beige and ugly and scratchy.

I will, however, begrudgingly concede "Jailhouse Rock":

...even though it was "jailhouse" like 50's movies starring Sal Mineo were jailhouse. "Ooh, is he whipping out his comb? No! It's a switchblade! Look out!"

Maybe what bothers me about Elvis is that he was so fake. I've read that what he truly loved was gospel music. Then that's what he should have gone with.

The best Elvis songs were sung by others:

My older sisters loved Elvis. I would never denigrate their memories. But the Elvis I remember was fat and bloated, and yes, a parody. Sweaty. Elvis never sent a chill up my spine like the Beatles did. And he never once wrote a song. Elvis was the Steve Lawrence of popular music -- good for the old soft shoe and a straw-brimmed hat. 

I try -- really try -- to understand music that came before my time. Unfortunately, Elvis, to me, will always be a mixture of a sunglassed rogue pulling up on the beach in a white convertible, his eyes shaded by Ray-Bans, ready for a clambake; and a man squeezed inside a white spangled jumpsuit, performing half-conscious Karate moves.

The song by Elvis I always liked more than any other (no offense to Cinda) wasn't even a single. There's just something about:

He could sing, given a chance. But one makes their own chances in life. Elvis chose the money and the bennies. I think if he'd lived, he might have matured into his own man. There's no denying his talent.

I think I might have liked the man he would have become.