Archive for Chuck Berry

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

Keith Richards, the Blues and Chuck Berry

Posted in Blues, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , on December 18, 2012 by travsd


Today is Keith Richards’ birthday (born 1943). I like the picture above; any dope can post according to expectations.

It speaks a lot to Keith’s integrity that public and critical respect for him remains undiminished even by widespread parody and even self-parody. That’s because the way he walks and dresses and carries himself are trappings. His playing has remained pure.

On the subject of drugs, his is at once a cautionary tale, and an inspirational one. In 1965 (see above) he looked like an errant schoolboy. Within about 3 or 4 years he looked like a cadaverous grandfather. In the 1980s, I expected he would be dead quite soon, what with his vampire-like weekly blood transfusions and all (an urban legend). Then, what’s he do? Kicks drugs, and becomes one of rock and roll’s grand old men, sharing old stories, dispensing words of wisdom from his rocking chair — not unlike those same blues heroes he so worshiped in his youth. What younger generations never seemed to understand about the rock musicians of the sixties (because of the more obvious fact that they were also smashing boundaries) was the subtler fact that they were also traditionalists, constantly seeking inspiration from the sounds of the past, whether it was folk, blues, jazz, tin pan alley or the rock ‘n’ roll of the previous decade.

Keith’s thing was (is) the blues, and more perhaps than any other practitioner he has raised widespread, mainstream awareness of artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf etc etc. His main enthusiasm, however was for Chuck Berry, who also came out of the blues tradition, but ended up inventing a new sound (see my post on him here).

So here are two contrasting clips. One, an early US clip from 1954, with the Stones playing Berry’s “Carol” on the Mike Douglas Show:

And then there’s this highly amusing clip from the 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, in which Richards finally gets to work with his hero. Arrogance, it’s been said, is the child of insecurity, and Berry in these clips seems nothing if not insecure, as Richards very reasonably and diplomatically tries to navigate sound issues and strategies for playing together and Berry, thrust into uncharted waters, has a hard time dealing.

Now, of course, Keith is older than Berry was then! And it can’t be unknown to you that he and his band are touring in support of a new album at this very moment. Rather than provide that bloated franchise with a free commercial, however, I’ll just direct you to their web site:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



Chuck Berry, Gentleman Genius

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music, Rock and Pop, Television, TV variety with tags , , , on October 18, 2012 by travsd

Originally posted in 2010

Today is the birthday of the great songwriter/ guitarist/ showman Chuck Berry, born 1926. I was shocked — shocked — to learn that not only is he still with us, he is still gigging. I found a clip of him on Youtube playing B.B. King’s nightclub here in New York last New year’s Eve! I knew he was still alive, but surprised to hear he’s still playing. As long ago as the mid 1980s (nearly 30 years ago) I was reading in the newspaper that he was arthritic, that he could no longer play his distinctive leads but only his (equally distinctive) patented double-stop rhythm patterns, a sort of truncation of the entertainer he had been. Yet, here he is at age 86, still singing and playing in front of audiences.

Influenced by the great blues guitarist T. Bone Walker, St. Louis native Berry got his start playing with Johnie Johnson, until Muddy Waters hooked up him up with Leonard Chess of Chess Records in 1955. His first hit “Maybelline” not only put him on the map (he charted hit singles for the next ten years) but helped launch rock and roll. To oversimplify, rock and roll is the red-haired stepchild of country and western and the blues. Elvis Presley had cross-bred the two from one direction….Berry from the other. Berry dug country music and liked to blow the minds of his black audiences by introducing it into his blues sets. “Maybelline”, in fact, was an adaptation of a country song called “Ida Red”. Of course, he jacked up the energy more than a little–that was the new element.

I won’t insult you by listing his long catalog of popular songs…but I do want to point out his many virtues. First his showmanship, so well suited for vaudeville’s second life the tv variety show…his slick appearance with the shiny suits and pencil thin mustache, and above all his flashy moves while he played, especially the so-called duck walk, where he kicks one leg in the air and hops around stage (he’s doing it in the photo above).

He also REMAINS one of the greatest lyricists ever to come out of rock and roll, with a subtlety, cleverness and wit to match his Whitmanesque heart, his ongoing celebration of the highways and byways of the American landscape.

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse of him being a great crafter of melodies (although he has created some nice ones), but he was an extremely innovative musician. I read in an interview that he actually did have some formal musical training back in St. Louis, and the origin of both his unique rhythmic style and those wild dense cords was an attempt to copy the sound of big bands. He didn’t have a horn section like Bill Haley and the Comets, but he could approximate the effect on his guitar. A good example of this is that memorable opening chord to “No Particular Place to Go”:

Those of us too young to have been there for initial run of popularity tend to think erroneously that Berry was over by the end of the fifties, but his career actually went strong an amazingly long time…he had hits through the mid 60s at least. That means he was on the charts right alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, who were also covering and adapting his songs. He was holding his own there for awhile. (One of the last of these tunes was 1964’s “You Never Can Tell” a.k.a “C’est La Vie”, which Quentin Tarantino used to memorable effect in Pulp Fiction.)

Long about 1966 those younger acts were no longer doing Berry covers though; they were heading off in surprising new directions. Berry was a creative guy and he was capable of reinvention, but this was around the time he started to run out of gas and repeat himself.  It seems to me “My Mustang Ford” (1966), for example is roughly where he exceeds my personal tolerance for songs about driving your car down the road…and to a tune and musicianship almost identical to several previous hits.

After this he became a hard-working nostalgia act, although he did have a major new hit in my own day, his only #1 single “My Ding-a-Ling” (1972), a novelty hit rather unlike his patented style, and one which I and my fellow 7 years olds were forbidden to sing, I can assure you. Cruelly, it was apparently impossible for seven year olds not to sing that song. And, in retrospect, that’s who SHOULD be singing it!

To find out more about show business past and present (including television variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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