Sunday, October 28, 2007

'Cause I can play this here guitar, Pt. 18

Continuing on with my series about under-appreciated guitarists:

The one required ingredient for guitar greatness is passion. Sure, mad skillz are great, but unless there's some 'soul' behind them, technical chops are fairly empty.

There have been, through the years, breakthroughs in skill. Witness Van Halen's first album release in '77. Unless you had been lucky enough to have caught one of their shows at the Whiskey, you were likely caught off guard by EVH's technical wizardry. But absent passion, which Edward clearly has, it would have been just a bunch of notes.

Another breakthrough came in the late '50s, when a young singer-songwriter-guitarist from St. Louis, MO, began recording for Chess Records:
Chuck Berry had been playing the blues since his teens and according to the 1987 Taylor Hackford film "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," by early 1953 was performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio, a band that played at a popular club called The Cosmopolitan, in East St. Louis, Illinois and whose namesake would become Berry's long-time collaborator. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area was hillbilly. Berry wrote, "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering 'who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it."

Berry's calculated showmanship began luring larger white audiences to the club. He also began singing the songs of Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. "Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction," he said at Blueberry Hill. "The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues."
Indeed. Chuck was a pyramid, with the 4 supporting corners being pop, country, blues, and his own innate genius. And the peak of the pyramid, the confluence of related but yet divergent styles, was Chuck's songwriting and guitar playing.

Listen to the YouTube and imagine his double-string and triple-string guitar stylings as horn lines. Chuck is truly the bridge between Swing and Blues and the nascent rock'n'roll movement of the late '50s:



Roll Over Beethoven from '65, live:



And while I could find no video of Chuck doing my favorite song live, this lets you at least hear it:



Here's Chuck's web site: http://www.chuckberry.com/

Update: From darkblack in the comments, a reverent and fun reading of "You Never Can Tell" by the late Ronnie Lane & friends:



These lyrics are as much American literary treasure as anything Steinbeck, Frost or Hemingway wrote:
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
The 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,
'twas a cherry red '53,
They drove it down New Orleans
to celebrate their anniversary
It was there that Pierre was married
to the lovely mademoiselle
"C'est la vie", say the old folks,
it goes to show you never can tell
Indeed.