Thursday, July 5. 2018
Ridinâ along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel
Remembering this line from Chuck Berryâs 1964 hit âNo particular place to goâ, copywriter Steve Landsberg and art director Gary Goldsmith of Doyle Dane Bernbach, Inc. (DDB) had the idea for an automobile advertising TV spot. So for the 1985 Volkswagen campaign they modified the text a little bit and produced the TV spot for VWâs GTI car showing the GTI riding the country with no particular place to go.
When I researched Chuck Berryâs contribution to the 1977 Dr Pepper advertising campaign (see the previous blog post), I ran into a March 2017 article by Steve Landsberg posted in the AgencySpy blog on the Adweek Network website: âThe Day I Spent Making an Ad With the Late, Great Chuck Berryâ (https://www.adweek.com/agencyspy/the-day-i-spent-making-an-ad-with-the-late-great-chuck-berry/128720)
Here we learn that Steve not only reused Berryâs 1964 recording but instead had him record a completely new version of his classic tune. I didnât know this. And my friends here didnât either.
So I started researching more about this rare recording. Steve and especially that time's DDB account representative Charlie Zollo have been very helpful with Steve telling even more than his story and Charlie providing a great collection of old documents from his files. Many thanks to both!
Steve even sent me a copy of the 1985 TV spot. Concurrently Anne Chanu found a poor copy of the spot on YouTube. Therefore all of you can go back in time and hear Berry perform this otherwise unreleased studio recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjSJHV2RfQU
Given Charlieâs and Steveâs additional information, Steveâs original article for Adweek needs some corrections and additions. Both Steve and Adweek allowed me to provide you here with an updated version of Steveâs story.
But let's first remember Charlie Zollo how difficult it was to have Chuck Berry sign the contract:
While we can't say how much, I was prepared with a "suitcase full of cash" as we fondly remember (actually a large Cashiers Check) as an upfront incentive to sign the contract. I was dispatched by Carol, the DDB talent administrator (sorry Carol, but I forgot your last name), to Berry Park in Wentzville to negotiate the final contract after Chuck had fired his agent.This is Steve's story about the recording session in Berry Park, with some embedded comments:
It was January 1985. [Editorâs note: According to Charlie's documents, the recording session told here happened in September 1984.] I [Steve Landsberg] was a copywriter at DDB. My art director Gary Goldsmith and I got thrown into a creative gangbang for the VW GTI. The brief was simple: position the GTI as fun to drive.What a great story â and how nicely told. Thanks for sharing, Steve!
An additional comment from Charlie Zollo:
âFor all of us who were involved, it was one of those once in a lifetime experiences weâll never forget. While we all had our own personal experiences, my favorite (which I tell often) was sitting outside of the control room, on the floor against a wall in the room where Chuck and his band were rehearsing. So there I was 10 feet away, as they jammed during the equipment down time, listening to them jam Roll Over Beethoven and other riffs. Listening to Berry during the breaks was, for me, more exciting than seeing any live concert by any rock group.âDefinitely it was, Charlie!
Charlie sent me the copy of an 1985 article by Aliza Laufer from Backstage magazine in which John Hill adds some details:
Hill was the music producer on the entire Volkswagen 1984/85 campaign, having written and produced all and arranged about half of the 20-spot package. According to Hill, the 1984/85 Volkswagen campaign is the biggest introductory budget in VWâs 30-year history.The last sentence means that in contrast to other commercials where the sound follows the pictures, here Steve, Charlie and their team had to film and cut outdoor segments so that they fit to Berryâs singing. Remembering the filming Steve told me:
The commercial was shot in Scotland because Los Angeles was going through a drought and looked too dry. Nothing was green. The area of Scotland we used looked very much like Americaâs lush Â heartland.Other than the music, you only hear a voice-over at the end of the spot. Steve remembers:
The announcer was the late Roy Scheider [Editorâs note: known from Jaws and other popular movies], who was the official voice of VW back then. I covered the recording myself in LA. He was a very kind man. He smoked and drank coffee to get that deep voice of this ready.According to Charlieâs old files, the VW GTI spot premiered on March 1st, 1985 on MTV.
In addition to the TV spot, Charlie remembers that the same track was also used for a Volkswagen radio spot.
Since Berry's deal was for TV only, we paid him another large amount to use the recording for radio as well. Part of the payment was a new GTI, that he picked up at a local Missouri dealer. My secretary (in the days when we had secretaries) would call out "Charlie, Chuck Berry is on the phone" as we were arranging the personal appearance of Chuck picking up his GTI. There was press coverage as I recall, but none that I have a copy of. All in all, use royalties included, he did very well for a few hours recording time. I think we paid him for his studio also.Does one of our readers have a copy of the radio spot or of the press article showing Berry getting his Volkswagen?
The gold-colored souvenir matchbook Steve Landsberg got from Chuck Berry is also known to exist in black with golden print. Hereâs a photo from Morten Reffâs collection:
Thanks to Steve, Charlie, and Morten for their help with this article bringing to our attention a Chuck Berry studio recording never released on record or CD.
Saturday, June 9. 2018
Of the various promotional records containing radio spots which Chuck Berry recorded for companies and associations, one stands apart. For the 1977 campaign promoting the Dr Pepper soft drink, Berry did not only provide an interview or a spoken advertisement. Here Berry and his guitar provide a full Rock and Roll version of that campaignâs advertising song.
Quite recently, a video was uploaded to YouTube showing the recording of the song and the corresponding interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgJfpexPfEc. Thanks to Anne Chanu for finding it!
The video is interesting, but even more interesting is a note in the video description which points to a book written by Susan Hamilton who was the producer of the Dr Pepper spots and also of this Chuck Berry song. I bought and read the book, which is called âHit Womanâ. So should you. Itâs an interesting and funny read about a segment of the music industry you usually donât hear much about.
Susan Hamilton was the owner of HEA Production in New York, one of the top advertising music production companies (also known as a âjingle houseâ) in the US. You can read a short bio at susanhamilton.com, but you better read the full book.
Video and book made me write this blog post about one of the rarest Chuck Berry records ever.
It all started when the Dr Pepper company and their advertising agency Young & Rubicam came up with a new campaign called âThe Most Original Soft Drinkâ. Itâs not quite clear when, but it must have been in late 1973, early 1974 when HEA Productions was contracted to create the music for this campaign. Through HEA founder Herman Edel and NY attorney Lee Eastman, HEA hired Eastmanâs son-in-law to write the song: Paul McCartney.
Susan Hamilton recalls meeting Paul and Linda McCartney in Los Angeles to discuss the project with the client and agency. To everyoneâs surprise McCartney was not interested at all in learning about the planned campaign. Instead he told them that he had already written the song needed and played a cassette with a demo recording.
This song was simply done; it was classic McCartney; it had a great hook, but it had absolutely nothing to do with our campaign. There was no relevance to all of the spots that have been tailored for the campaign â the precious campaign that had been worked on for months and (more importantly) sold to the client.McCartney refused to come up with something else and so Susan Hamilton was left finding a different composer within very short time. Through Tim Newman who worked for Young & Rubicam she got into contact with his cousin who agreed to write the jingle. The new composer was famous singer-songwriter Randy Newman who came up with the melody and lyrics for âThe Most Original Soft Drink Everâ.
Fellow singer-songwriter Jake Holmes rewrote the verse lyrics and the song was used for the 1975 Dr Pepper campaign and the following ones until 1977. (Sheet music for this song as below is currently available as ebay item 253525494577.)
For the radio spots, Susan Hamilton recorded the same song in various musical styles using a number of well-known artists. All these recordings were made over a few months in the fall of 1974.
A first set of recordings was used for the initial 1975 campaign. These were from bluegrass star Doc Watson, blues legend Muddy Waters, jazz pianist Eubie Blake, singer Anita OâDay and banjo player Grandpa Jones. A (December?) 1974 promotional album (Dr Pepper DP-1274) contains these recordings and other spots for the campaign. Susan recalls:
The Muddy Waters session for Dr Pepper was recorded in Chicago at Chess Records Studio, and it was a nightmare. The studio was in disrepair. When mixing the spots, we found the harmonica and the electric bass on the same track. Worse yet, Muddy and the band hadnât a clue how to handle Randy Newmanâs charming, chromatic shuffle tune. I had to somehow wrangle it into a 12/8 blues song. It took a while âŠFurther recordings seem to have stayed in the can and were used for a later campaign in 1977. Artists selected then were Teresa Brewer, Hank Snow, B. B. King, the Mills Brothers, Lynn Anderson, and Chuck Berry. Again each performed the Newman/Holmes tune according to their specific style.
According to Susan Hamilton, she recorded Chuck Berry probably in October 1974, just before they flew to Chicago to record Muddy Waters.
The standard procedure was to record the base track in HEAâs own studio in Manhattan using a fixed set of very capable (and musically flexible) studio musicians. Susan Hamilton and her team then went to the featured artist and recorded solos and voice over the prerecorded track. Unusual for radio spots, but a film crew joined them in every studio to create a video of the recording and an interview with the artist. This is why we can see today how Berry performed the tune. The film was used only for promoting the artists and the campaign to Dr Pepper partners such as dealers or bottlers.
These partners were also the only recipients for the corresponding Dr Pepper promotional record given out at the kick-off convention. Very few of these promotional records seem to have survived. Even discogs.com misses it. Thus before we continue to learn about the crazy creation of this recording, letâs have a more detailed look at the beautiful record which this site's Morten Reff discovered in June 2012.
âThe Sights and Sounds of Dr Pepper â77â (DP-76 in dead wax) comes in a gatefold cover:
Besides a 12â LP there are two booklets, a red one for the Regular Dr Pepper campaign, a blue one for the Sugar Free Dr Pepper campaign.
Likewise the LP has a red and a blue label. The contents can be seen in the two scans. Basically the red side contains the 60-second radio spots and the soundtracks of the TV spots, while the blue side has the soundtracks for the little films containing the interviews and session footage. The Chuck Berry radio spot is at the beginning of the red side, the interview (followed by a count-in and the same song recording) is at the beginning of the blue side.
The 16-page red booklet and the 12-page blue booklet each contain descriptions and photos of the TV spots, photos and some detail about the artists contracted for the radio spots plus separate reproductions of the outdoor advertisements.
This is the segment about Chuck Berry which also includes photos taken from the film as shot during the recording session. All looks so perfect and in harmony.
And this is in total contrast to what Susan Hamilton writes about this recording. Chapter 28 is only seven pages long, but itâs well worth buying the book just for this story.
It all started when Hamilton, engineer Scheiner and HEA salesman Drayton flew to St. Louis with the agencyâs Dennis Powers as well as cameraman Jim Desmond and his sound guy. The flight was late so they arrived close to midnight and tired. At the airport they were refused to get their rental cars until Chuck had a talk with the agent. Next they couldnât sleep in a comfortable hotel in St. Louis but had to follow Berry for an hour by car to get to Berry Mansion, Summer Camp for Inner City Children â a dark, unlit wasteland of broken glass and cracked asphalt with no coffee, no showers, no food.
In the morning they drove back to a broken-down studio of Berryâs in downtown St. Louis (not the Berry Park studios, seemingly), only to learn that Berry requested another $5000 for the recording. Susan Hamilton managed to get the approval from the agency and was forced to write a, in her mind non-binding anyway, contract on the back of empty envelopes. Finally they recorded the overdubs onto the track they brought with them.
We got a bunch of takes and in a very short time. I knew I had plenty of material to be able to compile a great performance. Of course it was a little difficult to judge because we didnât get to hear some of our previously recorded instruments. They just wouldnât play from the 24 track machine through the broken faders. Oh well. We just imagined them.When the team was packing up in the afternoon, Berry demanded his money. He wanted the extra $5000, now and in cash. âYouâre not leaving here until I get it. The tape is not leaving here, and your people ainât leaving here, neither,â Berry said and locked people and tape in a back room. It was late on a Friday in St. Louis and Susan Hamilton had no chance to contact the New York agency nor the client.
I picked up the phone and dialed my office. God was merciful, and someone was there. I had them wire the money out of our account to the Western Union facility in downtown St. Louis. I told them it was ransom money. I was serious.Eventually the money arrived, Susan got tape and people out of the back room after counting it out into Chuckâs hands. To top it, Berry forced them to go out with him for some soul food in one of the scariest parts of the town.
The whole two-day Chuck experience was both hilarious and terrifying, as you can imagine â felt like I was in some dark comedy of a movie!Given this story, itâs no wonder we should be very suspicious watching the session footage on YouTube. The film shows Berry accompanied by session musicians on drums, bass, piano and sax. Look carefully and you will not find a single image where you see Berry together with one of the musicians. You canât, because Susan Hamilton recorded Berry in St. Louis alone without a band. The prerecorded track had been made in New York already.
I asked Susan if she can identify the session men from the video. She says that any shots in the film of musicians other than Chuck were added for creative interest by the film crew. These were not the original session men. Itâs fairly easy to see at the end where the film shows a sax player. There is no sax on the whole recording.
Asked whether she remembers the original musicians, Susan tells that she can only guess. So despite the nice Dr Pepper video we are left with the unknownâs in our database.
All quotes from Susan Hamilton have been taken from her excellent book âHit Womanâ (Hitwoman Publishing, 2013) and from emails in which Susan was so kind to answer my additional questions. Many thanks!
Wednesday, April 25. 2018
I have no idea who the people are which release CDs under the ROUGH label name, but I'm sure they read this blog and site regularly. Just a few weeks after we finally managed to solve the mysteries about Berry's 1981 live recordings, ROUGH releases a CD containing the complete show.
The CD is called Live! Wolf & Rissmiller's Country Club - 1981 and seems to be available only on ebay. This time the ROUGH CD got a catalog number (40147), though interestingly the same product code as the previous one which contained live recordings from Seattle and Waterloo.
Of course the ROUGH people did not find the original Norman Pattiz recordings. They just combined what was found on Youtube and on previously released CDs and LPs. So here we find the twelve tracks from the first set as they were broadcast on radio plus the one track from the second set which made it to the Westwood One Radio album.
To fill the CD, ROUGH added some live recordings from other shows. Here we get three songs from the 1982 show at the Roxy which are well known from many other releases. Plus we get three songs from a French TV show 1965. These tracks have been available on video before, e.g. on Youtube or at L'Institut national de l'audiovisuel (Ina.fr). The show was recorded for the French TV series Music-Hall de France on November 4th, 1965 in Montrouge near Paris. As this is the first audio release of this recording, we have added it as a session to our database.
Concurrently to ROUGH 40147 they also released a second CD again containing known but rare Berry live recordings in high quality. ROUGH 40148 is called Saturday Rock - Live at the BBC '72.
As you can read from the title, again we know these recordings well. The Sounds for Saturday show has been released on multiple albums before, most notably the Six Two Five vinyl bootleg.
In contrast to the previous releases, the ROUGH CD contains the full show recording as it had been made available on a DVD last year. Also from a DVD are the two bonus track recorded for the Radio Bremen TV show five days before the BBC concert.
Again this CD is offered on ebay only so far.
Saturday, March 17. 2018
Arian Collins is a Chuck Berry fan like us. He recently wondered about the strange release strategy Chess showed with the first ten years in Berry's carrier. Songs were left on the shelf, placed on albums years after recorded or even released as singles only.
Thus Arian imagined how Berry's early albums would have looked like if Chess did release all recordings in time.
On his blog "Albums Back from the Dead - Recreating albums that never actually existed" Arian shows us Berry's Chess albums he imagined, including track listings which follow the recording dates and imaginary covers.
Look, read and enjoy
Chuck Berry 1955-59: https://albumsbackfromthedead.blogspot.com/2018/02/chuck-berry-discography-1956-59.html
Chuck Berry 1960-66: https://albumsbackfromthedead.blogspot.com/2018/03/chuck-berry-discography-1960-66.html
Monday, February 26. 2018
This site's section on Radio Show and Promotional Records has a description of the most interesting Chuck Berry records which were not available for public sale. This includes the so-called Radio Show albums which are LPs (later CDs) containing pre-produced radio shows to be broadcast by radio stations nation-wide. Some of these albums contain interviews or even music not available anywhere else.
I recently received another of these radio albums containing five segments of 5 to 7 minutes each to be broadcast as House of Blues Breaks on CBS stations. The segment for Thursday, 21 April 1994 concentrates on Louis Jordan but holds an interview segment by Chuck Berry related to Jordan.
They say that's a Chuck Berry song because it goes 'da-da-bi-da-bi-da-bi-du-a-da-bi-du-a'. Well, the first time I heard that was one of Carl Hogan's riffs in Louis Jordan's band. We have T-Bone Walker - I love T-Bone Walker and his blues. So you put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker, and a little Charlie Christian, the guitarist in Tommy Dorsey's band, together. Look what a span of people that you will please. And that's what I did in Johnny B. Goode, in Roll Over Beethoven. And making it simple is an important fact, I think, that resulted in a lot of the artists understanding, being able to play my music. If you can call it my music. But there's nothing new under the sun.
This does sound very well-known. We have heard Berry tell this in multiple interviews before. However, I checked the remaining radio station albums and did not find this specific segment. Do you remember where we have heard this specific interview segment before? Let me know.
Friday, February 16. 2018
As you know, this site's database is a complete list of each and every Chuck Berry recording which has ever been published on a mass-produced record or CD.
Some people have noticed that various web sites list Chuck Berry recordings which are not in our database. All these contain "alternative facts" and it's in no way our job to correct those. One error, which even made it to Mike Callahan and David Edwards' excellent Both Sides Now website, continues to be repeated over and over, though. Time to get the facts right:
In June 1972 Chess recorded several of their main artists at the Montreux Jazz Festival. This included Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and T-Bone Walker. Most were backed by The Four Aces, i.e. Lafayette Leake, Dave & Louis Myers, Fred Below. Some performances including Berry's were also broadcast on TV. From these broadcasts and from audience tapes we know it's been a poor Berry performance despite Walker and Dixon as guest artists on some tracks.
Chess decided to release the best recordings from the various shows on a two-LP set numbered 2CH-60015. Berry's complete performance seems to have been mastered for release, as both Michel Ruppli and Fred Rothwell report the master numbers CH2440 to CH2453 containing the songs from Berry's Montreux performance.
The double album was initially announced under the title "The Blues/Rock Cookbook - Volumes 1 & 2" to be released by Chess/Janus in September 1972. The track listing seems to have included Let It Rock (master CH2448) and School Day (master CH2453) from Berry's performance. [I haven't seen the original announcement yet, but I found a note in Cash Box which lists the artists, though not the songs.]
Those who know tell that the masters of these two songs have been cut from the master tape residing in the Chess vaults which otherwise still has the complete stereo recording. Thus it looks as if a master tape for the Blues/Rock Cookbook album had been created.
However, we have never seen a copy of this album nor any image thereof. It seems that it never made it to the stores. Strangely, many online discographies list 2CH-60015 under this title - and list Berry among the artists.
Correct is instead, that the final release of CHESS 2CH-60015 in February/March/April (?) 1973 has the title "Blues Avalanche" on the cover and "Blues/Rock Avalanche" on the label. The "Avalanche" album has the exact same tracks as the planned "Cookbook" album except for the two Berry tunes. There's no trace of Berry on the disk or on the cover.
It is completely unknown why this change happened? Fred Rothwell writes that Berry had a dislike for compilations. Another wild guess could be that Berry demanded additional cash for the publishing of his recordings. Or someone had noticed that Chess had just released a Chuck Berry live album (The Chuck Berry London Sessions, CH-60020). It even could be that Chess officials finally noticed that Berry's performance in Montreux was poor. Who knows?
In case you wonder, yes, there is another album missing Chuck Berry live performances. The soundtrack album for Richard Nader's movie "Let The Good Times Roll" (Bell 9002, 1973) has the best live performances by old-time rock'n'rollers such as Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and Little Richard, but misses the Berry part from the film including a performance together with Bo Diddley.
Saturday, January 13. 2018
There are hundreds of audience tapes containing Chuck Berry shows from all over the world. Few of them are worth listening to and even fewer are worth releasing.
A couple of weeks ago a new CD called Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry! Live! became available containing two shows which are really worth listening to. Although the CD says "This CD-R is a non commercial product and is for private use only", it is professionally made with a printed cardboard envelope. The label is called ROUGH. There is no catalog number, but the barcode reads 640509040147, so we take this as the catalog number.
The two shows included are well known. Seven tracks come from a show recorded in February 1965 at the TV studios of Radio TĂ©lĂ©vision Belge in Waterloo, Belgium. This show was broadcast under the title "Face au public". It's available in very good quality on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhoyMlX5avU
It's interesting to note that Berry is backed by professional Jazz musicians from Belgium: Willy Donni on guitar, Willy Albimoor (Willy NoĂ«l De Moor) on piano, Ed Rogers (Roger Van Hoverbeke) on double bass, and Eddie Hunton on drums.
Besides his greatest hits, Berry also performs his latest singles and The Things That I Used To Do, a blues by Guitar Slim.
Further 14 tracks on this new CD come from a September 1980 show at the Seattle Arts Festival "Bumbershoot". Again this recording is of highest sound quality. It probably was recorded and broadcast by Seattle radio station KSIW. At least KSIW DJ Gary Crow introduces Berry and the band and promotes the radio station.
Fred, Thierry and myself spent some time trying to find out who backed Berry at this show. Crow introduces them as the "Northwest All Stars" and they are much better than the average pickup band Berry used to play with. The guitar player and the piano player both get time to solo which is a strong indication for Berry really liking their play.
With the help of Eric Predoehl and Ned Neltner we finally got into contact with guitarist Barry Curtis (ex-Kingsmen) and drummer George Rudiger (of Jr. Cadillac) from the band. Both Barry and George remember the show well. They report that the electric piano was played by Tom "Cadillac" Katica (Jr. Cadillac as well), who died in 2010. They didn't know the bass player who was traveling with Berry. This indicates that here again we hear Jim Marsala playing.
Eric has a great photo shot on his louielouie.net site showing Chuck, George, and Barry during the Bumbershoot show: http://www.louielouie.net/blog/?p=9074
Besides all his greatest hits, the show includes nice versions of You Don't Have To Go and Baby What You Want Me To Do written by Jimmy Reed as well as Lousiana Blues written by Muddy Waters. Note that in contrast to the known audience tapes, the show on this CD has been shortened. Due to time limitations, Johnny B. Goode was excluded, Reelin' And Rockin'/House Lights was shortened by two minutes. Also missing is the introduction by Gary Crow and an initial guitar instrumental based on Rockin' At The Philharmonic.
Right now we haven't seen this CD offered in stores or mailorder catalogs. It is offered on ebay, though.
Sunday, January 7. 2018
While Carol is one of Berry's best-known records, the recording itself is kind of a mystery. This starts with two different master tapes which have been used to create the hit single vs. the LP release. Most readers will know the LP master originally created for the 1959 album Chuck Berry Is On Top (CHESS LP 1435). This has a wide range of loudness throughout the song and is used for almost all LP or CD re-issues. In contrast, the master used for the 1958 single (CHESS 1700) is much more compressed to give a more leveled sound. To many people this variant sounds much more vivid and overall better.
The single master is more difficult to get as it was used only for the hit single and the follow-up EP. According to Thierry Chanu, the single master has been used only once since then, on the British album More Chuck Berry (PYE NPL-28028). In the US this master seems to have been lost which is why Bear Family in 2014 reconstructed it from a Vinyl single to re-issue it on their 16-CD box set.
Also lost are session tapes showing the development of the recording as well as the overdubs tried. So it came out as a surprise when in April we found a variant of Carol having an additional piano overdub which is not on the original single or LP release. This piano overdub version has been published only once: on the 1973 double album Chuck Berry's Golden Decade, Vol. 2.
This made us listen to Carol in greater detail trying to find a second release of this piano overdub. We didn't.
But in December Thierry Chanu found something else: On the Japanese 1983 box set Very Good!! (CHESS PLP 834-6) there is a third variant of Carol!! Again it sounds almost the same as the hit version but has additional piano playing. And this is a different piano overdub than the one on Golden Decade.
The piano overdub on this version is much more audible, but concurrently it's also worse. It doesn't fit the song very well. And the master runs approximately 5% faster than the hit version, whether on purpose or not. According to Morten Reff, this second piano overdub was also used on a second Japanese box set called From The Beginning 1955-1960 (CHESS SJET 9523-5) released probably in 1973. And Thierry found it on a strange European CD called Greatest (Goldies GLD63035, Portugal 1991).
Given these results we have to state that session tapes of the Carol overdubs must still have existed in 1973 as two alternative overdubs were used on compilation albums both in the US and in Japan. As these seem to have been lost in MCA's archives, one wonders if master tape copies still exist in Japan or elsewhere.
Saturday, April 8. 2017
As announced on Berry's 90th birthday in October, the planned album CHUCK (Dualtone Music) was supposed to be released in March 2017. Obvious reasons now have postponed the release to June 16th.
While waiting for the release, we are trying to get some facts about the songs and the recording process. Anyway this is what should finally make it to our database - and as correct as possible. While we know about all the uncertainties regarding Berry's recordings in the 1950s and 1960s, it shouldn't be so difficult to get facts about recent recordings, should it?
Right now, some facts about the new album are public. Most of what's of interest for us, remains unclear, though. The contributors, some of which are reading and commenting here, seem to be under non-disclosure. So we have to stick with Dualtone's press releases and the liner notes excerpts reprinted in Rolling Stone magazine.
Berry has been talking about this album in interviews for at least 25 years including naming songs such as "Lady B. Goode". He must have had recorded parts or all already when in March 1989 a fire at his Wentzville farm destroyed both the recording studio and all of the master tapes.
Berry started re-recording the lost tapes shortly thereafter. He moved to digital recording techniques in the 1990s which allowed him to do the same cut-and-paste recording common with multi-track taping. Due to this we will probably never be able to set a date or even year of when a specific song from CHUCK was recorded. And we won't be able to tell where such recording took place and who played which instrument.
Listening to the single Big Boys released in advance, we hear that Berry's singing and guitar playing is not that of a 90-year-old. Even comparing it to the concert tapes made during the last 20 years, he sounds fresh. Therefore we can assume that at least the base track for this song has been recorded in the 1990s or early 2000s. According to an interview, at least six of the tracks had been ready by 1996. Not to forget that "Big Boys" was dubbed ready for release in an article celebrating Berry's 80th birthday in 2006.
Digital recording also allowed Berry to play more than one instrument. Thus while we are told that Jim Marsala, Bob Lohr and Keith Robinson worked as bassist, pianist and drummer on CHUCK, it might be for all songs, or just a few.
Besides Marsala and Berry's children Chuck Jr. and Ingrid, who toured with him during the last decades, the album also lists guest musicians such as Gary Clark Jr., Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff as well as Chuck's grandson Charles III.
Tom Morello is the guitarist who provides the very unlike solo at the end of Big Boys, while Rateliff sings the background vocals. Whereas Morello has been a recording artist since the 1990s, both Rateliff and Clark are relatively fresh artists. This makes us believe that at least these guest artists have been overdubbed onto finished tapes during the last few years. While the liner notes list Clark Jr. on "Wonderful Woman", the guitarist himself says that he doesn't know which song his playing was used for. Berry Jr. explained that he and his son, that's Chuck III., finished their parts in Nashville in 2014 or 2015.
In addition to Big Boys we already know two songs from CHUCK: "3/4 Time" has been in Berry's touring repertoire for decades. Written by Tony Joe White and best known sung by Ray Charles, this is included in various concert recordings known from Berry since the early 1990s. A version of the Jazz standard "You Go To My Head" from 1938, written by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, has been recorded during the rehearsals for Berry's 1986 birthday movie. It didn't make it to the film but can be heard on the corresponding DVD set.
The remaining seven songs on CHUCK are written by Berry himself. This is the expected track listing:
Wonderful Woman [5:19]
Big Boys [3:05]
You Go to My Head [3:21]
3/4 Time (Enchiladas) [3:47]
Lady B. Goode [2:55]
She Still Loves You [3:00]
Jamaica Moon [3:50]
Eyes of Man [2:27]
Collectors should note that "Big Boys" was not only released as a download. Dualtone Music also released a CD single (DUA-1793-SI) containing just this track. It was sent as a not-for-sale promotional item to radio stations.
Many thanks to Lori Kampa of Dualtone Music for information about the album and PR single.
[Addition April 27, 2017: The song "Wonderful Woman" has been made available yesterday at https://youtu.be/kRFg9zUZnpU.]
Monday, April 3. 2017
Back to our main interest here: documenting Chuck Berry's recordings as completely as possible.
Chuck's work for Chess records is known pretty well nowadays. We have heard the 1950s recordings over and over, first on their original releases, then on all the 1970s re-releases, next when transferred to CDs, then in complete by HIP-O Select and Bear Family. So we should know them by heart.
Then last week Willem Moerdijk asked me:
According to your info, only one Chess take of Carol has been found. I think I may have found a second take. I noticed differences in the piano playing.
Willem included an MP3 of the version he found. It's a version most Chuck Berry collectors have sitting on the shelf. But yet it is different.
Get any of your records containing the 1958 hit Carol and listen to it. Now locate you old copy of Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 2. Carol is the very first track on side one. Play it. Hear any difference? Probably not. The singing is completely identical as is the guitar playing.
However, Willem is an expert on Jerry Lee Lewis. So he did not care about the guitar or the singing. He heard the piano. And he heard a different piano.
After a week of discussions and with the help of Arne's technical expertise (Thanks, Arne!) we finally have to agree with Willem.
The recording of Carol on Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 2 (Chess 60023, USA, 1973-02) is different indeed. It contains the exact same recording as the usual version, but there's another piano line. Listen for instance to the solo near the end of the song (at 2:33): On the 'new' version you can clearly hear the pianist performing a slide (glissando). On the 'common' version it isn't. There are some other piano differences at the beginning of the song and in between as well. The differences are minimal and you need to have a good and piano-trained ear to spot them.
Since the singing, the guitar, and even the original piano lines are exactly the same on both variants, it's clear that this is not a different recording/take. Instead it seems that Chess overdubbed another piano track onto the recording, probably because the original piano was pretty thin in the mix. Remember that in 1958 Chess recorded in Mono to a single tape. No way to enhance the original piano line later. Note that also the guitar was overdubbed, but this is identical on both variants, so must have taken place before the piano overdub. Why the enhanced variant did not make it to the original release, remains unknown.
The inclusion of this 'new' variant on Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 2 (again I show the much prettier UK cover) fits to the known facts about this strange release. Collectors had already found differing variants of Let It Rock (missing the guitar overdub) and Betty Jean (previously unreleased take) in this set. Since all three variants on Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol. 2 sound very much like their 'correct' releases, we doubt these were released intentionally. Especially as the liner notes don't tell anything. Or maybe some re-release engineer tried to tease us. In this case he succeeded for 44 years!
If you don't have the original 2-LP set, listen to other late 1970s re-releases. We have found the piano overdub on a few other albums. We haven't found it on any CD, though. If you do, let us know.
Many thanks to Willem, of course!
Wednesday, March 22. 2017
Dualtone had been very quiet about the new Chuck Berry album they announced in October. My guess is they kept quiet to have the media stay away from Chuck's last days.
Here's a message distributed tonight:
Since Chuck's passing on Saturday, the Berry family has received many inquiries from friends, fans and media about the status of his forthcoming album CHUCK, which was originally announced on his 90th birthday, October 18, 2016.
Accordingly, Dualtone Records makes available a first song called Big Boys from this album at their website:
Thursday, February 16. 2017
In June of 1972 the British Broadcasting Corporation BBC recorded an 80 minute Chuck Berry concert at the BBC Television Theatre in London. This recording is one of the best Berry performances ever shown on TV. But unfortunately it wasn't available for us to watch again.
The original recording was broadcast edited down to 45 minutes. The audio track of this abbreviated show was saved and made it to a Vinyl bootleg called "Six Two Five". For more about this record, see here.
In the early 2000s the BBC show was re-transmitted by other TV stations, though now as a 60 minute show with additional songs. Thus we knew there must still exist the original full recording from 1972.
Recently we found a DVD on eBay which claimed to contain the complete show. We checked - and yes: This is the original uncut 80 minutes recording of the 1972 show at excellent video and sound quality, obviously directly from the BBC archives.
Live at the BBC (ZitRock ZR-DVD-CHB-16-03, US, 2016) contains all the songs which we know from the Six Two Five album. In addition there's School Day, Too Much Monkey Business, Rock and Roll Music, and Promised Land. With Reelin' and Rockin' and My Ding-A-Ling it's not hard to tell why these two songs were omitted from the original BBC broadcast as both are the raunchy versions very similar to the ones recorded four months earlier at the Lanchester Arts Festival. Maybe the BBC would have decided differently if they would have known that both raunchy versions would hit the charts at year's end.
While video tape copies of the various international broadcast have been known before, this DVD is of much better quality. And for the first time it contains the instrumental Liverpool Drive of which we didn't have any video recording before.
We have added this DVD as an "other notable release" to our Chuck Berry database meaning it's not a record or CD, but contains additional tracks from the same session as the corresponding record or CD. The full session is now at this session page of the Chuck Berry Database.
Saturday, February 20. 2016
The year 2016 starts with a new CD containing Chuck Berry recordings previously not released. Well, some. Well, not officially released. Well, and whether this CD is an official release is also questionable. Well, at least it looks like one.
Chuck Berry - The Sheik of Chicago (Smashing Pumpkin Records PMK-1126, 2016) comes in a cheap printed cardboard sleeve which claims to be printed in the E.U.
The CD has a playing time of almost 80 minutes consisting of a complete 1988 concert, segments from a 1981 concert, three nice short spots, and a tribute song to Chuck Berry by Joe Stampley.
The 1988 concert was recorded on New Year's Evening at the Palladium Theater in New York City. This concert had been broadcast through various U.S. radio stations and therefore this is a high-quality professional recording. The recording has been known from both audience tapes and more-or-less privately made bootleg CDs for a long time. One of these called Live at the Palladium even uses the same cover image.
While it's a high-quality recording, the performance is everything but high-quality. As he did for most of his career, Berry again uses a band he obviously has never seen before. Bass and rhythm guitar are inaudible, piano and drums are just bad. Chuck's daughter Ingrid helps out with harmonica and second vocal on a few numbers. She even gets to sing lead vocal on two blues numbers like we know from other concert recordings. All in all this concert is certainly not something you want to buy this CD for.
Following the 1988 concert are segments from a 1981 concert recorded in Reseda, California. This is much better but only 12 minutes long. Berry collectors and readers of this site know this performance for a long time. It has never been officially released for public sale. But it exists on Vinyl. These three songs have been included on a LP record sent by Westwood One to radio stations nation-wide to be broadcast as part of their In Concert radio series. Here it has been mastered digitally very well without any crackles and it's nice to have on CD now.
The first part of the former paragraph also holds for the next track. Berry's 20-seconds radio spot for the YMCA as recorded in 1967 was available on Vinyl before and has been discussed in detail on this site's section on Radio Station and Promotional Records. Here however, the transfer to CD did not go well. There are crackles, the beginning is fuzzy, and the overall sound quality is bad. However, as this recording is very rare we must be glad to be able to listen to it at all.
Jumping from 1988 to 1981 to 1967 next are two Chuck Berry recordings made in 2004. Both are speech recordings Chuck Berry did for Independence Air. The airline company Independence Air started flying in 2004 and filed bankruptcy in 2005, thus not being too successful. Besides trying to be cheap (always not a good idea) they also tried to be funny. This included that the in-flight safety announcements were spoken by comedians and other celebrities (see this old press-release).
Chuck Berry's safety announcements, to be used on their Bombardier CRJ200 (CL-65) jets, are spoken over a rock'n'roll instrumental (non-Berry). In 2004 you could download all the safety announcements from the flyi.com website. If you didn't, you now find it here on this new CD.
In addition the Pumpkin CD also includes a 30-seconds radio (?) commercial for Independence Air. In fact this is the only recording from this CD I did not know of and had before. I have not been able to find out where this spot was used and how it was distributed in 2004.
The last and 22nd track of this new CD is not a Chuck Berry recording at all. This is the song Sheik of Chicago, released in 1976 by Joe Stampley on EPIC. This Berry tribute is certainly one of the better ones and even made it to Billboard's Country Top 100.
If you are wondering about the nice and professional looking cover image, this has been cut from a contemporary (i.e. 1988) advert for Christian Brother's Brandy displaying Berry (click to enlarge).
Overall this is not necessary a CD we have been waiting for. It does include some rarities though. Thus if you don't have the radio station albums and the Independent Air MP3s, get yourself a copy.
Wednesday, January 20. 2016
Along with Taylor Hackford's 1986 documentary film celebrating Chuck Berry's 60th birthday MCA released a soundtrack album called Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (MCA LP 6217). It has been known that the contents of the soundtrack album is edited against the original recordings made during the two shows filmed for the movie. It has not been known exactly what kind of edits were done during this post-processing, though. However, given the huge resource of professional and private audience recordings, finding out the edits is possible. It's just a tremendous task.
During many weeks reader and fellow researcher Claude Schlouch listened to and compared the various recordings over and over again. Here are his results:
Comparing the remaining performances shown in the film with the concert tapes revealed some additional interesting things:
Many thanks to Claude Schlouch for all the work spent and for sharing his results with us. I have edited the section of the main site which covers the birthday concerts accordingly.
Wednesday, March 25. 2015
When Fred Rothwell a few weeks ago reported here on his new findings regarding the 'who-played-on-what' questions of Chuck Berry's discography, one of the most interesting changes to the Chuck Berry sessionography was made to the personnel which created Johnny B. Goode.
The session's recording contract encountered by Tim McFarlin during his studies of the Berry vs. Johnson suit of 2000-2002 lists Johnnie Johnson as piano player for the recording session dated January 6, 1958. According to what is listed in the discographies, this is the session in which Johnny B. Goode was recorded. Formerly, Fred and other experts had listed Lafayette Leake on piano.
Fredâs sessionography change first got various comments posted here on the blog and then resulted in almost two months of (sometimes heated) discussions in email to which Berry experts from the U.S., from the Netherlands, from England, France, Norway, and Germany contributed.
In the end we had to agree that we do not agree on a common opinion. However, as this topic is of interest to most Berry collectors I will try to sum up the facts and the most important opinions.
Speaking of facts we found that we have astonishing few 'hard facts' to base any discussion or result on.
This starts with the date of the session which generated Johnny B. Goode. Depending on which source you consult the reported recording date for this song is February 28, 1958 (Michel Ruppli, The Chess Files) or December 29, 1957 (Mike Leadbitter/Neil Slaven, Blues Records). Berry's Autography has the date listed as February 28, 1958 as well. Who is correct? We have some hints:
We know that Chess Records assigned the matrix number 8633 to the final recording and mix of Johnny B. Goode. We also believe that Chess assigned matrix numbers in the sequence the master tapes were finished. The matrix numbers directly following Johnny B. Goode were assigned to different artists: The Pastels (8634/35), The Lewis Sisters (8636-40), Harvey & The Moonglows (8641-43), and so on. The next numbers assigned to Chuck Berry records are 8656/57 (A and B sides of EP 5121 Sweet Little 16), 8689/90 (side 1 and 2 of LP 1432 One Dozen Berrys). The next Berry recording Around And Around is sixty numbers after Johnny B. Goode and got the matrix number 8693. This points to at least a couple of weeks between the mastering of Johnny B. Goode and that of Around And Around. And if we assume that mastering in the 1950s was done either concurrently with the recording or soon thereafter, this also points to a couple of weeks between the recordings of the two. As a sidenote: From later sessions we know that songs recorded the same day got master numbers a dozen or so numbers off, probably because the mastering of the later songs was delayed.
Of more interest are the master numbers preceding Johnny B. Goode. They all are assigned to Chuck Berry recordings: Sweet Little Sixteen (8627), Rock At The Philharmonic (8628), Guitar Boogie (8629), Night Beat (8630), Time Was (8631), and Reelin' And Rockin' (8632). This means that all these songs including Johnny B. Goode have been mastered/recorded in one session or a set of consecutive sessions, in any case so close to each other that no other masters were made in between.
This is the reason why both Michel Ruppli and Leadbitter/Slaven had all seven songs listed as a single session. If this would be true, Ruppli's session date of February 1958 cannot be correct because Sweet Little Sixteen was already in the stores by January. Chuck Berry's list of recording sessions as published in his book places the six early songs (masters 8627 to 8632) in a session dated January 6, 1958 while he puts Johnny B. Goode (8633) along with Around And Around (8693) and five other songs (masters 8694 to 8696) to February 28.
When compiling his sessionographies, Fred Rothwell took the most probable route. He placed the recording of the consecutive masters 8627 to 8633 close together, i.e. put Johnny B. Goode close to Reelin' And Rockin'. However, because we know that the released version of Sweet Little Sixteen was take 14 and the released version of Reelin' And Rockin' was take 10, Fred had strong doubts that all these were recorded the same day. It would have been an awful long session. Therefore he used the December date from Blues Records for Sweet Little Sixteen and Chuck Berry's January date for Johnny B. Goode. These recording dates are so close together that consecutive master numbers are probable.
The session contract encountered by Tim McFarlin during his research of the legal papers filed for the 2002 lawsuit lists a date and personnel, but in contrast to later contracts it unfortunately does not give us a list of songs recorded. Thus if we believe the recording contract — and we should as the other contracts make perfect sense —, we know that a session took place on January 6th, 1958 (the date from Berry's book) and that personnel included Johnnie Johnson on piano.
Is this a proof? No, because you can argue that we don't know of a contract for a December session (yet?), that there is no list of songs, that there may be other sessions between January and March 1958 (when Johnny B. Goode hit the stores). But placing the recording of Johnny B. Goode (and maybe the others) with the January session sounds reasonable given the information we have.
Other information we have is an audio protocol of what happened at the session which generated Johnny B. Goode. The recording tapes of this session have survived and have been released to the public. So they form some additional 'hard facts' we may base our discussion on.
From the tapes we know of three tries to record the song during this session. To judge the audio recordings one has to take into account that the released versions are not labeled correctly.
The correct sequence of the recordings has been discussed here in a blog post dated July 26, 2011:
Johnny B. Goode - take 1: was first released in 1986 on CHESS CH2-92521 "Rock 'n Roll Rarities" as the second part of a track named "Johnny B. Goode — previously unreleased version".
Johnny B. Goode - take 2: is a very brief take which starts correctly but is then interrupted. This second take has been released twice: Complete with the announcement "Johnny B. Goode Take Two" on Hip-O Select's "Johnny B. Goode - His complete 1950s recordings" and without this announcement but with a false start as the first part of the previously unreleased version on "Rock 'n Roll Rarities". Note that the sequence of the two takes is reversed on the 1986 release. Also note that the Hip-O set misses take 1 completely. It is only on the 1986 double album.
Johnny B. Goode - take 3: exists in two variants. The original recording of this take without any overdubs was first released on the Hip-O Select set in 2008.
Johnny B. Goode - take 3 including guitar overdub: This is the 1958 hit version. Like on many other recordings, Berry on take 3 played just the first part of the lead guitar intro but then continued playing the rhythm guitar. The remaining parts of the guitar intro as well as further guitar solos were recorded and overdubbed later, probably during the same session.
Again this provides us with some more facts, but how much of this can be considered as 'hard facts'? The takes are introduced as takes one, two and three. Take 3 is the basis of the final released record. So we can assume that there were no other takes. The final master (8633) however is a modified version of take 3. The most obvious modification is the addition of further lead guitar segments.
Another possible modification is a manipulation of the playback speed. It is known that Chess Records modified the playback speed of Sweet Little Sixteen to make Berry's voice sound younger. When a sound recording is played faster, the pitch becomes higher with the voices sounding lighter.
With Johnny B. Goode such a modification is not as obvious as with Sweet Little Sixteen. The running times of the undubbed take 3 and of the final master are almost identical. Whereas we have to keep in mind that we have access to the final master only in the form of 45 rpm records and digital copies like the one on the Hip-O Select box.
Just for academic purposes (and without any other use anyway) I have created myself an audio file in which one can hear the beginning of both variants of take 3 of Johnny B. Goode. The left stereo channel is the un-modified take 3, the right stereo channel contains the released master. One notices the overdubbed guitar which is now to be heard on the right channel only. And one can notice that there is a tiny difference in speed. It sounds as if the released master indeed has a slightly higher pitch and runs a little bit faster.
[I have asked Universal Music for permission to provide readers with a download link to this audio file. I have not received any permission nor any response at all, though (yet).]
What does this tell us about the recording session itself? Very little. We have no information when the guitar overdub was recorded and how. In the late 1950s there was no multi-track tape recording at Chess. Thus it is probable that the original take was played back into the studio where Berry then added the missing guitar lines. This is also where the speed difference may come from: The tape played back on a different machine and then re-recorded along with the solo guitar.
All we can tell for sure is that the mastering of the overdubbed take happened in temporal proximity to the mastering of Sweet Little Sixteen which in turn obviously happened before that song's release in January 1958.
In regard to the discussion on who was the pianist on Johnny B. Goode the differences between the three takes are relevant. Comparing the takes, it is obvious that Berry pretty much knew how he wanted the guitar to sound like. The main difference between the complete takes 1 and 3 is the piano playing. And how important this piano playing was becomes audible from the discussions taking place during take 2.
Take 2 starts just normal with the famous guitar intro. Then, when the piano comes in, someone shouts "hold it" and a dialog starts which I interpret as follows. To better understand the different sentences, I created another sound file in which I tried to level the loudness of those said through a microphone and those said without.
[Again I wanted to provide a download link to this sound-enhanced excerpt just for academic purposes but did not hear from Universal Music as the owner of this recording.]
I hear this dialog:
Voice 1 'Hold it, hold it, hold it!'
It is not clear which voice belongs to which person. In my opinion Voice 1, the main voice (on the microphone), is the voice of Jack Sheldon Wiener, engineer and from May 1957 to August 1958 co-owner of the recording studio at 2120 S. Michigan Av., Chicago. Jack is referenced and talked to in other segments from this session, e.g. in talks related to Sweet Little Sixteen and Reelin' And Rockin'. Voice 2, who instructs Berry to continue playing guitar during the piano solo, seems to be Leonard Chess. This fits to Berry's recollections of the session in his book where he writes: "Leonard Chess took an instant liking to this song and stayed in the studio coaching us the whole time we were cutting it." Voice 3 must be one of the musicians. Since he has no microphone I suspect this is the pianist asking. Voice 4 finally sounds like Chuck Berry to me.
Wiener obviously noticed that the piano solo on take 1 was too close to what they had released as Roll Over Beethoven. Berry himself did not care that much. He believed anyway that his songs differed in lyrics and solos alone. The rest was just standard. "Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, you name it, all of the songs could carry the same background or music that each other has." (Berry quoted by Tim McFarlin, see blog post of December 18, 2014)
I admit that both my interpretation of the studio dialog and my assignment of persons to voices is subject to discussions. The other Berry experts who listened to this studio talk had various different opinions. Some assigned Voice 1 to Leonard Chess, some even to Berry himself. Bob Lohr, who played piano behind Chuck Berry for the last decade, says:
The cat who stated "You were playing 'Roll Over Beethoven' ... stay away from that", and "he was playing 'Roll Over Beethoven' on piano" ... is clearly Chuck, not the engineer ... he's using the in-studio high quality vocal microphone and I'm 1000% sure it's Chuck ... after 18 years, I know his speaking voice like the back of my hand ... furthermore, the way Chuck pronounces "Beethoven" is pretty unique ... trust me, on my life I'm telling that was Chuck speaking, end of story!!! The engineer and LC [Leonard Chess] are speaking through the low quality studio talkback microphone.
I perfectly accept that Bob can identify Berry's voice as it sounds today. We should not forget that we are talking about a recording made when Berry was in his early thirties. Voices change and to me the instructing voice and the voice singing sound differently.
The main question the discussions about Johnny B. Goode circle around is the question "Who is the pianist instructed to stay away from playing Roll Over Beethoven". Some Berry experts point to Ellis "Lafayette" Leake, others favor Johnnie Johnson. Early discographies had listed Leake on piano, the ultimate discographical authority Fred Rothwell now lists Johnson as pianist — following the January 6 recording contract. It is unknown how the early discographies came to listing Leake. Fred writes in a recent article for "Now Dig This" magazine:
Session information about musicians has grown organically over the years and much of it has been based on anecdotal, word-of-mouth remembrances. In the '60s, blues fans would ask artists about old sessions and I'm sure guys like Willie Dixon, for instance, would try to placate them by giving info that was not always correct. Lafayette Leake was a big friend of Willie's and, I suspect, he got named as pianist for wont of someone else at times. Johnnie Johnson was not part of the Chess studio clique (he never recorded in his own name at Chess) and I think he may have been overlooked.
Those who favor Leake also say that both Berry and Johnson have denied many times over the years that Johnson was among the staff recording Johnny B. Goode. However, I was not able to find a single source for this claim. The only source to this effect is from Travis Fitzpatrick's biography of Johnson where he cites Johnnie saying "The only recordin' I didn't play on was 'Johnny B. Goode'. Chuck did that as a surprise for me."
Asked about this quote by Tim McFarlin and me, Travis said that when using Johnnie's quotes one should always keep in mind that Johnnie's interpretations and those of the reader might not necessarily match. The whole lawsuit between Berry and Johnson was based on the fact that to Johnson "writing music" was something completely different than what a copyright lawyer would understand thereunder.
Likewise, Johnson's saying that he did not play on Johnny B. Goode may not necessary mean "play piano", but more to the effect of "play a role" meaning "I did not contribute to Johnny B. Goode which I didn't know about before we went into the studio.".
In an 1999 interview with Ken Burke for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (see http://www.rockabillyhall.com/DrIJJohnson.html) Johnson became more specific:
That's how we worked out all the tunes that's he's [Chuck Berry's] got practically, except "Johnnie B. Goode." I had nothing to do with that, that was sort of a tribute to me, I understand.
This is from Travis:
Since he is no longer around to clear it up, I can only guess what Johnnie meant with his original statement about not playing on "Johnny B. Goode." I probably should have questioned him more about it before he passed away. Remember, this is the man who said, "I didnât write the music with Chuck, I was just in the room sometimes when he was writing" before describing the process he and Chuck used to write their music! It was years before we understood the reason why he said this. Johnnie believed writing music meant writing down lyrics or transcribing notes onto a lead sheet. Johnnie called what he and Chuck did "making up music" because it wasnât written down. If you ever saw the movie Forrest Gump, that was very much how Johnnie viewed the world. As a consequence, more misunderstandings are coming to light. For example, Johnnie didnât think he played on the early Mercury sessions because he thought the re-recording of all their Chess hits was due to a fire at Berry Park destroying the originals. He thought Chuck arranged to re-record the old songs on his own! That was Johnnie in a nutshell.
Whether or not Johnson or Leake played piano during the Johnny B. Goode session is still open to discussion. One would think that people who know Johnson's playing well can simply hear whether it's him playing. In the same 1999 interview Ken Burke asked Travis Fitzpatrick: "Even as low in the mix as some of Johnnie's piano work is, would you know his playing when you heard it?"
Sure. I can always tell his playing. [...] I can listen to a lot of those songs and tell it's him. When I listen to some of those original Berry records I can say "That's Johnnie for sure!" I can tell that Lafayette Leake came in on some stuff, especially "Johnnie B. Goode." I can tell that's not Johnnie. Then, like he was saying, there's this whole thing where Leonard Chess would come in during his solo and run his hand up and down the keys, which Johnnie never does. So, that kind of made it more difficult, plus Lafayette Leake was a very good mimic. [...] But I'm 100% sure that was Lafayette Leake on "Johnnie B. Goode."
Another expert on Johnnie's piano playing is Bob Lohr. Bob is a pianist himself and has played with both Berry and Johnson. He likewise claims that he can identify Johnson's playing, too:
I'm extremely familiar with JJ's [Johnnie Johnson's] style. I have been called upon here in local studios over the years to 'clone' or mimic JJ's style on different projects as JJ's style is pretty much ingrained in my musical DNA. Based upon my familiarity with JJ's style, I would have to say that it was clearly LL [Lafayette Leake] instead of JJ on JBG [Johnny B. Goode] based upon style alone. The stylistic differences between LL and JJ makes me sure that LL was the man on the keys despite the union log of the date. They both played in a similar boogie/blues mode behind Chuck (and often on the same out-of-tune piano apparently!!!), but Leake ... with all due respect to JJ ... was a far more fluid and accomplished jazz player and generally threw in some nice fat jazz double-hand chording at the end of his solos ... something that JJ rarely if ever did. You'll hear Leake do this throughout Takes 2/3 and on the final take as well.
Interestingly, both experts did not know that take 1 of Johnny B. Goode existed which has a very different piano playing and was released only on the 1986 double album. When I asked them to re-check take 1, Bob Lohr found: "You are correct in that it sounds a lot like JJ's style, although I can still hear the stylistic difference."
Travis Fitzpatrick was even more astonished:
I must revise my opinion (an ultimately my book) concerning Johnnie Johnsonâs playing on "Johnny B. Goode." Until Dietmar pointed it out, I did not realize that take one was misplaced as take three on Rock 'n Roll Rarities. Consequently, I never really listened to it. Well believe me ... I have now listened to it. I listened to that first take of "Johnny B. Goode" for hours last night. My immediate reaction was "Holy COW! The AFM contract was right! That is Johnnie Johnson!" Just to be sure, I jumped into my Johnnie recordings both issued and unissued and found examples of every lick. His phrasing and the way he resolves his licks is Johnnieâs fingerprint. It is him. The flashiest lick has been right under everyoneâs nose. Watch the rehearsals for "Carol" in Hail Hail Rock and Roll or better yet, Johnnieâs backing behind the sax on "Almost Grown" in Hail Hail Rock and Roll. Those songs are in C and G respectively, but you can see that the lick is in his repertoire and in fact, he uses it quite a bit. Just not on most of the Chuck Berry recordings — which is why it hasnât become recognized as a standard JJ lick.
Travis' remark on the song keys is significant because Johnny B. Goode is written in B flat (Bb). Bob Lohr again:
It's harder to play Chuck's style (or blues in general) in the flat keys ... E flat (Eb) or B flat (Bb). Johnnie was not too good at playing in those keys and would never use those keys when playing in his own band. LL on the other hand, was technically a much more accomplished classically-trained/jazz player who could play almost as well in Bb or Eb as JJ could play in G. JJ could certainly play in B flat or E flat, but nowhere near as well and as fluid as LL plays here in B flat. If in fact JJ played on JBG, he played in a completely different style which we have never heard before or since from JJ ... and better in B flat than he ever played before or since.
Bob's statements about Johnson's facility in playing jazz licks or playing in B flat at all had Travis to disagree:
Regarding Johnnieâs proficiency in B-flat and as a jazz musician: Johnnie Johnson was playing jazz professionally in Detroit at age seventeen. As a nineteen-year-old Marine, he was handpicked by Bobby Troup to play piano in the Barracudas, a USO service band featuring members of Glenn Millerâs, Tommy Dorseyâs, and Count Basieâs orchestras. After WWII he returned to Detroit where big band jazz and swing had gone out of style and he had to learn bebop like Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell to get jobs. Johnnie could play "How High the Moon" in every key; I saw it with my own eyes when he was giving me lessons. His trio in Chicago, with Milton Rector on bass, was a jazz combo. The Johnnie Johnson (or Sir Johnâs) Trio was a jazz combo when they started at the Cosmopolitan Club — remember, Chuck replaced a saxophone player. If you asked Johnnie to list his piano heroes, they were all jazz greats, no blues and certainly no rock pianists. His idol was Oscar Peterson. Johnnie knew jazz very, very well. Defining the limits of Johnnieâs jazz ability based on what he played with Chuck Berry and on his blues albums is like determining someoneâs knowledge of chess by how he plays checkers. Johnnieâs favorite keys were G, C, B-flat, F, D and E-flat. He did not like the way A sounded (thought it was too bright), he played E grudgingly, and he absolutely hated C sharp/D-flat and B. So yes, if you just turned him loose on a blues or rock song, he would do what he enjoyed and what came easiest to him. I have a recording of Johnnie playing "Johnny B. Goode" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is in the original B-flat, and he nails it. We even had the rest of the band pull out so he could show what it sounded like on piano. I can think of at least one great live blues off the top of my head that he does in B-flat as well. And he used to do this gospel style breakdown playing "Maybellene" live with Chuck that was really cool. The point being, Johnnie was very good in B-flat.
At this point we have moved far away from the 'hard facts' issue we started this article with. We're now down to rely on expert opinions — the same way a judge would have to rely on expert testimonials. Like a judge you will have to come to your own conclusions.
One thing both of our experts have not taken into account enough is — at least in my personal opinion — that during the change from take one to take three Jack Wiener (or whoever) clearly instructs the pianist to play in a completely different style. This can be a good reason why Johnnie Johnson does not sound like Johnnie Johnson on the final recording.
All in all I finally agree with Fred Rothwell's sessionography change. Whether you do depends on how you judge the various facts and opinions by yourself. This lengthy article should give you everything to come down to your own decision.
[Many thanks to all the Berry experts who provided useful information during the creation of this article, most notably Fred Rothwell, Morten Reff, Josep RullĂł, Bob Lohr, Tim McFarlin, Travis Fitzpatrick, Michel Ruppli, and Arne Wolfswinkel.]
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This weblog is an addition to my Chuck Berry fansite called "A Collector's Guide to the Music of Chuck Berry" which describes all books and records of interest to everyone enjoying Chuck Berry's music.
Dietmar Rudolph about Where have we heard this interview before?
Reader Ari Niskanen sent me an email regarding the source of this quote. It is from the 'H ail! [...]
Josep about Yet another Carol
Amazing research. Thank you ve ry much.
Dietmar Rudolph about Big Beat magazine issue 26 contains more than 100 pages on Chuck Berry
Sorry, Jean. There is no print ed version. I'll send Alain's email to you separately so you can [...]
Jean Million about Big Beat magazine issue 26 contains more than 100 pages on Chuck Berry
do a printed version exists so mewhere?
Dietmar Rudolph about Variations of the CHUCK album?
Fred has written a great revie w which you will read here soo n.
Jean Million about Variations of the CHUCK album?
thanks ! i'll apply your advis es !!! though i already heard it by the dozen on deezer !!! w [...]
Dietmar Rudolph about Variations of the CHUCK album?
Hi Jean! As said in the articl e I'd buy the CD from the chea pest source or from your local res [...]
Jean Million about Variations of the CHUCK album?
so, at the end ...which varian t do you recommend ? 'cause i' ve been waiting for your artic le b [...]
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