Sunday, December 31. 2017
Does it make sense to write a review of a book you'll never read? Maybe. I got this nice little book for Christmas and would like to share it with you. It's about Chuck Berry, kind of. But unfortunately it's available in German language only.
Bissingheim is a suburb of Duisburg which itself is a suburb of the largest megacity in Germany, the Ruhrgebiet. Duisburg is best known for having the world largest in-land port.
"Chuck Berry over Bissingheim", subtitled "The true story of rock and roll", is a 2017 book by Frank "Zepp" Oberpichler. Oberpichler is a German musician and writer. He played guitar in various cover bands such as "Ten Beers After", "Substitute" or "Freeway Cash" and published some CDs alone and with US or German musicians. His homepage is at http://www.oberpichler.de.
In "Chuck Berry over Bissingheim", the first-person protagonist tells about his Grandpa ("Oppa") Wallusch, an electrical engineer working at the railroads. Oppa Wallusch just passed and his grandson remembers the stories they shared. So we learned that while Bissingheim was never on the tour plan of any famous rock band (or any unknown highschool band either), Bissingheim was indeed the birthplace of Rock'n'Roll.
Oppa Wallusch learned to play guitar in the early 1940s while staying in England during the war. He got friends with an American Blues musician by the name of Big Joe Turner. Back home Wallusch formed a band which on weekends played at weddings and barn dances near Bissingheim. Here Oppa Wallusch merged Blues with Polka dance music and created what he called "Ruck und Roll".
Over the years, his employer sent Wallusch to England and to the States several times and wherever he went, Oppa Wallusch left his traces by educating young musicians or helping them write famous songs. Together with Jim Marshall he invented the guitar amplifier and taught Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend how to use it. Wallusch met Woody Guthrie and Jerry Garcia, was on stage at Woodstock and shaped rock music as we know it.
A whole chapter covers Wallusch's stay in Chicago in the late 1940s where he met and educated Chuck Berry on how to do the "Ruck und Roll", how to play guitar and how to write story songs.
The book is a report of Wallusch's talks with his grandson. But concurrently the book is its own soundtrack album. The chapter headings read Track 1 to Track 11 (along with run-in and run-out). Each chapter starts with a quote from a famous railway song (which Wallusch might have been involved in). And each chapter includes the lyrics of a German-language song Wallusch wrote and which is very close to a hit you might remember. Unfortunately no recordings of Wallusch's originals survived.
Track 11 is a song about a guy trying to get a number from the operator to get his loved-one on the phone. The lyrics end explaining that the guy is trying to phone his daughter, not his girl-friend. Wallusch's song is called "Meiderich - Kennen Sie?". (Meiderich is another suburb of Duisburg, "Kennen Sie" is German for "Do you know".) And, believe it or not, Chuck Berry took Wallusch's idea and melody to create a famous English-language version.
Oberpichler's book is a nice read. It could have used less slang, though. I guess even many Germans will not fully understand Wallusch's recollections. But mainly I wish the book would have been longer: Just eleven tracks are much too short for a soundtrack album nowadays.
It's a pity nobody else remembers Oppa Wallusch, this hero of Rock'n'Roll. Even in Bissingheim he is long forgotten, as Oberpichler shows in this nice video trying to find the roots of rock music in Duisburg: https://youtu.be/45WnyUKgkzY
If you can read German, get yourself a copy at your local bookstore using the ISBN 9783942094726. The book is also available at amazon.com or amazon.de. Recommended.
Sunday, October 23. 2016
There will always be someone that believe everything they read.said Morten Reff and of course he's right.
The discussion came up when a German magazine claimed Berry to be listed as the highest-paid guitarist in 2016 by a magazine called "People With Money". The only fact herein is that the German magazine has fallen for one of the thousands of fake Internet "news".
There are as many fake accounts for politicians as are for celebrities. And there are fake gossip magazines such as "People With Money" which do not exist further than on the parody website mediamass.net.
Here's the fake cover which came with the "news" - courtesy of mediamass.net:
mediamass.net publishes all kinds of parodies to gossip magazines. The article about Berry's earnings is here: http://en.mediamass.net/people/chuck-berry/highest-paid.html
You may find this to be funny - or not. But you should never take it seriously. Especially not as a print magazine.
More and more people seem to forget that what you read on the Internet is NOT reliable information. ANYONE can write ANYTHING on the Internet, whether true or not. Believe only those texts which come from sites YOU trust. And when in doubt, try to find the original source. In this case, try to find "People With Money" magazine - it doesn't exist!
So to put things straight: Chuck Berry does not own the âFat Berry Burgerâ restaurants chain as it does not exist. Chuck Berry does not own the âSaint Louis Angelsâ football team as such does not exist. No, he does not have his own brand of Vodka (Pure Wonderberry), and both the top-selling perfume "With Love from Chuck" and the fashion line called "Chuck Berry Seduction" are fakes. Nobody knows his estimated net worth — maybe not even Berry himself. And to refer to other Mediamass parodies: No, he will not be Times' Person of the Year 2016, we don't expect a 2017 World Tour, he has not been dubbed "the Sexiest Guitarist Alive", and I really doubt he's expecting a baby - at 90 years old.
But sometimes even parodies cannot be more absurd than real life: One of mediamass' parodies covered a new Chuck Berry album to be released in 2017: http://en.mediamass.net/people/chuck-berry/new-album.html. OK, that's a rumor which is repeated every second year since 1979. But last week Chuck Berry's family announced a new album to be released in 2017. I had to laugh as this blog post was next to finished when I saw the Rolling Stone article. Too funny if mediamass' parody should become true. And likewise too funny if Rolling Stone repeats a mediamass.net parody
Oh, and by the way: D.J. Fontana will have a new album released in 2017 as well. Read here: http://en.mediamass.net/people/d-j-fontana/new-album.html
Friday, March 13. 2015
Thursday, December 18. 2014
There is no doubt that Chuck Berry has had an enormous impact on much of what popular music became in the 1960âs. An impact on jurisprudence has not been documented so far. This however may change in the future.
I am not talking about the multiple conflicts with U.S. laws Berry ran into during his lifetime. No, Chuck Berry may â at least indirectly â have an impact on future U.S. copyright laws.
Timothy J. McFarlin, a researcher and professor at the Saint Louis-based universities Washington and Fontbonne, was so kind to send me a preprint of a paper discussing necessary changes to the legal aspects of songwriting and recording (as well as creative work in general). The full 95-page text is to appear under the title "Father(s?) of Rock & Roll: Why the Johnnie Johnson v. Chuck Berry Songwriting Suit Should Change the Way Copyright Law Determines Joint Authorship" next year in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law. You can read it right now from the Social Science Research Network at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2530741.
Tim McFarlin discusses a special detail in U.S. copyright laws, namely how current law determines what is called "joint authorship". This is a question which arises when two or more people contributed to a common work such as a song. Usually when two composers worked together to create a song, they own a shared copyright and are listed both. Typical examples are Lennon-McCartney or Leiber-Stoller.
Composers who work together usually have some kind of contract or agreement on how to claim copyright of the resulting works. If they donât or if one of them questions the agreement, a judge or jury needs to decide who wrote the piece and who owns the copyright.
Now what has Chuck Berry to do with this? Berry was the defendant in a well-documented lawsuit which basically revolved around this exact question.
In 2000 Berryâs long-time pianist Johnnie Johnson filed a suit against Chuck Berry claiming that he, Johnson, co-wrote 42 songs published under Chuck Berryâs name in the 1950âs and early 1960âs. This would have entitled him to both be listed as a co-author and to gain half of the financial success these songs created â which Johnsonâs lawyers estimated to an amount of at least $6.2 million.
Johnson lost the case in the end. It was never determined whether or not he co-wrote the songs and whether he could qualify as a co-writer. The court ultimately ruled that the statute of limitations had expired, meaning that Johnson was required to have filed his claims no later than three years after he knew or should have known that Berry was claiming sole authorship of the songs.
Because this expiration was unclear first â Johnsonâs lawyers claimed that he was tricked into believing that he had no rights to the songs â the parties to the case concurrently investigated how these songs were created and whether Johnson qualified as a co-author at all. To do so, they let Berry and Johnson explain how they worked in the 1950âs and early 1960âs.
On June 19-20, 2002, Johnnie Johnson was interviewed under oath in a deposition by Chuck Berryâs lawyers. Berryâs deposition by Johnsonâs lawyers took place two months later on August 21-22, 2002. These resulted in over six hundred pages of transcript which are now for the first time used for scientific research. Tim McFarlin cites a lot from these protocols which therefore makes his paper an interesting read even if you donât care about the legal aspects.
If I understand Timâs ideas correctly, he complains that in current U.S. copyright law one of the main arguments whether or not a contributor is a co-author (and an argument which courts test against) is that the contributor (or both) regards himself as an author. And the contribution must have been copyrightable by itself.
Both requirements do not fit to what we see in the collaboration between Berry and Johnson â or any other contributors to recorded music. The copyright laws assume that a sole author (or a team) in advance prepare a copyrightable work. This might happen in song recordings if you look at a big band or orchestra where a composer or arranger clearly writes down the notes each instrument is to contribute at a given time.
This however is not how a 1950âs recording of a Rock ânâ Roll band worked. From the testimonials quoted here we understand that Berry basically wrote down the lyrics. Probably he also had in mind or on paper the melody he would sing these words to â and maybe even his guitar accompaniment. But Berry might have in mind but not in writing what for instance the drummer or the bass player should contribute. He just let the musicians do their best â which is what he selected them for.
Thus if a musician came up with letâs say a significant bass line or a great piano solo, this hasnât been part of Berryâs original composition â and thus his copyrightable work. We know of several Berry recordings where Johnnie Johnson provided more than just a standard blues or boogie accompaniment to the songs. A nice example to me is You Never Can Tell, where the piano almost provides a second voice.
As Tim McFarlin points out, even if Johnson was the author of these contributions and even if those would provide a significant element of the copyrighted work, Johnson would still not qualify as a joint author because his work would not pass the typical tests. Please read Timâs paper to understand the legal arguments. Basically Johnson never intended to be a co-author and thus he couldnât become one.
This is a bit different from the understanding of authorship in other countries, such as here in Germany. Here you do not have to intend to be an author. Simply by the act of writing (or composing) you create a work and then you own the copyright in it. This is much simpler than in the U.S., but might result in similar problems for a judge to decide whether a contribution is worth a share in the copyright.
Tim McFarlin comes to a similar result by proposing a new test for joint authorship which does not rely on the intention to become an author but on the intention to jointly create a work. In this example musicians came together to jointly contribute to the creation of a song (at least if Johnsonâs testimony is to be believed) or at the very least to jointly contribute to the recording of the song, so all of the substantial contributors to the song (Tim details how he thinks âsubstantialâ should be determined) should qualify as its co-authors, just as all substantial contributors to the recordings should qualify as its co-authors. (Under U.S. law, a song and an audio recording of that song are separately copyrightable, but here Johnson only sued for credit as co-author of the songs, probably because the copyrights in the recordings were unambiguously owned â at least originally â by Chess under recording contracts that Chess had with Berry and the rest of the band.) Because McFarlinâs test stems from evaluation of the Johnson v. Berry case, Tim names it the "Berry-Johnson" test. One might see this as an honor for Chuck Berry â or probably not.
For readers of this blog the most interesting elements of Timâs paper are his quotes from the sworn testimony of Johnson and Berry. These provide a quite open look at how recording went during the old days at Chess studios. Here are a few quotes cited in Timâs article. As these are taken from oral questions and answers, punctuation and grammar are quoted as in the protocols.
Johnnie Johnson on work at Berryâs home in Whittier:
[W]hen we first started, he didnât have a studio, we were mostly running over these songs at his house, and then after awhile [sic] he got this studio on Easton, and thatâs where we did most of the work at.
Johnnie Johnson on Leonard Chessâ contributions:
Most all of them was in final form, at least we thought they were in final form, until maybe Leonard Chess would suggest something we did. [H]e would take the tape that we took him, he would listen to it and he would suggest something that he maybe thought could be improved, he would make a statement about it and we would maybe try what he thought would improve it; if it did, that would go on the record; if not, we would leave it as is.
Johnnie Johnson about whether drummers Jasper Thomas or Ebbie Hardy should be considered as among the composers of these songs:
No. Because theyâre not playing music, theyâre just keeping time.
Chuck Berry trying to explain to a lawyer that a song is not complete until on record:
[T]here was no Wee Wee Hours before, there was no music to Wee Wee Hours before Wee Wee Hours was Wee Wee Hours. Wee Wee Hours became Wee Wee Hours after we had recorded it, it was named Wee Wee Hours. We physically put it on the record. The name, the title Wee Wee Hours became the title of Wee Wee Hours before Wee Wee Hours.
Chuck Berry still trying to explain the same thing:
I could change this to all of these songs were created [in the session], because a song is not, to me, is not a song until itâs confirmed, itâs confirmed in the session when we say, okay, this is this song, if it bears the same title that we brought up. [I]tâs not that song until itâs there. [A]ll the other things were rejected and they became no song until the final song. [I]t isnât that song until after itâs named that song and then put down on a record and came out that way.
Chuck Berry about the complexity of songs such as Wee Wee Hours:
Well, I think that Wee Wee Hours, itâs so simple, I think I showed him [Johnson] what to play. I could have played it, because itâs simple, itâs very simple, and what I played with my left hand is progression, and any person would follow with that same thing if they heard the top.
Chuck Berry about his own songs:
My songs are, my own songs rather than copying Route 66 or a Nat Cole song, theyâre so simple that you can play one song and sing the lyrics to another song.
Chuck Berry about the early Chess recordings:
Iâm trying to think if we ever did any rehearsing at the Cosmopolitan, and thatâs about the only place that we would have, because most of these songs I created actually in the session, we might have played songs like it, like Roll Over Beethoven is about the same progression as Johnny B. Goode, or Carol. Rock and roll is so simple that you can hardly distinguish any specifics about either song.
Chuck Berry about his understanding with Johnnie Johnson:
[T]here was a harmonious understanding after a few recordings, that when I stop singing, Johnnie played this riff, or that riff, and there are certain ones that I can name. I could implicate the rhythm and he would remember the thing that I liked so much, and the same thing would happen, turned around, when I would play the riff, that Iâd ask him to play a certain thing, seemed like to me, he would just fall in.
Chuck Berry on how his songs were created:
Mostly  all of my songs  began with what I strum with the guitar, just a strum, chord for chord for chord as the changes go, and along with the lyrics that Iâm singing with it, so this is a good progression, I mean, manner in which a song travels in changing chords and so forth. Iâm singing the melody along with this, and as I introduced the songs to the musicians at a session or wherever it is, a jam session behind any auditorium, I will play that and sing that, you know, they get an idea of how the song progresses.
Chuck Berry on originality and copyrights:
I believe there is nothing under the sun that hasnât been played, and now, with the years that I have, there is nothing, there is no riff under the sun that Johnnie has not heard or I have not heard; so, you play, it might come out and it belongs to someone else, you take the chance that it doesnât, and you go ahead and you record it;  if it sounds good and meets what you wanted on the song or is equal to what you wanted in the song, let it go, itâs a song, you donât know whether it will be a hit or not, so it goes, and nobody is writing it down saying âI own thisâ, and âI own thisâ, or âThis will be good for the song as a copyrightâ, or anything, nobody knows that until after the song is played out there in the world.
Chuck Berry on what makes a song:
You know, since I consider the lyrics, some of the lyrics in my songs is the whole song, especially like Johnny B. Goode, most of my songs are just boogie, but lyrics, I guess, carried them through, No Money Down, Roll Over Beethoven, I know Beethoven had, but I think the lyrics of my songs kind of pushed them more so than the music, because Iâm playing just boogie-woogie, like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, those are the people that drove me to playing, you know.
Chuck Berry on to what extent Leonard Chess decided what went on record:
His glory and my privilege, because I wanted to record. I had the inspiration that, I guess, any youngster would have, as long as you record me, Iâll do what you say, Iâll record anything, you know.
Chuck Berry on developing Roll Over Beethoven:
Roll Over Beethoven is a twelve-bar blues boogie, twelve-bar boogie blues, the music was not developed, it was just played boogie in C, and believe me, there is nothing different from playing boogie in C and hearing the lyrics to â what was the song you said? Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, you name it, all of the songs could carry the same background or music that each other has. So, how did the music develop? Johnnie played boogie in C, I sing the song, once my singing is a comparable and the music is in tone quality and volume, that song is made. [How about the guitar?] Well, the drum, too, for that matter, all of that has to coordinate, you know, with, what do you call it, favorable to the record owner, to the Chess Company, to Chess himself, if itâs favorable, if it sounds good, once we get it to sound good on one take, thatâs a song, thatâs what I mean.
The basic question of whether Johnnie Johnson should have been granted a partial copyright on some Chuck Berry songs remains open. The court did not decide. Johnson supporters such as George Turek and his stepson Travis Fitzpatrick will probably have no doubt. They also had Johnson trademark the line "Father of Rock & Roll" which, as Berry is also often called the Father of Rock & Roll, led Tim McFarlin to the title of his paper: "Father(s?) of Rock & Roll".
My personal opinion is that Johnson for the most part of Berryâs songbook did provide a great underlying piano foundation, though not necessarily more than any other good pianist could have provided as well. Therefore for all of the great hits I agree with Chuck Berry in that the lyrics and the melody make the song. This is what would end up in sheet music, and this is what should be regarded as copyrightable. The Johnson v. Berry case did not give us a definite answer whether Berry wrote the melodies of his major hits all alone, or along with Johnson, or with someone else.
Setting the big hits aside, there are several Chuck Berry recordings for which Berry has been listed and registered as the sole composer â often many years later â in which Johnson plays a major, if not the major role. Have a listen to the recently discovered Fast B6. This is a pure piano piece and nobody should say that this is a Chuck Berry composition. Or, to take one song which was recorded in the 1950âs but interestingly not disputed in the trial, listen to Blue Feeling. This is a song which should have been credited at least to Berry-Johnson, if not Johnson alone. However, since Johnson died in 2005, all that is left on the subject is current and future scientific research.
One more sidenote: From Tim McFarlinâs paper we also learn the correct spelling of Ebbie Hardyâs name. Drummer of the original Johnson/Berry band, Hardyâs first name has been spelled Eddy and Ebby in former publications. Tim got the correct spelling from Ebbieâs grandson.
Tuesday, March 11. 2014
Here's a question to all the Stones fans out there:
Do you know anything about the record shown?
As you see there is nothing mentioned on the label who this is. It sounds like the Rolling Stones, but itâs probably not. Same song on both sides. Morten bought this 45 on eBay from Canada in early 2012.
The Stones did actually play in Toronto 4-5 March 1977 in a small club but according to their set list they didnât perform âLittle Queenieâ (though they did âAround And Aroundâ).
Itâs live all right, and although the singer tries his best to sound like Mick Jagger, towards the end the guitarist plays riffs that are very different from Keith or Ronnie.
So, is this a bootleg of some sort pretending to be the Stones or is it a Stones cover band trying to fool us, or what? Can anyone help out there?
Thursday, January 21. 2010
My hometown of Essen, Germany is in the center of a densely populated area with more than five million people. There's all kind of cultural activities here, which is expressed by the town's election to be Europe's Culture Capital 2010.
However, while there is lots of music, true Rock and Roll is not found very often. And I don't count yesterday's concert of ZZ Top as true Rock and Roll
Things changed on Thursday, when "Buddy" the probably well-known musical about Buddy Holly premiered at the Colosseum Theater. I had the opportunity to see the show and join the after-show party. So here's my biased review:
Alan Janes wrote this musical about Buddy's life in the late 1980's. It premiered in London in 1989. Since then multiple versions have been touring world-wide. The German version is best known from it's multiple year stay in Hamburg where a special musical hall was built right in the center of the Hamburg harbor. The updated new version will be played in Essen for the next months.
The piece is not really a musical. It is in fact a tribute concert presenting a sequence of Holly's greatest hits. A large part of the first half and the complete second half are more a concert than anything else. There are just a few spoken scenes in the whole second half. All the rest is pure music. However, a Buddy-Holly-Revival concert can easily go wrong if the artists cannot sound the way we all know from the original records. But here it did not go wrong!
The whole cast has to be both actor and musician as all songs are played live on stage. There is no band behind in the wings. When the "Crickets" perform, they really do. Best of all was Matthias Bollwerk acting as the title role. Matthias is a local singer, just 22 years old, and was intended to be the backup for Buddy Holly. But as Dominik Hees hurt his knee two weeks ago, Matthias became the number one act. And he took his chance. He looks like the young Buddy Holly, acts funny and realistic, plays his guitar quite well, and he performs both the fast songs and the slow ones excellently. I liked best the scene when just he and Maria Elena (Yara Hassan) sat on the empty stage with Matthias singing "True Love Ways" accompanied just by his acoustic guitar. Great!
They even included Chuck Berry music: In the first part, the Crickets perform "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" quite well. They even got most of the lyrics right. The second part ends with the stage getting dark and a radio voice announcing the death of the three stars. When the lights go on again, we see most of the cast walking slowly across the stage like at a burial. Then a female singer starts singing a slow blues, just two lines: "Deep down in Lousiana ...". Another singer picks up the bluesy rhythm with the next two lines of text. And so every member of the cast gets his segment of "Johnny B. Goode" which accelerates a bit with every other singer. When Ritchie Valens (Vinicius Gomes) and JP Richardson (Patrick Stanke) enter the stage, the songs almost reached the original speed. Then Buddy Holly comes through the audience, unpacks his guitar and performs the whole song again. To me this was one of the finest versions of this Chuck Berry song I ever heard. I have to admit, that the audience did not get it. During the bluesy phase, nobody near me even moved or recognized the song. And I admit that the Buddy Holly fans I later talked with had preferred the use of a Holly composition here.
Talking about fans, very little were there. Stage Entertainment had invited more than 1,000 people to the premiere and after-show party, but I doubt more than twenty of them were true Rock and Roll fans. So while the majority enjoyed U.S.-style food, meeting lower-class celebrities, or dancing to recent pop music (not a single Buddy Holly record was played all night long), I had great talks with Klaus Kettner (Germany's number one Bill Haley expert), Heinz-GĂźnther Hartig (Germany's most knowing Buddy Holly fan), and Dieter Moll (the walking encyclopedia on Rock and Roll music).
In any case I had a great evening listening to a very good Buddy Holly cover band, meeting with friends and learning about one of the best versions of "Johnny B. Goode" I ever listened to.
My friends Waltraut and GĂźnther on the red carpet. True Rock and Roll fans. Thanks GĂźnther! [Foto: Dietmar Rudolph]
[Disclosure: Stage Entertainment provided me with a free ticket and access to the after-show party.]
[Addition, Jan 21st, 2010]
In the meantime there is a live recording available which includes both Chuck Berry covers, though sung by Dominik Hees. Also included is a nice bonus track called Buddy to Buddy which is a duet version of True Love Ways sung by both Buddys, Dominik and Matthias. Recommended listening. Click here to listen to excerpts of the songs or to purchase the CD.
Friday, September 25. 2009
I rarely use the word, but I HATE spammers. They are the true 21st century pest.
Whoever praises 21st century social networks, the Web 2.0, or whatever you call it, they totally mask out those who abuse all the interesting things.
Indeed it is an interesting opportunity when readers can comment articles or add useful information thereto. This weblog was my testbed for an interactive webpage, a place where you could add opinions to what I write.
However I had to learn what does not work:
You might think for a pair of practical and fashion boots to pass this winter. Now I will introduce this brand to you.Get it? Someone wrote a comment on boots = shoes to my article on bootlegs! And the comment of course included lots of links to the super cheap boot store.
How can this happen? Someone broke the captcha system and had a computer post the comment? No, worse:
To post such kind of spam into weblogs and other kinds of social networks, spammers employ poor people in Africa or China who spend the whole day reading the Internet locating keywords. And when they find an article about "boots" they manually post the spam message. Isn't that horrible? you see why I hate spammers?
Friday, April 10. 2009
In December 2008 the long-awaited film about Chess Records premiered in the U.S.
Just four months later the movie Cadillac Records was released on DVD. While the movie itself did not make it to this part of the world yet (the announced starting day for Germany is April 23rd), at least it is possible to watch it on DVD here - kind of ...
So I went to amazon and ordered the DVD when it became available two weeks ago. Click here for the corresponding amazon pages.
Of course the DVD did not play in my DVD player as the DVD is region coded fot the U.S. and Canada. I really, really do not understand what line of reasoning is behind limiting audience and market of a DVD and movie, but Sony will know.
To watch the U.S. DVD you need to have a region-free DVD player. I use a computer for such.
As you will have read otherwise, Cadillac Records tells the story of the Chess record label in Chicago. Of course, a movie has to concentrate on excerpts from a 15 year story. So the producers took some liberties in removing characters and in highlighting others. The main characters in the movie are Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. Bo Diddley is not noted at all, and even Phil Chess is never mentioned by name, if I watched carefully. The DVD has a deleted scene in which Phil at least is introduced.
If you are not familiar with the Chess story, chances are low you will want to watch the movie. But if you are interested in Chuck Berry's music, the Chess story is an important part thereof. So I recommend you have a look on the movie. But I recommend much more that you read the books on Chess Records, especially the one by Nadine Cohodas Spinning Blues into Gold.
Unfortunately the writers of the movie did not use Cohodas' book but went more for Rich Cohen's Machers and Rockers. As I write in this site's chapter on Berry-related books, Cohen's book concentrates on the two characters of Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters and is full of errors and omissions. And likewise Cadillac Records concentrates on the characters of Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters and is full of errors and omissions. Sigh!
What interests us the most is Chuck Berry's role in the movie. Berry is played by Mos Def, or Dante Terrell Smith, musician and actor. I have never thought of Mos Def as a Rock'n'Roller, so his performance as Berry is surprising - and surprisingly good! There are three or four acting scenes and a number of on-stage performances mainly to show that Chess and Berry took down the barriers between C&W and Blues, between Black and White.
Mos Def plays Berry as a musician and comedian, which may come close to the truth in the 1950s. There's a funny scene where Berry and Chess visit Alan Freed, and there's a scene in which Berry is refused to perform because the promoter thinks of Berry as a white Country artist. This story is also told by Berry himself in his Autobiography, so it may have happened. But if it did, it definitely happened after Berry got national attention with his first Chess hits. In the movie this scene takes place before Berry joins Chess. One of many factual errors. The errors continue in the selection of Berry titles in the movie.
The writers have known that Maybellene was Berry's first Chess hit. So Mos Def plays it, and quite good. But all the other songs Mos Def performs before Berry's first imprisonment are completely wrong: No Particular Place to Go, Promised Land, and Nadine (of which only the intro is heard) have all been recorded five to ten years later than when they appear in the film. That's poor.
It's interesting to note that the Deluxe version of the soundtrack album (see here) also contains Mos Def's cover of Come On which did not make it into the movie. You can use the amazon MP3 widget below to hear excerpts of Mos Def's cover versions.
If you buy the DVD, don't forget to watch the extra features. I found the film about costumes and design most interesting. All the sets are very well made to show the 1950s, so that's reason enough to watch the movie - and to see Mos Def play Chuck Berry.
Tuesday, February 24. 2009
I got a comment on my page on Chuck Berry cover versions last week. John Barber wrote:
I was in a 60s band called "The Scorpions". We recorded two singles at Abbey Road. The second single was a cover of Chuck Berry's "Rockin' At The Phil" (Rock At The Philharmonic). Recently a colleague suggested that our recording might be the first UK cover of a Chuck Berry number. We recorded a demo in December 1960, the EMI release was in May 1961 on Parlophone R4768 Rockin' At The Phil b/w Scorpio. Do you have any info that might confirm whether we were the first band to cover a Chuck Berry tune?Interesting question, John. I don't have information about all the cover versions of Berry songs, but I know someone who does. So here's Morten Reff's reply to my question:
What a nice surprise. This cover version from the UK Scorpions in 1961 is just fantastic, also because it's very different from Berry's original, very fast and very rockin'. A US group called "The Legends" recorded a very similar version in 1961 but it was not released at the time. However, The Scorpions did a much better job technically! And by the way, there are no other covers of this Berry tune, as far as I know. Unfortunately, there were some Berry covers from the UK before the Scorpions. However, they were at least the very first group ever to cover this Berry instrumental and get it released on record, if that helps.If you want to read more about the 1960s Scorpions (not the German band of Wind of Change fame), look at the band's website here.
Thursday, December 4. 2008
This morning my radio clock woke me up with one of the more or less ubiquitous christmas songs. I did not listen until the song faded out with the singer reading from his wishlist:
Now let's see, I want:
Hey, that guy is one of us, I thought. So I queried the radio stations website to find out singer and title. It's "Christmas All Over Again" written and sung by Tom Petty. Next I checked Morten Reff's new Chuck Berry International Directory, Volume 2: Chapter 13 lists Songs with lyrics that mention Chuck Berry. Unfortunately Petty is not listed there, probably because this is some kind of rare song. As far as a quick search turned out, the song has only been published on a charity album called "A Very Special Christmas 2" in 1992.
Wednesday, June 4. 2008
Did you recently go to the movies? I usually don't. But by accident this week I got to watch Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story.
This 2007 movie is a complete biography of a Rock'n'Roll star – yet a fictional one. Dewey Cox as a kid learns to play the Blues, plays in a Highschool band, steps in for a famous singer and becomes a star on its own. Sex, drugs and Rock'n'Roll now guide him through his life – to prison, rehab, and comeback. The funny thing is that this biography combines everything you ever read about the rock stars' life.
Dewey meets a karate Elvis. He visits the Maharishi with the Beatles. And of course he works for Jewish brothers running a record company. There's an episode on a Sonny&Cher-like TV show. His band breaks up during a many-months-long work on a new song with full orchestra (including a goat) with Dewey looking like Brian Wilson. And there's a Dylan-style folk protest concert.
You have to know the common rock stars and their biographies to get most of the jokes, but if you do, this is really funny. And you may learn that Punk was invented in the late 1950s. Highly recommended!
Thursday, May 15. 2008
A few weeks ago I wrote about Peter Guralnick's books on Elvis Presley. During this I said that the huge Elvis biography lacks detailed information about Elvis's recording sessions. But, I said, there are other books which fill this gap.
Several readers then wanted to know which books I had in mind and what would be the best book on Elvis's recording sessions. The one I recommend is Elvis Presley - A Life in Music, written by Ernst Jorgensen. Ernst started as a record collector and Presley fan trying to find out who played which instrument on which session and when. In later years he became Marketing Director for BMG which owns RCA Records. And finally he became the RCA man for re-releasing Elvis's recordings thus having access to all the session tapes and documents.
So if not Ernst, who else would be able and willing to fully document Presley's recording history? Elvis Presley - A Life in Music is the ultimate book describing each and every recording session between 1953 and 1977. All the musicians are listed, all recorded songs whether released or not, original sources for the released versions, studio talk and much more. There is not much to add to this book and if you really want to find something to criticize, it would be that Ernst concentrates on the official RCA releases, leaving out bootlegs and such. But that's what you expect from an RCA executive.
If you are listening to Elvis music, you need to have this book!
Sunday, May 11. 2008
Many of you will know that I regularly write for the German-language Rock'n'Roll Musik-Magazin. In October 2007 the magazine celebrated their 30th anniversary at the opening of the Bill Haley Museum in Munich, Germany. Even though I was invited, I could not participate due to business reasons. But when a business trip lead me to Munich last week, I took the opportunity and reserved some time to at least visit the museum.
So I entered a taxi (for Americans: a cab) and told the driver to take me to the Bill Haley Museum. 'To what?' he replied, 'I work as a sight-seeing guide here in Munich, but such a museum does not exist.'
Well, I had the street address (Schleissheimerstr. 321) and when we got there, the taxi driver was astonished to see a large sign guiding the way to the museum. He immediately made a note of this to take guests thereto in the future.
The museum opens in the afternoons only, but owner Klaus Kettner was so kind to let me in early and provided me with a private guided tour. The photo below (click to enlarge) shows Klaus Kettner (to the right) during the opening of his Bill Haley Museum, along with H.-GĂźnther Hartig (Rock'n'Roll Musikmagazin), Bill Turner (ex Bill Haley's Comets), Mike Berry (Tribute to Buddy Holly), and Rainer Koschorz (Buddy, the musical).
Photo ©2007 Rock'n'Roll Musik-Magazin
used with permission
Klaus is a full-time concert promoter (Rock It Concerts), record label owner (Hydra Records), and also runs the Hydra Records store in Munich. But most of all Klaus is a Rock'n'Roll fan and collector just like you and me.
Having collected Bill Haley material for decades, Klaus decided to present his collection to the public. The Bill Haley Museum is located right next to the Hydra Records store. It is a 1000 sqft room stuffed with memorabilia about Bill Haley and the Comets.
This indeed is a impressive collection, and all of it is professionally presented: As you would expect, there are all the original records, from the oldest 1940s releases or the most obscure Mexican albums. Among many other displays, there's a huge showcase dedicated to Rock Around the Clock alone, including records from all over the world, session details such as photos and contracts, handwritten notes, original advertising and more. You'll see tons of promotional material, autographs, songbooks, newspaper clippings, concert posters, film reels and so on - all original, of course.
But besides what you and me might have in our collections in some form or another, Klaus also owns and shows Haley's Golden Records, original instruments and stage clothing, union cards, handwritten letters, awards presented to Bill Haley and much more. Many of these items you have never seen before and never will. If you ever come to Munich, take your time to visit the Bill Haley Museum!
And while you are there, take a look at the Hydra Records store. I have never seen a more extensive offer of contemporary Rock'n'Roll CDs. Where other CD shops have two or five different Chuck Berry CDs in stock, Hydra Records stocks at least two dozens. These include some hard-to-find ones such as Chuck Berry meets Matchbox, His London Recordings, Deliver Me From the Days of Old, or the long out-of-stock CD version of Concerto in B. Goode. Highly recommended!
Sunday, April 13. 2008
It's been a time since my last post here. There were two good reasons for my absence.
Basically I was busy. I have a business to run besides telling you about Chuck Berry's music. And this meant that while Berry was touring Europe and even performing in Germany, I was flying over the Atlantic heading the other direction multiple times doing business in the U.S. That left no time for writing articles here.
The second reason I didn't have time was related to this, but also completely unrelated. Heading multiple ten-hour flights, I went to my favorite book store to purchase some books to read during the long stays on board. And while browsing the Rock Music shelves, I came across two books I wanted to read since they first appeared in 1994 and 1999 but never found the time to do so. So I purchased Peter Guralnick's extensive biography on Elvis Presley. These are two very thick books so I needed more than just the flight times. And in fact I spent many hours afterwards finishing these. And this left no time to work on this blog as well.
I like Guralnick's writing since his 1971 "Feel Like Going Home" which among other things covered Chess Records in detail. This guy really knows what he is talking about. And this knowledge and detailed research can be seen on each and every page of this large two-volume work.
"Last Train to Memphis — The Rise of Elvis Presley" covers Elvis's life up until September 1958, while the second volume "Careless Love — The Unmaking of Elvis Presley" starts there and continues to Elvis's death in August 1977. You need to read both and you need to have time to do so. Together they have more than 1.400 pages, depending on which edition you get. I read the German translations which are even more voluminous. If you can find them, get the hardcover bindings as this number of pages is simply too much for a paperback.
What makes these two books outstanding is not their huge volume, it is their factualness. Whenever you read something about 1950's rock stars, and especially about Elvis, you are confronted with a huge pile of myths, covered by fandom. As said, Guralnick is different. Everything he writes is at least backed by facts and based on interviews with the people who were there. And where people's recollections do not match with each other or with published facts from newspapers or magazines, Guralnick tells you so. Not without reason, the books have thousands of footnotes with links to sources or additional comments.
However, while staying to the facts could make a reading boring, this here is not. Guralnick is really good at telling stories. Even though you already know the end of the story, you may not want to stop reading. Well, at least I didn't. Whether you learn about Elvis's way of recording, whether you read about him making films and concert tours, or whether you wonder about how his various girlfriends and the Memphis Mafia formed his closed world, this is not boring at all. The main aspects of the book are the people. Guralnick tries to find out and explain the personalities of Gladys, Vernon, Priscilla, Col. Parker, and all the other people who basically formed the man. And he tries to look behind the curtain to show the man himself, what he said, what he did, what he thought. While the end result of such could be questionable, with Guralnick's in-depth research it is not — or at least it sounds as if not.
Even such a voluminous work needs to omit things when it covers a complete lifetime of little more than 40 years. What I miss the most, especially in comparison to the contents of this site here, is the musical facts. While Guralnick writes about the recording sessions and about record releases, these comments are of very low priority. So if you are interested in when Elvis recorded Berry's "Promised Land" and how this was released, this is not the book for you. Such facts are hidden in half a sentence somewhere in between these hundreds of pages. I wish Guralnick had added a short appendix listing Elvis's records and movies, just for reference. But there are other Elvis books which fill these gaps. Also some more photographs would have been desired, especially where Guralnick writes about a special photo.
In any case, this two-volume biography is one of the best books on Rock music I have ever seen! Highly recommended!
(Page 1 of 1, totaling 14 entries)
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.
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