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As Mr. Rogers used to say, “Its a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Could you, would you…be my friend? Can you say, …Maserati?”
Like Mr. Rogers used to say; “Its a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Can you say…. Ferrari?”
The last time I saw Chuck Berry was on a television show. I had grown disillusioned with the music biz, or it was afraid of me. it was going corporate and stupid. I was a percussionist with Wolfman Jack’s big band, the world famous DJ.
“I’m sick of hanging around idiot musicians. Is there any way I can get a job in the TV or film business?” Wolfman was the host for Midnight Special, a live music show. So, I became stage manager for Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, another live network TV show with a wide range of hit bands from Bay City Rollers to Pheobe Snow, Quincy’s big band and Cheap Trick, Link Wray and also Chuck Berry. I’m standing on the stage checking the micing for the live drums, while the seven camera crews set up their shots. The director was at the far end of the soundstage in a soundproofed engineering booth talking to everyone on headsets. We were shooting one inch video recording tape with several back up decks for iso shots to be cut in later. But most of it was live and very challenging. I liked it.
Chuck comes sauntering into the historical soundstage where “Gone with the Wind” had been filmed. He had his usual group of people around him. He walks up the gangplank to the stage and I meet him. He looks up at me frowning with confusion, I was wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard, and wearing normal street clothes.
“Hi Chuck! Do you know who your drummer is tonight?” That was my joke to him because he was known for using local musicians that the local promoters had to find.
“Yeah! Of course I do!” He gets angry, “What are YOU doing here?”
“I’m your stage manager!” I said brightly.
“Are you still playing the drums?” He asked accusingly. Suddenly he was cross examining me.
“Well… no. Not really that much lately.” I mumbled.
He got in close and wagged his long brown finger in my face and said sternly,
“Shame on you!….SHAME ON YOU!…..SHAME!……ON!…..YOU!” He punctuated with his finger and it felt like he had slapped me hard, but he hadn’t touched me. He turned around and walked away and refused to talk to me again.
It took me awhile but I got back to the drums and I understood what he meant. I also realized that he cared that much. I was lucky to have met Chuck Berry, let alone play drums with him.
Chuck Berry turned to me in the middle of his guitar solo with a slightly perplexed look on his face, “What song are we doin’?”
I had to think quickly. We had transcended time, space and form, achieving what all great jazz musicians strive for. When the rhythm section is swinging, steady and driving, Chuck would solo over our groove like surfing, or cruising in a roadmaster at sixty five with a cute girl by your side.. All things clicking together. Chuck had already soloed over several chord progressions, extending the usual solo format way past the single verse chorus changes. The rhythm section was so loose and locked in, he was confident that everyone would follow him through as many chord progressions as he wanted to solo over. Not only because he was having a lot of fun, but we had moved to that stellar state of improvisation, outside the arena full of thousands of screaming dancing kids. We had achieved Satori, Nirvana. The Note. The Groove. We existed only for that moment when drums, guitar, bass, piano all breathed as one entity. And the audience felt it too. That’s the point of Rock n Roll. To take the audience with you to that other realm.
Achieving that state is not about force. It cannot be forcibly taken. You have to woo it and let it open up on its own. This is intuitive for the great natural players but for me, I had to learn it through my classically trained brain and that took some doing. I had to learn how to feel. But first I had to diagram it out in my head before I could let my heart just play it. That’s the way I was wired. By the time I was playing with Chuck Berry I had made the transition from geek drummer to soul drummer. I knew the secrets of the groove like the back of my hand. They were in my hands. Allow me to digress up into the intellect and show you my journey.
The Blues is originally played in a six beat pattern. That’s because most of the survival grooves from Africa, Ireland, Native Indian, all over the world, are based on tripolets- a three note pattern. Writing this out would be three eighth notes(a dot with a stick and one flag on each note). But the three notes are tied together with a little arching curve meaning; “Play them as a three note unit.” Repeat the tripolet, slowly now…and you have a six beat pattern, hitting the downbeat every first note of a tripolet. Playing four tripolets in a row gives you the classic 4 beat blues pattern where One is the downbeat on the bass drum, Two is the snare called the Backbeat, then Three is on the bass drum and Four is on the snare. Repeat til the cops come.
What Chuck did was pick up the tempo to about sixty beats per minute where every downbeat is going be at the speed of a cruising roadmaster. Its a human constant. Hit that groove right and things happen.
But he wasn’t the only one. Little Richard did it too, and Dorsey Burnette in the Rock n Roll trio, Link Wray. It was a calling. But Chuck noticed something. Why were certain songs hits? He could put a good song together in that traditional blues swinging tripolet based groove and not have a hit. But if he made the downbeat more obvious, the rhythmically starved kids in the world would get it. Hitsville! So the swinging New Orleans jazz blues groove that was written with eighth note tripolets got overlaid with a straight up and down eighth note basic pattern from the world of country music, marching, standing in lines, and doing what you’re told. If you counted it; One and Two and Three and Four and. But there was a big difference in the two grooves. One groove had three notes to each downbeat and the other groove had four notes to each downbeat. That was a brain twister for classical musicians. It was illegal to play both patterns at the same time. They conflicted. That’s why classical musicians couldn’t swing. The paradox stopped them cold. Chuck was fearless. He mashed those two grooves together and invented real rock n roll. The guitar would be playing straight eighth notes then suddenly shift to the swinging tripolet groove. The kids were entranced. We all were. My job was to maintain the coherency between these two rhythmic dimensions by playing both grooves simultaneously. You can hear it on the early recordings where the rhythm section slides back and forth from straight up and down to the swing.
“Johnny B. Good!” I yelled back at him.
He nodded and turned back to the horde of bouncing kids, raised his left leg up in the air then swung it down to end the solo. We stopped and he played the signature guitar lick in stop time, we hit only the downbeats feeling the groove to be straight up four. But then when he took off again, his solo was in the swinging jazz groove. We could slide back and forth like that all night. Great stuff.
Watching a forty year old man duck walk across the stage while playing this magnificent trashy guitar solo, and smiling at the girls, was a once in a lifetime treat. It was Yoga with a groove. I got to witness that night after night and I came to understand some of the great secrets of life that Chuck possessed. He loved what he was doing. Plus he was true to the beat and it kept him young. “Pay attention!” I yelled at myself. “This is important!”
He invented the windmill guitar style that is such a cliche now, and so much more. When we finished the song, the auditorium was filled with echoing cheers. He looked out at the thousands of adoring fans from more than one generation, spread his arms in a wide embrace,
“Yaw’ll my Chillun!” Chuck said to them, “Yaw’ll my Chillun!”
Chuck Berry glared at me with a sneer on his 44 year old handsome face, and said,
“You don’t know what the fuck’s goin’ on, do ya?”
I had thrown him a real curve.This was our first gig together, in the Miami Sportatorium. Christian, the great Brahmin jazz pianist was on Wurlitzer electric piano and a Miami Beach Jazz legend on bass. I was feeling ornery which I did a lot. It was no doubt some sort of behavioral malfunction; maybe Tourettes. But the point was, I was messing with Chuck right out of the gate and he didn’t think it was funny.
We started out with Maybeline, his first hit, which is a gospel/country groove if you want to do it that way. He had made a lot of money doing it that way. But instead I cut the groove in half- sort of what the Allman Brothers would do with Whipping Post. Maybeline is usually double time, but I was playing halftime against Chuck’s busy guitar rhythm, changing away on two and four. I was playing only half the up tempo backbeat and it flipped him out. He turned around and stalked over to the side of my drum kit and yelled at me. I thought it was funny, but I switched over to the uptempo country gospel groove and he stopped sending me daggers. Then Christian caught his ear.
“Huh?” Chuck said as he stalked over to the inscrutable Christian Ghandi who was as cool as a cucumber and pretty much ignoring Chuck as Jazz piano players are want to do.. “What was that chord you just played!” Chuck yelled over the band at Christian. Chuck leaned over the keyboard barely playing his own guitar and studied Christian’s chord. Chuck stretched his fingers out and found the jazz chord- no doubt reminding him of Johny Johnson, his original and greatest piano player from St. Louis. From there we were on tour with Chuck up through Florida and into Tampa, where Jim, the old bass player from the Bethlehem Asylum, jumped up on stage before Chuck came out and played a very bad version of Johnny B. Good which really pissed Chuck off. I denied I knew who Jim was. The last I saw of Jim, he was falling off of the stage down into a pile of road cases.
“I’m Okay!” He yelled, but nobody really cared after upstaging Chuck like that.
I spent some time riding around with Chuck and watching him work the crowd in the clubs. He did not tolerate bullshit of any sort. But at the same time he had a gracious, regal air about him which shined forth grace, confidence, inspiration, insight. Genius. And a good sense of humor. He was one of the best poets America has ever churned out. If he could have gotten paid one dollar for every guitar lick stolen from him, he would be richer than Bill Gates and all them sons of bitches.