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Chuck looked at me with a perplexed look on his face, “What song are we doin’?”

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!”

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