Sunday, March 19, 2017


(October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017)

R.I.P., Chuck Berry. He headlined my first-ever rock 'n roll concert. Fifty-nine years ago! It was 1958. I was 13. I kicked off my adolescence - and a subsequent lifelong obsession with live music - at that show. And several months later I reaffirmed that obsession with a second Chuck Berry live shot -- at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Early in January 1958 my dad asked me how I wanted to celebrate my milestone birthday.

I had a ready reply.

Dad worked at the Pratt & Whitney aircraft plant in East Hartford, Connecticut, a half hour drive from our home on the southern border of Massachusetts. Every evening he'd bring home the daily edition of the Hartford Courant. Already a pop culture addict and seeking to expand my horizons, I pored through the movie listings and other entertainment announcements that flanked the comics page of the Courant. I'd already spied an ad for a live show at the State Theater in Hartford.

It was the tail end of an Alan Freed Holiday Jubilee tour. I recognized several of the artists on the bill. Freed was the New York disc jockey who laid claim to naming the music I loved rock 'n roll. I, of course, was unaware of the etymology of the term: in African American slang it had been a euphemism for sexual intercourse since the 1930s.

I just knew I was ready to rock.

My hip Aunt Bette, with whom I shared a January 11 birthday, had started it all a few years earlier by giving me a collection of all the current hits by "soundalike" artists. I had been washed by the cathode ray emanations of Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. While on vacation on Cape Cod in the summer of 1956, I bought "Heartbreak Hotel," my first Elvis single. By my thirteenth birthday I had already amassed an impressive collection of 45s. Nearly every cent of my paper route earnings went into my record collection.

So the old man agreed to take me to the show. It was a Saturday matinee. As soon as we arrived I wondered what I had gotten us into. It seemed like we were the only white folks in the audience. Not only was this not going to be my dad's preferred music, he wasn't particularly fond of black people either.

Thankfully, the lights faded and the curtain went up. The first item of business was a now long-forgotten monster movie. This afternoon's program represented the last vestiges of the old vaudeville format: a film followed by a live stage show. The only other theater I knew that was still presenting this way was Radio City Music Hall. But I imagine other movie palaces around the country were also trying to adapt it to rock 'n roll shows.

Finally the sci-fi flick ended and the curtain rose again. Alan Freed's Holiday Revue band rocked the stage. Blowing big honkin' saxes were Sam "The Man" Taylor - a creator of the trademark sound heard on Atlantic Records by Ruth Brown and Joe Turner - and Big Al Sears, a veteran of Duke Ellington's band who moved easily between jazz and R&B. I glanced over at Dad. So far so good.

Any reservations I'd harbored about my dad's comfort level were quickly assuaged by the time Alan Freed brought on rockabilly singer Jo Ann Campbell, a busty blonde bombshell in a strapless rhinestone gown. I can't say I remember what Jo Ann sang that afternoon, but she'd enjoyed success with her debut single "Wait A Minute" and had subsequent hits such as "Rock And Roll Love" and "You're Driving Me Mad."
She was certainly a hit with Dad.

As a tip o' the hat to Ms. Campbell, Freed had booked a teen pop duo called The Twin Tones - Johnny and James Cunningham - who had a minor hit with a song called . . . "Jo-Ann." It was soon eclipsed by the Playmates' version of the tune. The Playmates took it into the Top 20. The Twins took early retirement.

Ruth Brown, one of the seminal voices in Rhythm & Blues kicked down a showstopper of a set. On the strength of her powerful pipes, commanding delivery and remarkable run of top-selling releases, Atlantic Records had become known as “The House That Ruth Built.” Her 1953 hit "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," was so huge it crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at No. 23.

In the 1980s I got to see Ruth Brown perform again - in the vast ballroom of the Washington Hilton. It was an event sponsored the Congressional Black Caucus. As she tried to complete one of her songs, Ruth began cracking up, laughing hysterically. Her old pal Dizzy Gillespie was trucking around the edge of the stage, lovingly heckling her! The audience went crazy. A couple of years later, following a gig at the Lone Star Road House in New York, I reminisced with Ms. Brown about the Alan Freed show I'd seen and reminded her of Dizzy's attempt to derail her set at the Hilton. She laughed heartily and said, "Diz. What a rascal!" Ruth Brown. What a giant!

Another fun act on the bill that afternoon at the State Theater was Joe Bennett & The Sparkletones. More rhinestones! These guys were touring behind a big hit called "Black Slacks," a rockabilly novelty single that reached No. 17 on the Billboard chart and remained there for four months. The follow-up, "Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks" also charted. I had these 45s in my collection and I was thrilled to see these guys do the songs live.

At last Alan Freed introduced the headliner of the show. The crowd exploded as the audacious Chuck Berry came onstage. This was no oldies show, this was first run Chuck. He had already waxed an amazing string of hits: "Maybellene," "No Money Down," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "You Can't Catch Me," "School Day" and "Rock and Roll Music." Still to come later in 1958 would be "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode." This cat was rock 'n roll.

I was a big fan. My older cousin George had a number of Little Richard and Larry Williams 45s, as well as Elvis' first RCA album, but the centerpiece of his collection was Chuck's debut LP After School Session. When George went off to college, I "borrowed" it. In this era the 45 RPM single was dominant; long-play albums were expensive and pretty much out of reach for newspaper delivering teens like myself. But whenever I went to the "Center" of my hometown of East Longmeadow, I lusted after the display of LP covers on the wall of Lopardo's Mens Store. Mr. Lopardo, a cutting-edge merchandiser, had only recently dedicated a small corner near the cash register to record bins. Chuck Berry's first albums ruled that wall.

Now here was Chuck tearing up the stage, rattling off those hit tunes, playing the guitar behind his back, duck-walking across the stage. I looked over again to see how all this was playing with Dad. He got it. Perhaps this wasn't his music, but as a young man he had seen Cab Calloway camping it up at the Cotton Club in Harlem. My dad knew showmanship when he saw it.

Many years after that wintry Saturday afternoon, I was watching an appearance by the astronomer Carl Sagan on the Tonight Show. This was the late 1970s; my dad had passed away at the beginning of that decade. Carl was telling Johnny Carson about The Sounds Of Earth, the copper record (accompanied by a needle and playback instructions) that had been put aboard Voyager I, an unmanned spacecraft launched a couple of years earlier to explore Jupiter and Saturn. On the disc Sagan and his colleagues had recorded music from around the world, jazz by Louis Armstrong, rock 'n roll by Chuck Berry, compositions of Bach, Beethoven and others. Deadpan, Sagan reported that Steve Martin had just announced on Saturday Night Live that the first response to the record had been received from Deep Space:
Send more Chuck Berry!

That was no alien. That was my dad.


Fourth of July weekend. 1958. I'm thirteen. My dad and I are visiting Aunt Katie and Uncle Charlie in Newport, RI. My Aunt Bette turns up and takes me to the 5th Annual Newport Jazz Festival in Freebody Park. July 5. It's blues night. In addition to Ray Charles, Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson, Joe Turner and a host of others, one of my rock 'n roll heroes is on the bill. Like the t-shirt says, WE MAY BE OLD BUT WE SAW THE BEST BANDS.

Cheapskate Chuck was known over the years for using crappy pick-up bands in the towns where he toured. Not in this instance. On this date he's backed by Buck Clayton (trumpet), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Buddy Tate (sax), Rudy Rutherford (sax), George Auld (sax), Ray Bryant (piano), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Tommy Bryant (bass) and Jo Jones (drums). Holy fuck.

1 comment :

  1. Fantastic.. Really enjoyed reading that :) Envious!!