Years ago I wrote about meeting Chuck Berry and giving him a framed picture of himself as a child. Peter K. had given me the photograph and we'd had fun trying to figure it out. In the picture Chuck is on the roof of a building, dressed to the nines, and using a small telescope. It's daytime. The telescope is pointing skyward. And it doesn't take long to figure out that all the shadows are behind Chuck: in other words, that he's pointing it at the sun. I wondered in an e-mail if it might have been an eclipse, and sure enough, Peter K. found out there had been two in St. Louis at around that time.
When I gave the picture to Chuck he was visibly excited. He said something like "Ooh, wee! Where'd you get this?" Then he said, "I'm going to show it to my friends, and you're going to be there when I do!" And off he went, running down the hallway to another hall where a bunch of people enjoyed his reaction to the picture. What made it even better is that my friend Doug was there, and my wife, who did some math with Chuck and his son to determine the date. (American history and practical math. We lived it!).
Here's the thing: You never know when you'll see a person you love for the last time.
I wasn't able to go to Chuck Berry's funeral, and I never went to another show, so it turns out that was the last time I ever saw the man. He was glorious that evening. He'd just put on a very good show. He was dressed all in black, with a black leather jacket and dark glasses. And the very, very last thing he did, before he went down the hall and into the street, was to stand in front of me, lift his dark glasses, and say "You look like Seattle!" And then he was gone, like a cool breeze.
Whatever that means, I'll take it. And what a blessing to have my last glimpse of Chuck Berry be up close, personal and so direct. Thank you again, Mr. Berry.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Sunday, March 19, 2017
On Valentine's Day in 1971, when I was just 14, I walked into a nearly empty Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento and saw a lone figure on stage backed by a local rock band. He was playing the blues when I pushed open the door and looked as sad and alone as anyone or anything I'd ever seen. Within a few minutes he picked it up and got us all on our feet and kept us there until, mercifully, he could leave Sacramento. But eight months later he was back with a full crowd rocking from the very start.
I haven't added to this site in a long time. I'll have two more posts, at least. A summing up, and a piece about his long awaited new album. In the meantime, I've shut down some of the more recent posts for a time to put my "book" about Chuck and my own peculiar love affair with him on top again for just a bit. Hail! Hail! Love you Chuck!
Friday, July 8, 2016
Johnny Buschardt got in touch with me recently to ask if I had any old photographs of the exterior of Chuck Berry's old Club Bandstand in St. Louis. I didn't, but the question got us talking and I quickly realized that I'd encountered someone who was both a true fan and a truly interesting person. Buschardt is a former concert promoter in Texas who worked with Chuck Berry many times (and has even helped him with yard work! I feel your pain, Doug!) But in the past few weeks I've also realized he's a great story teller, writer, tourist, friend and dad; n amateur drummer and former stand up comedian; and a big, big fan of Chuck Berry. I asked him a few questions, (and now have lots more! Dang!)
You’re a promoter? What sorts of shows? What sorts of venues? What were some of your favorite shows over the years?
Technically, I WAS a promoter. While I still do the occasional show from time to time, it isn’t like it was five or ten years ago, where I would do hundreds of shows in a year. Most of the shows I do now are shows were I am either friends with the artist OR the type of show I know is very low-risk. But I promoted full-time from 1994 until about 2014 or so.
All sorts of shows! I’ve promoted artists ranging from Three Dog Night and Merle Haggard to Jay Leno and Dave Matthews. Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Kathy Griffin, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sinbad, Dave Chappelle, Foo Fighters, Ronnie Milsap, Alice Cooper, Huey Lewis & the News, BB King, and (of course) Chuck Berry… there aren’t many artists I DIDN’T promote over two decades.
Again, all sorts of venues. While I was promoting, I was also general manager for venues like the Historic Brady Theater (a 2,693 seat theater built in 1914) and the Mabee Center (a 17,000 seat arena built in 1970), both of which are in Tulsa. I’ve done shows in historic venues like the Fox Theater in Bakersfield, CA and in iconic venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, CO. I primarily focused on the Midwest, in markets like Kansas City, but I spanned out into Texas and California as well.
There are a few favorite shows that stick out:
Luciano Pavarotti’s Farewell Tour was special because he only did three dates in North America for that: Hollywood, Miami, and Tulsa. I had the chance to work with an amazing team (including Sir Harvey Goldsmith, whose iconic resume includes Live Aid and Pink Floyd at the Berlin Wall) and was able to spend the week after our show with Maestro and his team in CA. So that was a special night and it was not only an evening no one would ever forget, but a chance to really shine within the industry as well.
We did a show with Steve Winwood once that was memorable for all of the wrong reasons. His band was stranded in Chicago due to a snowstorm and we were backstage stretching our own creativity for how to pull this show off: do we bring in other musicians, does Steve do a solo set, do we add an opener and hope they make it in time? Luckily, the band arrived literally about the third song into the Steve’s acoustic set and the show was saved.
I remember a Kris Kristofferson show in San Diego once solely because Ace Frehley from KISS showed up and turned out to be a die-hard Kris fan (as well as an exceptionally nice guy). There was the Willie/Merle/Kris show in 2015 when everyone showed up backstage: Jamey Johnson, Randy Travis, Hank Williams Jr… you had to be on your toes, but it was still a great time.
How did you get started in the business? Tell us about your early days.
I actually started off in stand-up comedy and got to a point where I was opening for comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Cosby. At one point, walking past the promoter’s office one night during settlement, I saw how much the promoter was making and thought, “Well, man… how hard can it be?!?” My first few shows were artists I knew who let me promote them (Jay Leno, Sinbad, Drew Carey) and then I branched out after that, starting with the basics of classic rock and classic country and then developing a business model that would allow us to try new things.
There are always stories about working with Chuck-- what has it been like for you?
It’s funny – I have never had a single issue with Chuck. I mean, the first time I worked with him (probably in the mid 90’s), I had heard nothing but horror stories. Still, this is Chuck Berry – he’s the reason we’re all here to begin with. Still, I never had an issue with him. I know Chuck likes me – I’ve heard from various agents and other promoters that “he and I get along well” – and I have had more than one promoter call me to defuse a Chuck situation, but I actually never had any issue with him at all.
Do you have any favorite stories about working with him?
I think the funniest thing about Chuck is how quickly his demeanor can change. I mean, if he is in a bad mood and just grouchy as hell, all you have to do in bring some children into the room and – BAM! – sweet old, grandfather Chuck comes out. His smile is infectious as hell and he truly can captivate a room. So I always tell people, if things are starting to go south, get some cute little kids in the room with Chuck. If you ever want to see Chuck Berry is his natural state, see him around a group of children.
Why do you think some promotors report having had a bad time working with Chuck Berry? Have they told you? Can you see it backstage?
Like I said, Chuck and I get along well so I have gotten calls from more than one promoter in search of a quick fix. Here’s the deal: the reason most promoters upset Chuck is because they don’t do what they are supposed to do. Usually, they do something they shouldn’t have done with the absolute best of intentions. For example, if Chuck is set to go on at 8:00, he may not arrive at the venue until 7:55… and that is NOT an exaggeration. When he walks in, all Chuck wants is two things: to be handed his payment and to be shown the stage. Most promoters will make the mistake of trying to put food in Chuck’s dressing room, for example. Well, Chuck’s contract doesn’t ask for food… and food is a show expense that is taken out of the receipts before the split is determined – in other words, it’s less money to Chuck. Of course most artists want food in their dressing room – but Chuck isn’t most artists.
Another issue is the backline (which is the instruments used in the show). Chuck plays with a Fender Dual Showman guitar amp – that is part of his contract. Now, if you (as a promoter) are unable to secure that amp, you have a choice: don’t sign the contract or pay Chuck $2000 in cash before he goes on stage. See, Chuck has the right to demand anything he wants: as an artist, he has a very specific tone and sound that he wants to achieve and he knows how to get it. If you are worth a lick of salt, you should be able to find the amp. Even if you can’t, though, all you have to do is tell Chuck in advance and have the $2000 waiting for him. It is when you DON’T tell Chuck that you can’t get his amp (and he finds out when he appears to play) that he gets upset… and rightfully so.
The reason Chuck is seen as “difficult” is simply because he calls people out on their mistakes. If you don’t provide the amp, Chuck will call the promoter to the stage and have the promoter tell the audience exactly how they messed up… and why the audience isn’t hearing Chuck’s signature sound the way he wants them too.
I always tell people this: do exactly as the contract states and you’ll be fine. If you can’t get the amp, let Chuck know and his cash waiting for him. However, if Chuck gets so angry that he starts referring to himself in the third person… well, at that point, you’re screwed.
Chuck Berry often worked with local musicians. What’s it like for the band members when they know they are going to back up a legend?
Aside from possibly St. Louis, Chuck never travels with a band. Part of his contract dictates that the promoter must provide a quality backing band. The tough part isn’t finding folks who want to play with Chuck Berry – I mean, who wouldn’t want to? The tough part is finding folks who have the skills and the knowledge of every Chuck Berry song. See, Chuck doesn’t provide a set list to the band – he simply starts playing a song and the band needs to be able to jump in immediately without any heads up or guidance. Remember, Chuck arrives literally five minutes before a show – there is no rehearsal, no sound check, no stage blocking… you just jump right into and do a line check off the first song. I have three or four bands I use exclusively with Chuck – they have worked with him before and can get the job done. Of course, every artist is thrilled to play with Chuck Berry. I mean, the man is the reason we are all there to begin with, so I have yet to meet an artist who didn’t consider it a thrill to play with Chuck Berry.
Do you feel like you got to know Chuck by working with him? Talk about that some.
LOL! I don’t think ANYONE knows Chuck Berry! Chuck will always be his own man and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to fully figure him out. I mean, maybe Toddy knows him – they have been married for more than 65 years, so she may have some inside scoop. but other than that, I don’t think anyone can claim to know Chuck. Francine may know the man – but I don’t. I just keep it simple: I give him things I know he likes (Indian food, grape soda, etc.) and stick the plan as much as we can. Chuck really likes things like yard work – even when he doesn’t play guitar (and yes, he will go weeks without picking it up), he still likes to work with his hands. Aside from that, though, Chuck is just… Chuck.
If you could ask him one question, what would it be? (Something he’s not expecting!)
Hmmm… I think most of the questions I would ask I already have asked. I would probably ask him about the night he met Johnnie Johnson. Or maybe about when the Johnnie Johnson Trio became the Chuck Berry Trio. I think those two moments are probably two of the most pivotal in rock and roll history… but I don’t think they have come up specifically. Although, it was always a treat to hear Chuck talk about playing the Cosmo back in the day… man, to have been a fly on that wall!!!
You went through St. Louis recently. Did you include music in your visit? Did you hit any of Chuck’s historic sites?
You know I did!
|Johnny at the site of the Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis.|
It’s surprising after so much time in the business you are still a fan!
It’s Chuck Berry – how can anyone NOT be a fan?!?!?!
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
"Chuck Berry could have been anything in the music business. He stopped where he was, but he could have been a jazz singer, a ballad singer, a guitar virtuoso. He could have been a lot of things. But there’s a spiritual aspect to him, too. In 50 or 100 years he might even be thought of as a religious icon."
Bob Dylan, on our hero's importance, as told to AARP Magazine. You can read the whole thing (including more about Chuck Berry) HERE!
Saturday, November 22, 2014
So, buy the CD HERE. And enjoy!
How did a blues man from Colorado end up recording in St. Louis?
In April or May of 2013 I was invited to play at the Rauma Blues Festival in Rauma, Finland with Bob, Keith Robinson and bassist Terry Coleman. The original performer, Chicago guitarist/singer Chainsaw Dupont, was scheduled to play at this festival, but he had some health issues couldn’t do the tour. My wife is from St. Louis and we had been down there visiting her family. While we were in town I played at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups with these guys. When we got back to Colorado Bob called and asked if I had a current passport. I said “Yes” and that was it. One thing led to another, the promoter checked me out and gave me the green light. The festival went very well (took place in July 2013). When we got back to the USA, Bob said I should come down to St. Louis and record some new music. The vibe is completely different there. And that’s how I ended up recording “The St. Louis Sessions.”
Tell us about the record. What were you trying to do? How do you feel about the result?
Well, I was trying to make a blues record, period. I have a lot of different influences in my playing and songwriting: folk, reggae, fusion, rock, blues, and many others. Bob Lohr was instrumental in keeping me on the blues road, musically speaking, while still keeping my own voice in the mix. For example, when I sent the rough mix of “I Need Somebody” to Bob, he said I needed to “shuffle-ize” it, make it more blues. I didn’t understand it at first. But I changed the rhythm guitar approach and turned it around. It’s a shuffle done my way — a little bit outside, if you know what I mean. I fingerpick a lot, and that’s the approach with this song. And I know it resonates with people, on the radio and especially on the dance floor.
I played a lot of funk and R&B music in the past, and it shows. I also have the Hendrix thing which is also a huge influence for me. I needed to reign in the funk (although that style is prominent in “Something So Bad”), and bring my inner B.B./Robert Cray to the forefront. I wanted to showcase the blues/soul feel that I have and focus on good songs. I’m very happy with the result. I think we avoided a lot of blues clichés…and God knows there are so many out there.
I have to give props to Nichole Olea, a great St. Louis-based photographer. She and Bob are friends and she took the fantastic shots that I used on the CD and all of my promotional material for “The St. Louis Sessions.” I also used K-Line Guitars courtesy of Chris Kroenlein, another St. Louis bad-ass. This guy makes custom electric guitars that are second to none.
How long did the process take? How long were you in the city?
The recording process took a little more than 4 months. I live in Boulder, Colorado, right outside of Denver. I flew into St. Louis every 6 weeks or so, working on my own here in Colorado and the songs were refined in St. Louis. My wife is from St. Charles and I was able to stay with my mother-in-law, drive to the studio, and take care of business. I couldn’t have made this CD without her help. The recording process started in September 2013 and finished up in January 2014.
The next phase was mixing the tracks. David Torretta worked his magic and Bob sent the tracks to me as he moved forward. This took 2-3 months. When the final mixes were done, we sent them to Matt Murman for mastering. This took a few more months. Matt has a worked with tons of blues artists, people like Lurrie Bell, Arthur Crudup, Big Joe Williams, Eddy Clearwater and Roosevelt Sykes, to name a few. The engineering of David Torretta, the guidance of Bob Lohr and the final touches by Matt Murman really brought this project to a higher level.
Did you make it out to the local clubs to hear some of the local musicians?
I didn’t really have time to do that. But I’ve spent time at BB’s Jazz, Blues & Soups before. I have played there a few times with Bob, Keith and Terry before the CD was recorded. In fact, the inside cover shot was taken on the roof of BB’s. Very cool experience.
Is the record getting some airplay? Do you have any plans to tour with the guys who are on it? Your own band?
“The St. Louis Sessions” is already getting tons of airplay. The official release date was Oct. 20th, 2013. We are working with Todd Glazer Promotions and he’s made all the difference. You need a professional to get your music heard on the radio. I get reports from Todd on a regular basis. The CD has been added to playlists all over the U.S. and Canada. And it’s increasing every day.
I’m definitely planning on touring with Bob, Keith and Terry, collectively known as The St. Louis Blues All-Stars. I’d like to hit the European festival circuit sometime in 2015, do some shows in America, too. I’m already playing most of these songs with my current trio, The Jack Hadley Band, here in Colorado.
Is it my imagination, or does St. Louis have a special sound and feel? And where does that come from?
It is not your imagination. There is a St. Louis sound. I noticed it the first time I heard Bob Lohr play at a festival here in Colorado a few years ago. And when I came to St. Louis I heard it immediately at BB’s. Drummers know how to play a shuffle in that city – as well as everything else. The guys in the St. Louis Blues All-Stars can play all kinds of different music.
It could be that St. Louis is much closer to the South, musically speaking. The roots of blues, Rock n’ Roll, gospel, soul and R&B are really apparent. I also think there is a respect for the blues, and people take it seriously.
What’s the blues scene like in Boulder and Denver? Is there any real history to the music there?
The blues scene in Boulder and Denver is complicated. There is a blues scene but it’s not like St. Louis. There are very few “blues” clubs, and — like many other places — many people only want to hear blues-rock. The blues audience here is a predominately older, White audience. Most Black musicians I know are not interested in the blues, period. A real blues history in Colorado? I would say no. And many of the people who are involved in the local blues scene come from somewhere else. It’s odd. This is almost a reverse segregation with Black people on the R&B/funk/smooth jazz end of the scale and very little crossover. And I’m saying this to you as a board member of the Colorado Blues Society and a musician. I see it every day. The audiences I’ve seen in St. Louis are much more diverse.
The West is a more laid-back environment. It’s easy to live out here. And there are a lot of distractions that might take away from a real interest in what many people consider to be “old” music. People are outside quite a bit since we have lots of sunshine, and you get the impression they would rather hear classic rock or a DJ. Anything but real blues.
Your music seems to mix straight up blues with some really pretty melodies. Who were your influences? Where does that sound come from?
You are correct. I listened to all kinds of music. My Dad is from Louisiana and my Mom was from the Philippines (I was born there). We had Nat King Cole and the Platters on the stereo, never heard any blues. And living in the Bay Area as a kid was a different experience, too. I listened to folk music, started out playing the acoustic guitar, still love finger-picking. Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Dylan, you name it.
I like pretty melodies and straight blues. Growing up with all these styles made me realize that I should play what I like. I listened to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Chambers Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, all that stuff growing up. I enjoy funky stuff, too, but I drifted away from R&B because it isn’t guitar-oriented music. Modern R&B has been keyboard/bass/vocal dominated for a long time.
My guitar influences are all over the map, but in the beginning: Hendrix, Clapton, B.B. King. I think I was influenced by their approach to the guitar, how they construct their solos, their voicing. I dig Hendrix’ inversions, the sting of Robert Cray, the soul of B.B., the raw blues power of Albert King. I love any great music played by masters of the Telecaster, people like Albert Collins, Redd Volkaert and Danny Gatton. Jazz players like Bireli LaGrene and Wes Montgomery. This is all beautiful music to me.
I came to the blues through the back door, listening to everything my friends were into, and realizing much later this is actually another version of the blues – the original pop music.
Can you talk a bit about your early work in music? Were you in bands as a kid? What were you playing?
I was 12 or 13 when I started playing the guitar. Nothing serious because it was difficult to play. I didn’t realize that a guitar needed to be set up for you in order to play it. As a teenager I played a lot of folk music, rock (courtesy of Hendrix, the Beatles, etc.) I also started playing with other people in bands, sometimes acoustic duos. I remember playing in a duo with a friend of mine playing any kind of music with great harmonies, like Simon & Garfunkle, CSN&Y, that kind of stuff. We played wherever we could, parties and church ceremonies.
Later on I started playing music by Sly & The Family Stone, early Commodores, Parliament Funkadelic and Slave. I’ve always had one foot in soul music. I’m a huge reggae music fan, too. I played with some guys from Trinidad for a few years in the ‘80s. Another form of soul music, for me, coming out of the Caribbean.
Your St. Louis sessions brought you in contact with a lot of Chuck Berry’s people-- Bob Lohr, Keith Robinson. Dave Torretta has been working on the “new” Chuck Berry record and played bass on one of my all time favorite unknown CB numbers. What was that like?
These guys are some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. Again, the St. Louis thing: the ability to play real blues, not just pretending to play it. The depth of these players can’t be overestimated. When you’re playing with musicians at this level it changes everything. It’s the right sound and you can’t deny it. Terry Coleman on bass? You can’t touch him. Good people, too, with some crazy stories from the road and just the life of a musician.
Casa Del Torretta was a very easy place to record. David Torretta has this dialed in. There are instruments hanging on the walls, small guitar amps, great vocal mics — all the right elements to make good music. And that’s what we did. When we hit a wall we’d take a break and have some great Italian food and a few beers on The Hill, and then get back to work.
Yes, I’ve heard about the unknown CB tracks. Apparently they’ve been in the works for some time. Hopefully they will be released sooner rather than later.
When you’re working with musicians in St. Louis, can you feel the presence of the greats who started there?
Oh, hell yes. And when you’re on the Walk of Fame on the Loop and you realize how many great musicians have come out of St. Louis, it’s overwhelming. It makes you want to play well, do the best you can. I didn’t want to half-step on stage or in the studio.
And I have to ask: did you meet Chuck while you were there?
Yes. My wife, Jill, and I did meet Chuck at Blueberry Hill one night in 2013. Bob brought us in through the backstage door. I was speechless. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself and ask for an autograph so I just said hello and that it was an honor to meet him. We talked for a few minutes, then joined the audience for his one hour set. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
It was a fun night. Sometimes it was so much fun Chuck seemed to think we were laughing at him. "I hear you talking and laughing. But no man is perfect!"
But never, Mr. Berry. Everybody loved every moment.
It began, as ever, with "Roll Over Beethoven," followed by a long, beautiful version of "Wee Wee Hours" and a short half version of "Maybellene." Then a long rock and roll instrumental in G, where Chuck and his band hit the St. Louis groove that I became more familiar with on this trip. "That was pretty good!" he said, with considerable understatement.
Someone yelled "We love you, Chuck!"
"Thank you girls," he said. "I know a girl when I hear one!"
There was a moment in the set where Chuck Berry tried to show us all his hearing aid. "This one's gone," he said, pointing to his right ear. "If you spend 52 years in front of a drummer you pay a penalty!"
"I didn't say 'a penny,'" he added. "I've paid this one plenty!"
But that hearing aid obviously helps. There were some flubbed notes, but on "Wee Wee Hours" and a couple of the instrumentals, Chuck was killing it. So was the band.
He did "School Days (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," but forgot to let us sing "Hail! Hail!"
He launched into a short one about no poem as lovely as a tree and admitted "We've never played this one before." The band members agreed.
When he asked what Chuck Berry songs we wanted to hear I used my position in the front row to lobby for one I've never heard him play. "No Money Down!" I yelled. I hold a perfect record on that one. I still haven't heard Chuck play it-- he stood there listening while Ingrid and the band did a great job on the song. That made me feel a little bad, but I was consoled by a high five from the rhythm guitarist. Anyway, it was a great Chuck Berry song that ought to be played more!
To get himself back on track Chuck launched into another rocker instrumental, and once again, they killed it. Then he asked Bob Lohr what to play. "How about Johnny B. Goode?" And they rocked that one, too, with some lyrics I've never heard but that I liked: "a little boy who looked a lot like me!"
Ingrid did a slow blues next. "You know what I'm talking about ladies, don't you. I work hard every day taking care of castle keep."
And then a wonderful version of "Reelin' and Rockin'," with the vocal highlight coming from bass player Jimmy Marsala. At a quarter to 12 Chuck began singing "I didn't know if I was...". And when he paused for just a breath Jimmy filled the void with "going to Hell!" Charles was laughing so hard he was unable to play guitar for at least four bars.
A band called Palace opened. We heard their soundcheck and knew they were good, but during the first few numbers the sound equipment faltered badly and they had to stop mid-song two or three times. One of their singers-- a very pretty young woman-- told stories and jokes and answered silly questions from the audience while BBH's sound man figured out the problem, and then they went back to work with a shortened by triumphant set of rhythmic pop that mixed bits of Brian Wilson, Queen and The Beatles. The crowd loved them, so did I, and so did Charles Berry, Jr., who applauded their professionalism afterwards.
All in all, a wonderful night. We topped it off by staying up way past our bedtimes to see a bit of Roland Johnson's set downtown at The Beale. I guess I'll pay tomorrow. Tonight, I'm just pleased we came back to St. Louis one more time.
(Unbelievable! Just lost all the pictures I was trying to show you. It was taking forever, so I'll do a selection!)
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
(I didn't go out in St. Louis with the idea of writing about what I'd seen and heard, so I didn't take notes. But what I saw and heard was worth recording somehow. Here's the best I can do under the circumstances. The way to find out what it was really like- head there yourself!)
I’ve never been to New Orleans (I’m saving it up) but I know about New Orleans-- that it’s a place famous for its musicians. I know about Memphis, Nashville and Austin (though, come to think of it, I’ve never been to to a couple of those, either.) Everybody knows these places are music places, and still lively that way.
But I didn’t really know about St. Louis.
Which is odd, considering that my hero and the lifelong object of my obsession hails from St. Louis, and considering that I associate the city names like Albert King, Miles Davis and Ann Peebles.
But after a quick trip back to St. Louis this December-- one of several that I’ve taken in the last five years-- I’ve finally begun to scratch the surface and learn a little about the city’s still thriving Blues scene.
In the course of three nights-- December 7, 10 and 11-- my wife and I saw five great performances by artists like Boo Boo Davis, Marquise Knox, Eugene Johnson, Kim Massie and Roland Johnson. It was easy to do since all of them performed at two cool venues that sit across from each other a few blocks south of the Arch on South Broadway-- B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues and Beale on Broadway.
I’d gone to St. Louis to see my old hero Chuck “one last time.” (He keeps fooling me.) But these two clubs-- and I’m sure there are a half a dozen more to add to the list-- are worth a trip to St. Louis all by themselves. The drinks are big and cheap. The food at B.B.’s is good. The crowds ranged from boisterous on the weekend to intimate on a Wednesday. The music was consistently stellar.
Every night we found a new mix of musicians, always with some crossover from a prior night. Bassist Gus Thornton played for both Marquise Knox and Kim Massie. Guitarist Stephen Martin backed up Massie and Roland Johnson. Drummer Gerald Warren played with Eugene Johnson and stayed to provide beats for Kim Massie. Keyboardist Robert Lohr was with Delta blues great Boo Boo Davis on Saturday night and on the following Wednesday crossed town to back Chuck Berry. Eugene Johnson led his own group on Tuesday but also appears on Marquise Knox’s newest cd.
I can’t pretend to know much about these musicians, (and I went to enjoy the music, not to take notes; I wish now I’d written a few things down) but bassist Gus Thornton provides an example of the depth of talent. Watching him back up the remarkable Marquise Knox, I was struck by Thornton’s easygoing smile and the effortless way his fingertips touched the five strings of his bass to drive the songs. A couple of days later Bob Lohr clued me into Thornton’s background playing bass for people like Albert King. You can check it out yourself and read a good interview of the man HERE.
Guitarist Stephen Martin, who played with Massie and Roland Johnson has a similarly angelic smile but plays devilishly good stuff on his pale blue Telecaster. Massie was complimenting him on a new haircut when we saw them together. You had to crane your neck to see him, tucked away in a corner behind Thornton, but you could hear every lick, down to the subtlest little bent “twing” that got drummer Gerald Warren laughing and nodding at the end of a song.
And that’s one of the best parts: these musicians, who collect themselves in different groups every night, (or twice a night,) seem to really enjoy hearing and playing with each other. In Memphis, on Beale Street, we saw some fine musicians putting on a fine show for us toursits, but at Beale on Broadway we saw fine musicians making music with and for each other. Which works out fine for the audience.
At the Marquise Knox show one young woman danced with half the men in the place, enticing them to all sorts of silly acts of lust which she then rejected with a grin. Kim Massie brought out post-it notes and a vase to collect requests and big bills. (She got plenty!) Eugene Johnson invited a drummer he’d met in Europe to sit in. The drummer, who took the sticks from Warren, might have regretted his decision about half way through “Brick House,” but it proved just how good the Warren and the other regular musicians are. Another guy who took the stage before Roland Johnson’s set had better luck. He borrowed Stephen Martin’s guitar and began to sing and strum a bit timidly. We thought it was going to be a disaster, and one man made a face and laughed. But the further he got, better it sounded, and one by one the musicians began to join him on stage. Lew Winer, III, comedian of the group, played some wonderful sax, Eugene Johnson added bass, and Roland Johnson even tried to play the drums. It was downright pretty.
As for the stars, dang! To hear voices like Kim Massie’s and Roland Johnson’s from ten feet away restores a soul. Both are great performers, too. Johnson is as close as I’ll get, in attitude, to seeing Otis Redding alive, and Massie’s all attitude. (To see Johnson and his band Soul Endeavor live, check out this clip of them playing at the Blues Deli in St. Louis's Soulard neighborhood. Follow this Link!) Between great songs Massie fires off wickedly dry one liners and singled me out for a cruelly shouted line questioning my manhood! (It took a while to forgive her- but you can’t hold a grudge against a voice like that!)
(Here's a chance to hear her with a pretty well known drummer.)
Boo Boo Davis, who plays the first Saturday of every month at B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues, was the old timer of this group, a veteran Delta Blues musician and drummer who helped nurture the current St. Louis blues scene back in the 1970s. B.B.‘s is a long, narrow place with a long bar that opens into a dining room and stage. You can eat there, too. When we arrived Davis, resplendent in black leather and bordello red, was seated at the front of the house just beneath the stage taking visits from audience members. Boo Boo Davis was preceded on stage that night by singer and harmonica player Tom “Papa” Ray, who did a rhumba style “Summertime” on a very cold fall night backed by a group that included Robert Lohr on Piano, Nephew Davis on bass, Carlos Hughes on drums and Larry Griffen on guitar. Then Boo Boo Davis, who alternates his deep growl of a voice with harmonica. A man claiming to be his little brother sat whooping and hollering a few feet from us. I decided his claim might be true when he said “the Wolf’s in the house” just before Davis launched into a startling imitation of Howlin’ Wolf.
When Davis’s first set was over we crossed the street to see and hear Marquise Knox. At Beale on Broadway, the stage is right next to the front door, so as soon as you enter your are slammed with blues coming full force from a line of old guitar amps that seem to be stationed permanently against the back wall. We paid our 7 dollars and sat on stools right next to the door while Knox, just 21 years old but completely mesmerizing, leaned forward to do a medley classics and originals. (One song takes the title of a Billy Peek classic, “Can a White Man Play the Blues?” and makes it relevant to Knox by asking if a young man can.) (The answer, in both cases, is that if it’s the right one, yes indeed.) Here's a sample.
I don’t know if Chuck Berry will get me back to St. Louis again, but I know I’ll be back, and that when I return, I’ll go wherever these folks are playing. And then I’ll head down the river to New Orleans. ‘Cause I haven’t been there, yet.