Saturday, June 29, 2013
Chapter 5 - The Golden Decade
The back cover has a nicer esthetic— pure white, with gold lettering that lists the 24 songs. It looks a little like The Beatles white album, though its original release actually predated the Beatles record.
When I get it home and tear off the plastic wrapper I find four black and white photographs inside that capture my attention for several years. Three are from recording sessions. In the biggest Chuck Berry is at the mike, singing, and strumming the guitar with just his thumb. The strings are vibrating. He’s in a white shirt and thin black tie. He looks his true age at the time—probably mid-to late 30s. There’s an authenticity to this and the next two shots that mesmerizes me. He’s a working musician, with no frills. (We are in that age after Woodstock where almost every rock and roll and soul star wears clothing with fringe, brocade, leather, and glitter.) In the next shot the tie is off and the guitar is a fatter one. He’s sitting down. He looks ageless. Actually, he looks about 50, although I’m sure he’s in his 30s. He’s looking at music on a stand and gesturing, as if there’s a discussion about how the song should be played. In the next he’s young and lean and sucking hard on cigarette. There is bare insulation in rafters up above.
On the front cover are the misleading words “The ORIGINAL Two Albums.”
Not quite. “Golden Decade” included 24 songs released between 1955 and 1964. The songs originally had been scattered over six or seven albums and a bunch of singles. But they were originals, and thank goodness for that. And thank goodness for small lies. Without those words I might have bought one of the records then available on Mercury Records. If I had bought Chuck Berry’s greatest hits as re-recorded years after the fact for Mercury, my life would have unfolded differently. I would have listened, yawned, and lived to tell the story: “Yeah— I saw Chuck Berry once.”
I might have been normal.
But I got the real thing—the originals recorded for the Chess Record Company in Chicago between 1955 and 1965.
Chess Records was one of the great, small record companies that helped change world music in the late 1940s and the early1950s. It was run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. The company became famous by producing a string of hits for bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf. A big single might sell 10,000 copies. But then Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry showed up. The Chess brothers recognized they had something new, and suddenly a company the company was pressing and selling hundreds of thousands of copies and producing top hits on the pop charts. The beautiful thing is that it was the same music, played by many of the same studio musicians, just tweaked a bit for a younger, and often whiter, generation of fans.
And at 14 I’m even younger! I come to this music 16 years late. “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” were recorded before I was even born.
When I’m not dancing my head is between the speakers. The sound is full of rough edges and reverberation—the raw, energetic sound of creation. I used to describe it as sounding like it was recorded in a garbage can. It was a bad analogy, but not too bad. I’ve learned since that some of the vocals were recorded in the bathrooms at Chess to capture the prehistoric reverb of a ceramic tile bounce. Once electronic reverb was available Chess records were flooded with it. But this didn’t result in a spacey sound. The bass is deep. The piano is sharp. The drums are slamming. And there is an electric bite to Chuck and Muddy’s guitars that I’ve seldom heard elsewhere.
In other words—Chess records sound like live performance.
It helps that they were, essentially, live. Mistakes hardly mattered compared to the energy—and that energy could only result from a single, charged performance with all instruments blasting. (A little overdubbing of lead guitar doesn’t neutralize the vibrancy of the original jam.)
The sound may have been Leonard Chess’s peculiar genius. He knew what he wanted, and got it, even if he had to kick out the drummer and slam the bass drum himself. It also had a lot to do with Malcom Chisolm, a Chess recording engineer who sat almost anonymously at the center of cultural history and who worked on Chuck Berry’s records as late as the “Back Home” album in 1969, and maybe longer.
Berry’s short guitar solos take flight and tell stories as interesting as the lyrics—musical stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The guitar can ring like a bell, or cut like sharp teeth, or burn like fire depending on the urgency of the moment and the setting on the amp. The drums echo. There are maracas on “Maybellene,” horns on “Nadine,” background voices on “Almost Grown,” and behind all of it, a rippling, roaming piano that never stops.
As I listen I begin to see my first images and make my first feeble connections—the mother waving, doors flying back, police with billy clubs, Nadine’s long leg and nice behind. And I see context. The Beatles, though disbanded, are still a very big deal. I hadn’t known until the night before that two of “their” songs—“Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven”— are Chuck Berry songs. But there’s more. As I listen I figure out that the song “Back in the U.S.A.” was the inspiration for “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and when I hear “Ol’ Flattop” come “movin’ up quickly” in the song “You Can’t Catch Me”—a line recycled in The Beatles “Come Together”—I just about flip.
(Read the earlier chapters in "Pages," to the right, or follow the link to Chapter One.)