Blues -- The Roots Of Pop

If it weren't for Mississippi Delta blues we'd still be singing "Oh Susanna" and I would have to shoot myself. We owe it all to those guys -- song structure, chord progressions, call and response, the blue note -- all of it.

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Blues -- The Roots Of Pop

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri May 01, 2015 7:44 pm

I cut my musical eyeteeth on Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the Blues. I was at a spartan boarding school for 3.5 years starting in January of 1954. During the second half of 1955 I shared a room with Bobby Sengstacke, the future civil rights movement photographer, son of the publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper.

All the other boys in our small class lived in an open army style dormitory -- the stalls of a converted horse barn -- but due to a shortage of space Bobby and I had a room to ourselves, the former tack room There was no door to close -- it opened right onto the dorm floor -- but it was our exclusive space, out of the main traffic flow. We each had an army cot on the floor while the other kids had to share double-decker cots. Bobby had a record player and a radio so we were comparatively rich in our definitely superior digs.

Bobby came home from Christmas vacation that year with a 45 rpm single featuring this song as the A side, "Hey Bo Diddley" ...
I had never heard anything remotely like it before and liked it very much. He played it for me again, and then again. Really curious now, I asked him to play the B side. Here it is, "I'm A Man" ...
I liked that one even more and have been a Bo Diddley fan ever since.

Bo Diddley isn't usually thought of as a bluesman but in a very real way he was, and he played back guitar on many bluesy Chess Records releases including Chuck Berry's "Memphis", which is here ...
That's right, folks. Johnny Rivers didn't write "Memphis", Chuck Berry did. He also wrote the record that inspired "Louie, Louie", a strange, little known number titled "Havana Moon" ...

My favorite Chuck Berry number is "Around And Around", definitely a blues piece, again with Bo Diddley on back guitar ...
While that's my favorite, it's followed closely by "Little Queenie" ...
the chorus lyrics to which are Chuck Berry at his visually poetic best ...

There she is again standin'
Over by the record ma-
Chine. rest rest rest
rest rest rest Lookin'
rest like a model on the
Cover of a maga-
Zine rest rest rest
rest rest rest rest
She's too cute to be a
Minute over seven-
Teen. rest rest rest
rest rest rest rest

The video for "Little Queenie" is an outtake from the Alan Freed movie "Don't Knock The Rock". the visuals loosely synced to the original recording. Now pay attention, 007, because that's Alan Freed on drums (but not in the record), and sitting at the table with the girls is, I do believe, Richie Valens (who was not an Alan Freed act).

Over the years I saw both Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry several times in concert in Alan Freed revues at the Brooklyn Paramount. Berry always closed the show. Why? Because nobody dared go on after him. All by himself -- no accompaniment -- he would play an extended set of Chuck Berry songs, the show band members sitting quietly, tapping their feet, grinning broadly as Berry had the kids literally dancing in the aisles while he duck walked and gyrated exactly as you see in this video. (Remember hearing about that balcony shaking? That was Berry's doing.) He never played the same song the same way. The recording of "Maybelline" that we all know and love was take 37, and I'll bet that all the other takes before it and after it were equally interesting.

From Bobby's and my dorm room fifteen miles northeast of Philadelphia, on a good night we could pull in WNJR in Newark, today a 50,000 watt clear channel station but at the time a low power 5,000-watter. We listened to gospel -- the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mahalia Jackson -- and we listened to blues and blues derivatives -- Little Walter, Etta James, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hank Ballard ... and so on.

I wouldn't be able to afford to buy records for another ten years, not till I was out in the adult world, working. But even then I usually didn't bother. I don't recall buying a single blues recording till I bought the album containing this one, John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" ...
A bit later, still selective, I bought a James Cotton album because I liked its little big band blues number "Good Time Charlie" ...
I do love rhythm guitar and horns so. That's the B.B. King band with a different front man, is all ... And I'll bet you never noticed that King never plays chords, only single notes, because he doesn't know how. That's the reason for the band, but you don't miss those chords, do you? Neither do I.

I discovered another little big band bluesman many years later, but only shortly before he died. Here's Albert Collins with "Iceman" ...
He's the only electric guitarist I've ever seen who does not use a pick. Does Collins know chords? You bet, he just uses them sparingly, as in "Master Charge" ...

The intro to "Master Charge" is lifted directly from a blues instrumental I heard many times on WNJR, "Hard Times (/ The Slop)" by Nobel Watts ...
The "Hard Times" saxophonist's phrasing is exactly that of the saxophonist on Bill Dogget's "Honky Tonk", so presumably it's the same player. Here are both parts of that piece ...

Tom Werman may be interested to learn that while I don't play lead guitar, this is a solo I had to cop for our Golden MIDI cover of that piece using a MIDI guitar because trying to do it with keys just wasn't working. It was no big deal. It's not that I can't play, it's that I can't create lead parts -- can't invent them. I don't own a guitar any more but if I did, and if it was a Telecaster (my hands are small), and if I was in a parallel universe, I'll bet I could cop Albert Collins flawlessly this evening as I write this, even though I haven't played in more than 25 years. Just give me an hour to warm up, and please don't make me play for very long because I no longer have calluses on my fingertips. The thing is, I would have to watch my left hand on the neck and that, children, is one (one) (just one of many) of the characteristics that distinguishes me, a solid B+ player (you might give me an A-) from the truly great guitarists.

If you paid attention earlier you will have seen that Albert Collins never looks at the neck. Neither do Jerry Garcia, or Jimi Hendrix, or Carlos Santana. They are total masters of the instrument. They no more need to look at the neck than Jerry Lee Lewis needs to look at a piano keyboard.

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