Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Still Dancing and Still Getting the Girls at 83 1/2!

Chuck Berry is 83 years old, going on 84, still duckwalking and and now playing with musicians he knows-- in this case long time bassist Jimmy Marsala and long time piano collaborator Daryl Davis.  The presence of musicians who know him and love him clearly puts him at ease, and you get performances like this one, which we're guessing is from June 26 at B. B. King's in New York City.

You get something similar, and more homestyle, at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, where Marsala and a group of St. Louis blues musicians back up Berry at monthly shows that have become legendary.  When I read about Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf I realize that 95% of blues and jass was played in clubs either nice (B.B.'s) or homey (Blueberry).  It's great to see him return to those roots voluntarily, for the sheer pleasure of it.  (Anyone thinking he's doing it strictly for the money should know that Chuck Berry is probably one of the richest rock and rollers in the world, with many millions in cash and property, but few expenditures for enrourage and stupidity.)  The New York shows are not cheap to attend-- but in St. Louis you can see him for $30 and have a real good time and a little piece of history.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Too Young To Get In (The Usual Way)

I’ve been reading “Moanin’ at Midnight,” the biography of Howlin’ Wolf, and I loved a part where the teenage Hubert Sumlin, Wolf’s future guitarist, climbs up to watch Wolf through a window and accidentally falls onto the stage.

“I went around to the back of the club, where they had all these Coca-Cola cases piled up. I climbed up to the top of that stack to where I could see everything that was going on, ‘cause there was a window, right behind the drums. Well, these Coke cases started to come unbalanced and I fell through the window into the club, in the middle of a song. Over on the old Wolf’s head I landed—right on the dude’s head. He said ‘Let him stay. Bring him a chair.’ The lady brought me a chair. I said between Willie Johnson, Pat Hare, and Junior Parker…”

Music fans know this story personally. When I was 17 the Great Bo Diddley showed up at a club near my college and I went optimistically to the door to get my $5 ticket. No way said that man with the Harley vest and scraggly beard. I must have looked crushed, because the Hell’s Angel became an angel of mercy. I still remember his eyes. “Just stay here,” he said. Then, once the show started, he put me directly in front of the open door, which stood about 20 feet to the left of Bo Diddley’s microphone. It didn’t cost me a thing, and I had one of the best spots in the house. (Didn’t fall onto the stage though, and Bo never called, but this scene from "Let The Goodtimes Roll" is right from the same time.)

My hero Chuck Berry did the same thing when he was a teenager visiting Chicago, and wrote about it in his Autobiography. “During a visit to Chicago at sixteen with my boyhood friend Ralph Burris, one of the nightclubs we were too young to be admitted to was on 55th and South Parkway under the name of ‘The Rum Boogie.’ This particular night, the great singer Joe Turner was featured and the place was packed. Ralkph and I went around to the side of the building and climbed up to a high venitilation window and peeked in. Molded in my memory is the sight of Big Joe Turner rared back singing the song that Bill Haley covered for the then so-called white market, ‘Rock around the Clock.’ If ever I was inspired as a teenager, I was then.”

In his own excellent autobiography, B.B. King wrote about peering through “cracks in the sidewall” at the Jones Night Spot in Indianola, Mississippi , where he paid at least as much attention to the women as the bands. “Too young to gain admittance, I’d press my head against the slats and peep inside. Women in tight dresses of red and yellow and baby blue dancing with men all decked out in big suits and ties and wide brimmed hats… Dancing close, dancing sexy, dancing an inch away from my eyeball, where I could see the curve of a hip or the point of a nipple, smell the perfume and the smoke circling the room over the bandstand where—and this was the best part—Count Basie played.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, 1975

(Photo by Del de la Haye, taken from this SITE).

Another memorable concert for me was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I’d learned about him from my sister, and I’d purchased the album “Volunteer Slavery,” which I loved. I finally saw him at Keystone Korner in San Fransisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Keystone Korner was great because it allowed underage people to enter. I was under 21. My friend and I drove in from San Francisco and spent the afternoon in the neighborhood waiting so that we could get good seats. We wound up right beneath the stage.

This was sometime in the early to mid 1970s. Kirk had suffered a stroke. For anyone who doesn’t know, Roland Kirk exercised circular breathing and could play three saxophones at a time for as long a duration as the music required. The stroke left him with little or no use of one arm and hand, but since he’d formerly played three instruments at a time, losing one arm wasn’t enough of a handicap to stop the music.

Kirk came out draped in juju and bells, rattles and God knows what, a walking sculpture with a horn. I think I recall that the horn was modified in some way so that the second hand wasn’t required to do much movement. If I lack detail, it was a long time ago and I was mesmerized by the sound and the vision. I remember that he played “Volunteer Slavery,” though, and that he filled the sound with the rattles and bells and buzzing from his amazing musical suit. And now and again a whistle from his ring.

For blues lovers, here he is with Buddy Guy.  Dang!!!!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW7BOYvX8ug&feature=related
Here he is in 1975 with McCoy Tyner and Stanley Clarke:

And here's a website;  http://www.alfanet.hu/kirk/index2.html

Friday, June 25, 2010

Best of the Biggest: Howlin' Wolf

When I first became interested in blues I lived in the sticks outside of Sacramento. The only place to buy records within miles of my house was a discount store called “Rasco Tempo, a Division of Gamble-Skogmo, Incorporated.” (You can’t make that up.) I don’t remember much about the place except for two things. Years before we moved from a more central location into the sticks, that’s where we bought a $50 pool table that eventually became rendered useless when an angry teenager (not me) flipped it onto its side and kicked a volcano shape into the particle board surface below the felt. That’s the first thing. The other thing I remember is the record section. It’s where I bought my first Chuck Berry record ( read that story here), and it’s where I bought, for 66 cents, a record from United Superior Records called “Best of the Biggest.” That might sound like a deal, but later I peeled off the price sticker and learned it had been marked up from 44 cents.

Sometimes you buy bargain records that are complete horsepucky. I remember picking up a “Jimi Hendrix” record for a dollar or so from a supermarket rack. The notes were by some French guy who wrote that “Jimi laughed ecstatically when he heard what we had created.” I’m sure he laughed, all right. (If he’d seen my face when I heard it he would have laughed harder.)

But sometimes you get what they say you’re going to get.

“Best of the Biggest” was a musical education in the blues and R & B.  It had two songs each by Ray Charles, B. B. King, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bobby Bland. And these weren’t filler. One of B. B. King’s selections was “Rock Me Baby.” John Lee Hooker was represented by “Boogie Chillen.” Bobby Bland had “Drifting from Town to Town.”

 Elmore James—well, they kind of sort of cheated by giving us “Dust My Blues” instead of “Dust My Broom.”  It must have been an effort to avoid copyright problems-- but it was the same dang song.

And anyway, 12 songs, 66 cents. That’s 3 cents a piece!

So I felt I had a bargain there even after I peeled off the label and found that I had been cheated by 22 cents. (You can figure it in today’s dollar by knowing that in 1971, assuming I could drive, I could have bought a gallon of discount gas for 25 cents. Or, maybe, one McDonald’s cheeseburger.)

Anyway, I still love that album. At the time it was an education. I knew B. B. and Ray Charles, but I didn’t know any of the rest of them—so it represented my very first exposure to Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Bland, and my favorite at the time, Howlin’ Wolf.

As I say, I didn’t know Howlin’ Wolf.  I was a kid from the suburbs. The sticks, at that point. But he was there, waiting for me, at Rasco Tempo.

I did know Wolfman Jack—the late night DJ we could hear playing old songs on long trips. You had to be further out in the sticks to hear him broadcast on 50,000 watt clear channel radio stations from far away that felt like visitations from outer space. Wolfman Jack would later become mainstream famous—a television celebrity—but at the time he was a ragged, pinched, nasal voice of mystery on late night radio.

He was Howlin’ Wolf’s voice, simplified, without the music or the soul or the power.  He took Howlin' Wolf's voice, or tried to. 

He didn't get it, of course.  But Wolfman Jack probably played a lot of Howlin' Wolf in his day.

Right now I’m reading “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf,” by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman. It’s a great book with a great cover shot of Wolf’s face, close up, dragging on a cigarette and about to grab it with his pointer and thumb.  Here's a website for the authors:  http://www.howlinwolf.com/

Flipping through the photographs inside the book I learned, with a bit of melancholy, that one of Howlin’ Wolf’s last performances was a mile or so from where I’m sitting, at Sick’s Stadium, a minor league (and for one year, major league) stadium that I only saw once or twice when first visited Seattle (and which was then razed to build a concrete box that is now a home improvement store). The show happened a couple of years before I moved to Seattle, so I couldn’t have been there-- but it seems so close.

The song I used to love on “Best of the Biggest” was called “Riding in the Moonlight,” a seriously crazy and wonderful blues romp where Howlin’ Wolf asks his baby to “ride with daddy tonight.” ("Oh baby!  I'm'o give you an auto-mobile!")  I have played it thousands of times over the decades. Wolf sounds almost like he’s growling through an old fashioned megaphone, with drums echoing from a trash can. The guitar is close to shredding the speakers. The harmonica is wailing with a kind of crazy zazoo band feel. It’s a record that introduced me to everything Taj Mahal was trying to do in his great first album. It’s a record that has me riding along with Wolf and his baby, a participant/observer, wind in my hair, shivers up my spine, neon lights flashing in the darkness, a little worried about the girl, but knowing she’s in it voluntarily with a grin on her face.

I played this song for someone a month or so ago, after he told me he liked Howlin’ Wolf. I think it worried him.

What thrills me now, reading the biography, is knowing for the first time that it was the first song he recorded as a demo; with Sam Phillips; that he recorded it again with Phillips just a few weeks later; and that the version on “Best of the Biggest” was recorded for the Bihari brothers a few months after that. He recorded it three times in a year! That’s how good it was.

My copy cost me 3 cents, when Wolf was still alive.

The Bihari brothers paid Wolf $25 for it.

And he played one of his last shows, sick as can be, about a mile from here, after treatment up the hill at the old veterans’ hospital.

The world is a mystery as deep as Wolf himself.

Here's a version of 'Dust My Broom" from a man who used to travel with Robert Johnson AND Elmore James.

Dave Alexander a/k/a Omar Sharriff a/k/a Magnificent!

I like to marvel at the miracle of youtube. Youtube gave me my first vision of T-Bone Walker playing his guitar. Youtube let me see Charlie Parker listen to his friend Coleman Hawkins play saxophone. But it has its limits. Youtube hasn’t let me see Elmore James yet. And youtube couldn’t find Dave Alexander.*  (*Found Omar Sharriff, though!  See below.)

I first heard Dave Alexander in a coffee house at San Jose State University in 1973, where I spent three semesters before escaping. I didn’t know anything about him—but the poster said blues, so I went.

Before youtube I had to rely on real life to provide miracles, and that school-supported coffee house was the closest thing to a miracle that I found at the otherwise bleak SJSU. It gave me two gifts in the course of a few months: Alexander, and Mark Naftalin, another blues pianist then fresh from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The manager of the club must have been a smart guy.  At my request he even made a good faith effort to book an appearance by Jerry Riopelle.

Alexander, when I saw him, was a lean, serious man who played a mean piano, mixing boogie woogie rhythms, a bit of New Orleans and serious jazz chords with a rattling right hand that could replace the atomic clock. There were no supporting musicians. He didn’t need any.

What I didn’t know is that my sister Maggie and her husband Ty were going to see Alexander weekends down the road in San Francisco at a little place in the Fillmore District called Minnie’s Can Do Club. (My sister Ann got to see him there, too, but I would never have gotten past the ID check.) Read about Minnie’s HERE.

I’m sure that the scene at Minnie’s Can Do Club was a whole lot different than the dark little coffee shop where a few blues lovers got treated to a nearly private performance of solo piano. But I never forgot Dave Alexander. I got one of his two albums, “Dirt On The Ground,” a short time after the concert, and played it pretty much into the ground.

I saw Alexander again a few years later at an early incarnation of the Sacramento Blues Festival, where he was forced to play a blond wood upright that looked like it was taken from one of the classrooms at my old primary school! He grumbled, but the piano growled.  It's probably why modern piano players like to use digital pianos instead of relying on the promoter to provide something that's playable.

My understanding is that Alexander is now living in Sacramento, my birthplace, where he goes by a variety of names including Omar Sharriff and Omar the Magnificent. I hope he still plays his magnificent piano. And it looks like he does.  Minimal google research got me to Have Mercy Records where I see Alexander has recorded three new records!  The site is below, and if you have better technical skills than me, you can hear some of the tracks.

You can’t find him on youtube—yet—but if you’re smarter than me you can here bits of his older music HERE.  And you can find out about his newer recordings at Have Mercy's website:  http://www.havemercy.com/HaveMercy/omar.htm  (Now that I have done so, I'll have to track one down!)


Maybe I'll find Elmore, after all!  Here's a taste, 35 years after I saw him in San Jose.

And here's another bit (I was searching the wrong name is all!)

And this is probably more what Minnie's CAn Do Club felt like!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

B. B. King, 1968

I first saw B. B. King a year or two after this was made.  I think by then the processed hair was gone.  It was my first blues show, and one of the first concerts I went to.  Sometimes a person just gets lucky!

The wonder of youtube, is that this one was just sitting there waiting to be plucked.  There's almost more than you can fathom or choose from intelligently.  You just grab a nugget and run.