3

091: Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Here comes the story of the most universally respected unknown jazz pianist from the 1950s. If you think there’s a heady mix of oxymoron and rarified obscurantism there, you might just be right. But there’s also some pretty fine music hiding in Herbie Nichols’ miniscule oeuvre.

Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) grew up in Harlem, studied a bit of piano at CCNY, served in the army (where, unable to play music, he turned his attention to reading and writing poetry). After the war he bounced around musically, playing in everything from Dixieland to Rhythm and Blues settings in order to pay the bills. He liked to hang out in public libraries and died at 44 from leukemia, a bachelor.

His only public exposure worth mentioning was when Billie Holiday added lyrics to his song ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, making it a signature song of hers and title of her autobiography. But I’m guessing that didn’t pay a lot of Herbie’s bills. By the time Diana Ross got to it, he was long gone. Here’s Lady Day’s version, and here’s Herbie Nichols’ original.

After years of pestering Alfred Lion at Blue Note, they finally agreed to let him record a couple of sessions in 1955 and 1956. They were trio sessions (it’s widely assumed that Nichols envisioned a richer setting for his very complex music), but he did have the gift of excellent bassists (Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick) and legendary drummers (Art Blakey and Max Roach) accompanying him on these sessions. He recorded once more in 1957 with a smaller label, backed by George Duvivier (b) and Mingus’s Danny Richmond (d). This session has the best title of anything ever: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”.

His music is ambiguous, filled with warm dissonances and subtle rhythmic twists and harmonic turns. There’s a pervasive sharp intellect tempered with great warmth and a lot of resigned humor.

He saw himself not as a jazz player but as a composer. “My earliest ambition was to become a Prokofiev, but later decided to become an Ellington.” Jazz is widely perceived to be a fundamentally improvised medium, but there’s a rich tradition of composed jazz, which I frequently find riveting and to which Nichols belongs. The guy even scores the drum parts!

He’s as much influenced by primitive African rhythms as he is by Bartók’s harmonic aesthetic. “I keep remembering that the overtones of fifths created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary drum was surely the first music, the precursor of the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of fifths is so prevalent in elemental jazz.” Hmmm.

This guy knows what he’s doing. “Rhythms and patterns seem to be endless and I find them in boxing, architecture, literature, vaudeville, the dancing art of [Pearl] Primus, [legendary tap dancer Teddy] Hale and [Katherine] Dunham [pioneers of Black dance during the New Deal]. All the world’s a stage for the jazz pundit.”

Herbie Nichols’ music is often compared with that of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). They’re roughly contemporaries, both with strong roots in the bebop movement, sharply angular, brilliant, humorous, inimitable. But whereas Monk was quirky, self-absorbed in his personal life and in his music, Nichols comes across as a really nice, normal guy who never got the break he deserved, the prototypical neglected genius. His music, for all its complexity and intricacy, is really quite fun. Monk finally achieved his recognition as a bona fide genius after languishing in obscurity for decades.

Herbie continues to languish, despite a rabid cult following struggling to keep his musical legacy alive.

One musician on whom Herbie clearly has had a great influence is another favorite of mine, Andrew Hill (1937-2007), to whom I promise to devote his very own SoTW. Check out ‘Pumpkin’ from “Black Fire”. Strong melody line, enticing but elusive. The big difference is Herbie’s good nature and warmth, as opposed to Hill’s very dark, lunar landscape.

“Laughter is like a religion to me. Sometimes I may seem low…so low nothing will lift me up again…but really, I’m laughing like hell inside. This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Those musicians who get up on the stand and look they’re undertakers bother me. If I want to cry, I’ll cry in a corner, and cry to myself. Music is joy, and living—not death.”

In the early 1980s, Dutch avant garde pianist/arranger Misha Mengelberg got together a bunch of like-minded musicians (including Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy) to cast some Nichols compositions in a medium-sized group. Here’s their stellar take on ‘House Party Starting‘, from their album “Change of Season”. And here’s Duck Baker, a real fine acoustic fingerpicker, doing his version of ‘House Party Starting‘ from his 1996 album of solo guitar Herbie Nichols covers, “Spinning Song“.

Here’s Steve Lacy (soprano sax) and Mal Waldron’s (piano) 1994 version of the song from the album “Hot House”. I’ve written about this duo before. They’re incredible – intense, lyrical, brilliant, passionate, and I just love them both to death for making such beautiful music. This cut, Lacy’s mournful soprano sax the perfect voice for Nichols’ grin-through-it-all irrepressibility, just bowls me over. The way his straight horn elicits the melody, the sweetness from the original. Oh, my my.

In 1994, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison formed a floating group of highly respected avant garde jazz musicians called “The Herbie Nichols Project” to promulgate his ‘lesser-known compositions’ (yes, they really said that) and to couch them in a setting with horns, which the composer never had the opportunity to do in his lifetime. They’ve recorded three albums, titled after the Nichols’ songs “Strange City”, “Dr. Cyclops’ Dream”, and “Love Is Proximity” (they deserve a prize for album titles).

But we’re not going to deny Herbie a chance to stand in the spotlight. So here you go folks, Mr Nichols himself playing his composition ‘House Party Starting’, backed by McKibbon and Max Roach. It’s a wonder of ebullience, wit, panache and taste. Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your attention please for the most famous unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s, the wonderful forgotten but unforgettable Mr Herbie Nichols. Heck, you could even invite some of your friends over to listen to him. You could start a house party.

Here are some more YouTube clips of Herbie for your further listening edification: ‘Sunday Stroll, ‘Infatuation Eyes’, ‘The Third World’, ‘Applejackin‘, ‘Love, Gloom, Cash, Love‘.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

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5

090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’

Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Back in the days when I played a lot of guitar (well, to be more precise, I played a great quantity of very little guitar), this strange thing would happen. I’d hear a song, it would appeal to me, I’d write down the lyrics by running the cassette 3 seconds at a time, figure out the chords as well as I could (I was pretty good on the basics, till you get into the minor 7/Augmented 17+s), transpose it into a singable key, figure out some picking or strumming from the very limited repertoire of my right hand, and have a go at it. If it felt good, I’d pursue it, practice it, 20 or 30 or 40 times, and try it in front of an audience (usually starting with my wife while she was making dinner, striving desperately for a “That’s nice, Jeff.”). At that point, it still belonged at least some degree to the original from which I’d pinched it. But after a while–let’s say after playing it 100 times–it became mine. Even if it was a Beatles song which was hardwired in my brain, note for note of every instrument, my treatment gained its own autonomy, and became a living, breathing entity in my brain. It became the default version in my mind’s ear.

In 1964 a frat band called the Rhondells from Lafayette College in Easton, PA (not to be confused with the Rhondels from Virginia Beach, VA) was playing a seedy, pre-gambling resort in Atlantic City. They were heard by Nat Weiss, a would-be entrepreneur who actually did book The Beatles’ Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium concerts in 1964 and 1965. Weiss got the band some gigs in Greenwich Village, changed their name (apocryphally upon advice from his buddy Brian Epstein and Brian’s client John Lennon) to The Cyrkle.

After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded their first LP, a derivative collection of folk standards with a couple of Simon originals thrown in, Paul split for London. Unbeknownst to him, a Columbia Records producer had overdubbed drums and an electric guitar, resulting in the career-making hit “The Sounds of Silence”. Paul had no idea this was going on, and was having a great time with a girl named Kathy and writing a couple of songs with a Bruce Woodley of the Australian band The Seekers (‘Georgy Girl‘). These songs were never recorded officially by Simon and Garfunkel, which makes no sense at all, because they were stars without a catalogue of songs to perform. Don’t blame me, I just bear witness to the events.

By the way, this was the time I saw S&G perform in Meadville, Pennsylvania, just the two of them, acoustic, playing their hits ‘SoS’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I am a Rock’. I walked into the dressing room to interview them, my frizzy hair all a-frizz, when very short Paul looked at his partner and said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.” They were warm and open interviewees, but mega-stardom was still a year or so away.

S&G went on tour, with Cyrkle member Tom Dawes playing bass in their band while his co-founder bandmate Don Dannemann was doing reserve duty in the Coast Guard (I’m guessing you might not have known that fact). Brian Epstein was managing The Cyrkle by then, which gave them no small degree of aura. Paul offered his two songs to Tom, who recorded them under the supervision of master producer John Simon. ‘Red Rubber Ball‘ reached #2 on the charts; and the very lovely ‘I Wish You Could Be Here‘, teetering between maudlin and moving, made it onto their rather unmemorable album (yes, I owned it, and once upon a time knew it by heart). They toured as the opening act for The Beatles in the US in 1966 (now that I think of it— that’s when I saw The Beatles. I must have seen them! I have no recollection of The Cyrkle. I’m really, really sorry, guys. But I guess you probably got enough out of that tour for my not remembering you to not make a serious dent in your memories or bank account.) They had one more hit, the lovely ‘Turn-Down Day‘, which I remember air-guitar singing in a Pepsi Cola factory with my friend Aaron. See, I do remember some things.

And I certainly do remember the song ‘Red Rubber Ball‘, because I performed it about a trillion times. It became a sort of signature song for me in the teenie-weenie cyrkle of venues I used to play back then.

So here you go, all you bulging and balding baby boomers: ‘Red Rubber Ball’ as performed by The Seekers (I recommend skipping this one), by Simon and Garfunkel in a live recording released on the “Old Friends” compilation in 1997 (don’t miss this one), by Jeff Meshel (use your discretion), and by good old Cyrkle, the version everyone remembers and knows and loved, way back in good old 1966.

If you enjoyed this SoTW post, you may also like:

078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

Jeff Meshel’s Music (only if you’re really compulsive)

Lyrics

I should have known you’d bid me farewell

There’s a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well

Now, I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea

If I never hear your name again, it’s all the same to me

And I think it’s gonna be alright

Yeah, the worst is over now

The mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a red rubber ball

 

You never care for secrets I confide

For you, I’m just an ornament, somethin’ for your pride

Always runnin’, never carin’, that’s the life you live

Stolen minutes of your time were all you had to give

 

It’s a story from the past with nothin’ to recall

I’ve got my life to live and I don’t need you at all

The roller-coaster ride we took is nearly at an end

I bought my ticket with my tears, that’s all I’m gonna spend

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2

259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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6

176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

Posted by jeff on Mar 17, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Chuck Berry – ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

Bob Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

 

© Mark Seliger

I don’t know bubkes about hip-hop, and I can’t say I feel any pervasive sense of inadequacy or overwhelming need to learn. The sum total of my ignorance is from good-old Wikipedia: “Hip Hop” usually refers to Hip-Hop music, aka MCing, aka rapping. But Hip-Hop culcha is also marked by DJing/scratching, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. There’s some conceptual dissonance in the parallelism of that list, but I guess that’s the point.

I’ve seen enough of it at the gym to know that ‘rapping’ is chants rhymed verse to a strong 4/4 beat, and that the attitude is distinctly anti-establishment. There’s Gangsta Rap, there’s West Coast rap, but there’s apparently no Republican rap – unless I missed something by Pat Boone.

The origins of rap have been attributed to everything from Pigmeat Markam’s ‘Here Come the Judge’ (1968, Chess Records) to the opening scene of “Music Man” (1962) to Glenn Miller’s ‘The Lady’s in Love with You’ (1939), not to mention Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Beat Poets.

Who yo’ daddy?

Even Rolling Stone Magazine has asked “Is Bob Dylan Hip-Hop’s Godfather?” Sure, there’s the obvious heavy, in-your-face, chunky, chutzpadik rhyming, performed by a sullen, gum-chewing, too-inured-to-touch punk. Oh, the world’s such a mess but I’m so cool.

Of course, the quintessential expression of that particular Dylan persona is ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the opening track on “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965). This was a few months before the infamous Newport Folk Festival Fiasco. The album was the public’s first exposure to Electric Bob, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the first-punch KO.

It’s eight minutes of frenetic, seditious lyrics packed into 2:22, immortalized by the famous visual gag in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Don’t Look Back”, in which Poker-Faced Bob peels off key words in a series of cardboard signs in an alley with Allen Ginsberg (in a tallis?) chatting in the background.

Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement/Thinking about the government/The man in the trench coat/Badge out, laid off/Says he’s got a bad cough/Wants to get it paid off.
Look out kid/It’s somethin’ you did/God knows when/But you’re doin’ it again/You better duck down the alley way/Lookin’ for a new friend/The man in the coon-skin cap/By the big pen/Wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot/Face full of black soot/Talkin’ that the heat put/Plants in the bed but/The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid/Don’t matter what you did/Walk on your tiptoes/Don’t try “No-Doz”/Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose/Keep a clean nose/Watch the plain clothes/You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well/Hang around a ink well/Ring bell, hard to tell/If anything is goin’ to sell/Try hard, get barred/Get back, write braille/Get jailed, jump bail/Join the army, if you fail.
Look out kid/You’re gonna get hit/But users, cheaters/Six-time losers/Hang around the theaters/Girl by the whirlpool/Lookin’ for a new fool/Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah get born, keep warm/Short pants, romance, learn to dance/Get dressed, get blessed/Try to be a success/Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don’t steal, don’t lift/Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift.
Look out kid/They keep it all hid/Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle/Don’t wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don’t wanna be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don’t work/’Cause the vandals took the handles.

The song’s impact was ubiquitous. John Lennon was so overwhelmed when he first heard it, he was quoted as saying he didn’t know how he would ever compete. The 1960s radical communist group the Weathermen took their name from the song’s famous line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (The Weathermen went on to bomb several political targets in the late sixties.) A 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs found that that was the song line most often cited by judges and lawyers. For many of us, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift’ expressed the essence of the baby boomers’ abrupt collision with economic reality. (My first job after graduating with a BA in English Lit in 1969 was actually the night shift in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory.)

But the line my friends and I loved most was ‘The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.’ Fifty years on, it still loiters around my consciousness.

So if ‘SHB’ is the daddy of rap, who’s its forefather? Dylan: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the Forties.”

If you had to pick one person to credit as the father of rock and roll, it would probably be Charles Edward Anderson Berry (b. 1926).  Brian Wilson says Chuck wrote “all of the great songs and came up with all the rock & roll beats.” And Brian should know. John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” We’re not going to try to discuss the totality of Chuck’s songwriting, guitarism, lyric sophistication, showmanship, or musical impact here. His oeuvre and artistry won’t share the stage with anyone. Today we just want to credit him as

The Grandaddy of Rap

When Chuck received the PEN award from the JFK Library, Dylan wrote him: “To Chuck, the Shakespeare of rock and roll, congratulations on your PEN award, that’s what too much monkey business will get ya… Say hello to Mr. Leonard [Cohen, another recipient], Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith (Richards) if he shows up. In all seriousness, Chuck, congratulations on this prestigious honor. You have indeed written the book with a capital B, and congratulations to Leonard, who’s still writing it – Bob Dylan”

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was released as the B Side of ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (a 1956 euphemism for ‘brown-skinned’). The insistent beat, rapid rhymes, monotonous reliance on a single chord, the disaffected litany of kvetching – people who know a lot more than I do about rap have credited it as a seminal progenitor. (Listening to the guitar solo, I can’t help but remember a take on it that I saw in a Mothers of Invention concert in 1966 – Frank Zappa playing the guitar break on ‘Louie, Louie’, a single note that must have gone on for three minutes.)

Here’s Chuck performing it with acolyte Keith Richards in 1987. He may be past his prime, but check out his dance at 1:20 in the clip. Here’s Hippie Chuck performing it in 1969. And just to remember what he looked like in his hey-day (1959), here he is performing ‘Little Queenie’.

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ isn’t even one of Chuck’s dozen greatest songs, but it is one of his most influential. It’s been covered by no less than Elvis (a knock-out treatment, well worth listening to), The Beatles (an unreleased BBC recording), and other British Invaders such as The Hollies (that’s Graham Nash with the white guitar), The Kinks, and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds (1964).

So, hey, all you hotshot gangstas out there – who da meanest mothafucker you on da block? Y’all listen up to yo’ grandaddy:

Running to and fro/Hard working at the mill/Never fails, in the mail/There comes a rotten bill–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business/For me to be involved with.

Salesman talking to me,/Tryin’ to run me up a creek,/Says you can buy it, go on try it,/You can pay me next week–Ahh–/Too much monkey business…

Pay phone, something’s wrong,/Dime gone, will mail,/Oughta sue the operator/For telling me a tale./Too much monkey business, …

Blonde hair, good-lookin’,/Trying to get me hooked,/Wants me to marry, get a home,/Settle down, write a book./Too much monkey business, …

Been to Yokohama, been/fighting in the war,/Army bunk, army chow,/Army clothes, army car./Too much monkey business, …

Same thing every day,/Getting up, goin’ to school./No need for me complaining,/My objection’s overruled–Ahh–/too much monkey business, …

Working in the filling station,/Too many tasks,/Wipe the windows, check the oil,/Check the tires, dollar gas–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/I don’t want your vib-o-rations, get away/and leave me alone.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’
087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
162: The Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’

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