Dave Bartholomew, RIP

The past weekend was full of news about war and peace and politics and possible economic problems, but we thought the big story was the death of Dave Bartholomew at the ripe old age of 100. It was another desultory reminder that a better century of American musical culture has also passed away.
You have to be an obsessively avid student of America’s glorious vernacular music history to know who Bartholomew was, but if you are you’ll know he was one of the very important guys who made it great. Back in the ’50s and early ’60s the essential American music city of New Orleans was right up there with Memphis as the rocking and rolling-est and rhythmic and bluesy place in the country, with the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard and Lloyd Price and Lee Dorsey and Shirley & Lee and Jimmy Clayton and Professor Longhair and Ernie K-Doe and Clarence “Frogman” Henry and The Showmen making it damned hard for a hep cat music lover to decide where to do his drinking and dancing on any given night. Bartholomew never seemed to mind they were all more famous than him, but in most cases he was the songwriter and arranger and band leader and record producer and session trumpet player and musical visionary who brought it all together, and he was seemingly content that all his peers acknowledged it.
Bartholomew was born in a small town near New Orleans not long after the Crescent City gave birth to the quintessential American art form of jazz, and he started his musical career as as trumpet player in the big bands of the brilliant swing era that soon followed. In ’42 Bartholomew wound up in the Army, where he learned to write and arrange music and put it all down paper while on a very lucky assignment in an Army band, and after that he was pretty much set on his career path. The post-war years proved crazy for American culture in general and American music in particular, but Bartholomew seized the moment. Jazz and swing had given way to rhythm and blues and then the even more subversive rock ‘n’ roll, and Bartholomew knew exactly what to do about it.
Up the Mississippi River in the other essential American music city of Memphis there had always been a harder edge to the music ever since it gave birth to the blues. Such bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had piercing guitars and gravelly vocals, and with the unheralded poor white trash Sun Records boss Sam Phillips watching over such poor white trash boys as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis they added that to their country-and-western laments and rock ‘n’ roll was born. Surf and psychedelic and hard and heavy metal and punk and post-punk rock soon followed, for better and worse, but under the watchful eyes of Dave Bartholomew New Orleans went its own way.
Farther down the Mississippi River in New Orleans they tended to ignore the hard times and laissez les bon temps rouler, and hew to the ancient and venerable  tradition of jazz, and Bartholomew made sure that New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll kept that up. The white Elvis Presley was the record-setting singer of early rock ‘n’ roll, but the black Fats Domino was always close behind, with his rollicking piano licks and good times feel, and the very black Bartholomew was always closely involved in every hit. He was in on other countless New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll classics as well. As much as we love that low-down Memphis rock ‘n’ roll we have to admit the New Orleans version was jazzier and more sophisticated, and we credit Bartholomew with the occasionally more elegant turns that rock ‘n’ roll has taken since then.
In most of the many decades after that Bartholomew continued to be involved in great New Orleans and American music as a trumpeter and writer and arranger and occasional record producer, recording some great Afro-Caribbean and straight jazz tracks, and he didn’t seem to mind much if he didn’t become as famous as he deserved to be. The most avid fans of America’s great vernacular music will appreciate what he did over his century on earth, at least, and we hope that and his rich musical legacy and God’s mercy will satisfy his considerable soul.

— Bud Norman

Chuck Berry, RIP

Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90, and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed isn’t faring so well lately, but the aftershocks will still be felt for a while.
It would be going too far to say that Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, which seemed to spontaneously rise from the American soil and burst forth from the rural honky-tonks and ghetto dives and on to the Ed Sullivan Show back in the mid-50s, but otherwise it’s hard to overstate how much he had to do with it. He was the first honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roller to wind up with Patti Page and Mitch Miller and all the other big-name pop stars on Hit Parade, and he was the very quintessence of the deep-rooted yet newfangled genre. Three simple chords borrowed from the blues, a certain twang taken from country, a couple of those can’t-get-out-of-your-head hooks redolent of the popular standards, all delivered with a hot-rod drive and certain goofy swagger in the sly clever lyrics. The formula yielded a remarkable string of classic American songs, plenty of tabloid scandals, and a broader cultural revolution that is still with us for better or worse.
Chuck Berry was one of those only-in-America stories, which he always gratefully acknowledged, even when he was in jail. He was a more-or-less-happily married 30-year-old aspiring hairdresser when he became the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll star, and was not only black but quite defiantly so at a time when only such refined negro gentlemen as Nat “King” Cole and The Ink Spots got to share space with Patti Page and Mitch Miller on the Hit Parade, but Berry was simply too cool to be denied his place in the spotlight. The extra years in his conveniently located hometown of St. Louis had allowed him to soak up all the blues licks of such southern greats as Muddy Waters, the rollicking style of country that was being played out west by the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well the gritty gospel of Chicago’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the emerging rhythm and blues sound of Louis Jordan and the other jump bands that were on the air from the coast to coast, and he still had some sex appeal to the mix.
Berry started playing around with his odd melange of music, and on a trip to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records, a label run by a couple of Polish Jews who had an uncanny knack for finding and recording the blues. They’d scored plenty of hits on the southern and urban R’n’B charts with such all-timers as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and had one of the best and scariest of the early rock ‘n’ rollers with Bo Diddley, but Berry had something that allowed the label to start selling to white and black and hispanic and any other kind of restless teenager you might find anywhere in the country. His first hit was “Maybellene,” derived from the old country standard “Ida Red,” which opened with a raucous guitar solo and revved through an all-too-familiar tale of a faithless love. The string of hits that followed included “School Days,” a witty lament about being stuck in class, “Thirty Days,” another chase after a wandering woman, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” which featured a far raunchier take on romance that somehow made it past the era’s censors, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” both of which celebrated a brand new music that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
There were also such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” not to mention such gems as “You Never Can Tell” and “Come On” and “Little Queenie” that should have been bigger hits, and pretty much every single track on every LP in our prized box set of Berry’s complete Chess recordings is grade-A badass rock ‘n’ roll music. The old bluesman Willie Dixon put together a crack band that included the great Johnnie Johnson on piano, the Chess brothers wisely recorded them in the same rough spare style of their blues acts, and the material came through as something altogether new. Aside from the quirky hillbilly influence that Berry had learned to survive his white honky-tonk gigs, there was also an ingeniously corny quality to the lyrics, which had people keeping their ginger ale in “coolerators” and motorists “motorvatin'” and somehow rhymed “tearing up the road” with “V-8 Foad.” The short stories with the steady beat told all the old stories about cheating women and somehow recalled schoolboy angsts and in sum celebrated a tail-finned and jet-engined and racially mixed and rapidly evolving America of limitless opportunity.
Berry grabbed the opportunity to become a household name and an eventual face on the Mount Rushmore of American music, but the rest of his complicated story was part of the same only-in-America narrative. Despite Berry’s widespread appeal and appearances in Hollywood movies it was the equally talented and slightly better-lookiing and far whiter Elvis Presley who popularized the miscegenation of country and western and rhythm and blues known as rock ‘n’ roll, and he once again found himself afoul of the law. He’d served some time for armed robbery before his show biz breakthrough, and at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll craze he was sentenced to further time for a violation of the Mann Act, which at the time everyone understood to mean something sleazy and interstate involving one of those teenage girls that Berry was always singing about. That was in 1959, the same year Buddy Holly died and Presley got drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was kicked off the radio for a sex scandal of his own involving a teenaged girl who also happened to be a second cousin.
Rock ‘n’ roll survived the ensuing few years of clean cut white boys and girl groups with white dresses and bouffant hair, then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll craziness came along, and somehow Chuck Berry remained just as cool as ever. Because of a pretentious aversion to the notion of “cover songs,” meaning the age old practice of great singers and great musicians playing from the repertoire of great songs, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really have standards such as the blues and jazz and pop and country singers can draw from, but there’s never been a time when it wasn’t acceptable to play a Chuck Berry song. Back in the earliest days Jerry Lee was a cutting a salacious “Little Queenie” and Buddy Holly was making rock ‘n’ roll safe for bespectacled nerds with a very cool “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even Elvis was offering up a still cool “Too Much Monkey Business.” All the hippie bands covered Berry tunes, and we especially like The Chocolate Watch Band’s “Come On,” and “Johnny B. Goode” was an almost obligatory part of any rock performance no matter how pretentious the performer. When the punks came along The Sex Pistols were reviving “Johnny B. Goode,” the oldie but goody about a country boy who could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell, and all of those bands seemed to striving to reclaim that ineffable primitivism of the Berry records.
Berry did pretty well for himself on the oldies circuit, playing with pickup bands in any town that would book him, and in the early ’70s he was back on the charts with a ridiculous little smutty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling,” which put him on an arena tour that included a gig at Wichita’s Henry Levitt Arena where he absolutely wowed our junior high-aged selves. He played a gig at the White House a few years later, went to prison again for tax evasion a couple of weeks after that, was frequently honored with such gigs as an adulatory documentary of a thank-you concert with The Rolling Stones, and kept rock and rolling and paying the rent with it until his ’80s. We heard some good reviews from those shows, and the advance buzz on his last album is hopeful that he had yet another great record in him, and we note it has been dedicated to the woman he was still somehow more or less happily married to.
There were some other unseemly tabloid scandals, and legends about backstage spats with his equally tempestuous rock ‘n’ rollers from the stone age, but what else would you expect from someone so exquisitely attuned to the very heart and soul of America? Should the country ever grow tired of “The Star-Spangled Banner” we’d recommend “Back in the U.S.A.” as a new national anthem, with its revved-up guitar licks and tinkling piano and heartfelt paean to a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” Tail-fins are out of style and jet engines have lost their novelty but America is still a racially diverse and rapidly evolving land of unlimited opportunity, and for better and worse both Chuck Berry and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed have something to do with that.

— Bud Norman

Scotty Moore, RIP and Good Rockin’ Tonight

During our daily efforts to find something in the news to write about other Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the rest of all that dreary business we happened upon an obituary for Scotty Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, which only accentuated the decline of western civilization to our rockabilly-loving sensibilities.
Only the true rock ‘n’ roll aficionados will recognize the name, but they’ll all gladly explain to you that Moore was somehow one of those rare guitarists who made on a real mark on American culture. He grew up picking cotton and playing guitar with his musical family in rural Tennessee, then quit school after the ninth grade and lied about his age to join the Navy at age 16, then wound up in Memphis working in a tire factory and a dry cleaning shop during the day and at night trying to make a mark on the city’s world-class music scene. He was an acolyte of country virtuoso Chet Atkins, as is obvious on any listening to his playing, but he mostly liked to play jazz in a Les Paul style, and was more obviously familiar with the hard-edged blues sound of his adopted city, so of course he wound up in a very nasal and twangy and hillbilly band called Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers, which cut a couple of not-bad sides for the fledging Sun Records Company over on Union Avenue. Which wound up changing the course of American musical history in the late 20th century.
The guy who started and pretty much single-handedly ran Sun Records was a cotton-picking white boy from rural Tennessee, too, but he’d heard enough black folks singing the blues in those cotton patches that it was his greatest musical passion, and although he was also a some-time country fan and would occasionally release singles by the likes of Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers his business was mostly in such all-time great blues acts as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton and Junior Parker and Pat Hare and the rest of Memphis’ top-notch blues talent. Those guys eventually headed north in the great black migration, though, and wound up signing with the Chess Records label in Chicago that had previously paid for the rights to the master recordings done in the Sun studios, so Sun Records boss Sam C. Phillips started looking around for some white guy or another who might be able to approximate that black sound he loved so much.
Sun Records had already released a record by “Harmonica Frank,” a ruggedly fine piece of folk art primitivism by some wrinkled white rural Tennessee sharecropper that even the most Afro-Centric ears would assume to be some wrinkled old black guy, and white honky-tonkers such as Roy Hall and Smokey Woods had already been playing a black-hillbilly miscegenation style of music for so long they were already old and ugly, but Phillips was looking for something more marketable to mid-’50s America. Sun Studios also made much-needed money by pressing vanity records for a reasonable fee for anyone who dropped in, and one of those customers wanted to make a hokey record for his mother on her birthday was such a good-looking guy that the the Sun Records secretary made a note of him, and she insisted that he listen to the hunk’s recording of “My Happiness,” and thus Elvis Presley wound up making his debut recordings over on Union Avenue. With his stripped-down primitivist philosophy of music, Phillips shrewdly decided to have Presley accompanied only by the reliably on-the-beat bassist Bill Black, and that guitar-pickin’ guy from the Starlight Wranglers who provided the best of their not-bad recordings.

By all accounts the recording session started horribly, with some desultory run-throughs of such corny fare of “My Happiness,” but after so many hours and so many cigarettes and so many sips of moonshine whisky and indulgences of whatever other vices you might have encountered at Sun Studios over on Union Avenue after midnight they started messing around in their hillbilly way with a 10-year-old and not well-known but definitively-black blues song by otherwise long-forgotten Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup called “That’s Alright, Mama,” and it sounded pretty damned good. They also came up with a blackened by rhythm-and-blues version of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys’ definitively hillbilly “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which also sounded pretty damned good and wound up on the B-side of a single that was a regional hit in both the black and white record stores of the segregated south, and set in motion the Presley phenomenon. That was followed by such hot wax as “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You,” and with every white and black girl in the south hot for Elvis he was soon sold for a relative song to to the major label RCA records and its multi-media reach, and suddenly the bizarre miscegenation musical style of poor white trash and ghetto blacks called “rock ‘n’ roll” was an undeniable influence on American culture.
We hate to overstate anything, and abhor our cultural tendency to do so on almost every occasion, so we’ll admit that that rock ‘n’ roll might well have happened without Elvis, and that Elvis might have well happened without Scotty Moore, but we’ll still insist that seems the way it’s turned out.
The interracial music of Elvis and Scotty and Bill, as they were billed on that initial release, exemplified a cross-cultural tradition that had already been going in America from the beginning and through the note-reading masterpieces of African-American culture and the the suddenly polyrhythmic and intuitive styles of European-American had already been going on for decades, from the jazz age through western swing and those old and ugly rhythm and blues honky-tonkers, and the western civilization classical aspirations of Duke Ellington and the rest of the best of the black talent, so there are no essential people in a true republic.
Elvis Presley was undeniably good-looking and could surely shake those hips as well as any black man, and he could sure as hell sing, too, so there’s always a chance he would have made his mark without Scotty Moore playing the lead guitar, but we doubt it. Those first Sun Records releases were credited to “Elvis, Scotty, and Bill,” and although we liked the “Elvis the Original Hillbilly Cat” signature on the later releases we always thought the original credits summed the band up best. The lead electric guitar-playing on those original Sun sessions still strikes us as extraordinary, and the bass-playing by the the formidable Bill Back is still exactly on beat, and our favorite part of the masterpiece “Tryin’ to Get to You” is still that soulful solo by the not at all good-looking cotton-picken’ white boy playing that mean guitar. Scotty and Bill stayed will Elvis through the early RCA hits, and wound up in some of those embarrassing movies Elvis did, but they both eventually dropped out of he shadows of his good-looking spotlight.
Bill Black’s always on-beat “Bill Black Combo” had some minor rock ‘n’ roll hits, and Scotty Moore had some minor success doing studio work, but he mostly lived off his family’s various business, and both were memorably in on that epic Elvis “comeback special” on network television, but they were mostly confined to anonymity until Moore’s death. The Washington Post and The New York Times and all the polite media have taken notice of Moore’s passing, even if it’s left to such rockabilly-loving and impolite media as ourselves to truly fret about it, or the cultural decline that his little-noticed passing heralds. These days the ideas of fusing hillbilly and black music is derided as a politically incorrect “cultural appropriation,” and even  the most anti-politically correct types probably have no idea who Scotty Moore was, and we’re left with only the heartening licks of a cotton-pickin’Tennesse farm boy’s prototypical rock ‘n’ roll.

— Bud Norman