Chuck Berry Performs ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

Listen to this track, a huge landmark song in the rock ‘n’ roll treasury by one of the undisputed Founding Fathers, Chuck Berry.  It’s his 1956 single, “Too Much Monkey Business”, recorded on Chess Records and later to be released on the essential Great Twenty-Eight compilation, that every, EVERY music fan should own. I suppose that’s what essential means. But, it can’t be stressed enough, good people.

How influential, vitally important, and artistically exalted is Chuck Berry in the realm of popular song?  This post would be far, far too long trying to describe the breadth of this question. Suffice it to say, the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, among many, many others arguably WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN, were it not for this lunatic genius from St. Louis, an auto worker, house painter, and only part-time musician until his 1955 hit “Maybelline” took off and convinced him he could make more money by being a recording artist than by painting houses.

I could focus on his role as a self-contained singer-songwriter-guitarist. In an age of professional songwriters doling out tunes to singers, who in turn needed professional musicians to play the songs, Berry was a triple threat who stood on his own. This helped to set the scene for his contemporaries, like Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who would do likewise.  But, it also presented this approach as a viable possibility for his musical children, including the British Invasion-era groups that took his example and began to forge their own songwriting capacities to all of our benefits.

I could focus on his guitar style alone, which has become so intertwined in how everyone expects a rock guitar player to sound like, that when players don’t at least reference Berry’s style, they aren’t considered to be playing rock ‘n’ roll at all.  Everyone, from Keith Richards, to Johnny Thunders, to the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, and the list continues, all touch on Berry’s playing.

Berry’s guitar style is basically country picking meets boogie-woogie piano as translated to six strings.  In this second element, we must also thank longtime Berry collaborator and largely unsung hero pianist Johnnie Johnson, who contributed a great deal to how Berry’s guitar playing, and his sound in general, evolved.  But, even that is a post in and of itself.

But, when you’re talking about the role of lyrics in rock ‘n’ roll, then you have to mention Berry yet again.  And this tune is a giant in Berry’s catalogue.  As a rock ‘n’ roll song, it has everything; disdain for routine, for dead-end jobs, and for the futility of trying to please everyone.  On top of that, it is all about the rhythm of language with this tune.  The instruments take a backseat as Berry sings.  The way the words sound, tumbling one after the other, is enough to make you want to dance.  Many bands have covered this song just because of how punchy it is lyrically, from the Yardbirds, to the Beatles, and even Elvis Presley.  My favourite cover version is by The Hollies.

The groove this song created, thanks to how the verses were structured sent out a massive ripple effect, giving birth to other songs by other artists down through the decades, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, to Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”, to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)”.  If one thinks of Berry as a guitar hero, let us first think of him as one of the most lyrically gifted songwriters of the form as well.

For more information about how Chuck Berry influenced rock ‘n’ roll, and popular music in general, check out this article about Chuck Berry’s musical influence on and learn more.


Slim Harpo Sings “I’m A King Bee”

Listen to this track, a shot of blues braggadocio from Louisiana son and master blues harpist born James Moore and known more widely as the great Slim Harpo.  It’s “I’m A King Bee”, his most widely known song and a Grammy Hall of Fame (awarded in 2008 for historical significance) single that inspired many a cover version.  Slim’s version was his 1957 debut, originally a B-side (of the A-side “Got Love If You Want It”), but eventually becoming his signature tune.

One of the great things about this tune is Harpo’s matter-of-fact delivery, effortless, and slightly menacing too. It’s well within the popular approach to the blues that is overtly about sexual capacity, and about rivalry too – buzzing around your hive while your man is gone, no less.  It’s no wonder that it captured the attention of rock bands into the 60s, a virtual manifesto for the horny young man making a play for a woman.

In addition to the Rolling Stones version on their 1964 debut album, Harpo’s tune inspired a number of other bands to create their own versions this 3-minute spark of musical sexual potency, including the Grateful Dead, the Doors (who also covered the similarly themed “Backdoor Man” by Howlin’ Wolf), Aerosmith, and others.

John Belushi, dressed as a bumblebee of course, performed this song on a 1976 broadcast of Saturday Night Live.  It was a prototype performance that would later lead to the Blues Brothers appearances on the show, and of course the movie, too.

Slim Harpo’s career was reasonably short lived.  He played music only part time by the 1960s, making ends meet by running a trucking company. Yet he managed to create other blues tunes that had an impact on the rock world including “Baby Scratch My Back” (a number one single, no less), and “Shake Your Hips”, which was covered by the Stones on 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Not a bad run by a part-timer!  But, by 1970, Slim Harpo was dead of a heart attack at the young age of 46.  But, his influence over an entire generation of rock bands immortalizes him.

For more music, check out Slim Harpo on MySpace.


Otis Rush Sings “I Can’t Quit You Baby”

otis_rushHere’s a clip of soulful blues belter Otis Rush with a version of his 1956 single on the Cobra label ” I Can’t Quit You Baby”, a landmark single in his career that established him as a first-tier Chicago blues artist along with kindred spirits Buddy Guy and Albert King.

With his powerful voice, and stinging left-handed  guitar work, Otis Rush began his career as a hitmaker on the Cobra label, recording with Ike Turner, and scoring several R&B hits, including this one, from 1956-59.  Today, Rush’s talent drastically outweighs his fame. Yet his early singles on the Cobra label established his voice in electric blues scenes in Chicago and beyond.

And “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a song that would become a part of the blues canon because of its unprecedented intensity. Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby” on their first album in 1968 brought the song to a mainstream rock audience. This band who borrowed so heavily from other blues musicians and their songs sticks pretty close to the Otis Rush’s here, perhaps because they had yet to make their name, or maybe that they saw no way to improve it.

After all, listen to Rush’s performance on the clip.  Get a load of that opening note that immediately rivets the audience to their seats, pulling their eyes and ears stageward.  This is as powerful as any rock performance, and Rush seems to be able to pull this out of himself with very little effort, making his presentation something to behold.

Otis Rush embodies something here which was true to his generation as an electric blues elder statesman.  I find much of the electric blues genre in modern times to be slavish, and very often plain erstatz. Yet, Rush is the real thing, exuding confidence, showing mastery while never showboating, and putting across a performance based around his material, as opposed to one based around a set of aesthetics that have become associated with blues performance .

Rush’s powerful and confident guitar chops influenced the playing of both Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield.  And let’s not forget fellow lefty guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would later go on to influence even more guitarists of both blues and rock persuasions alike.

Otis Rush continued to record and perform until a 2004 stroke took him off of the road.


Little Richard Belts Out ‘Long Tall Sally’

hereslittlerichardListen to this track, a primordial slice of rock ‘n’roll from one of the founding fathers of the genre; Richard Penniman, otherwise known to the world as the flamboyant Little Richard.

This song has been well-covered by fellow rock ‘n’ roll architects like Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran. British Invasion groups from the Beatles (who recorded it, and titled an EP after it in 1963) to the Kinks (who had a debut single with a version of it), and beyond also recorded versions of the song.  And what a tune it is, a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll anthem about ‘havin’ me some fun tonight’.

But, one thing that seems to have passed under the radar of many is the narrative that runs through this tune.  Behind the celebratory tone of the joyous sax/piano/rhythm section, and Richard’s ebullient vocal, lies a dark tale of deception, of hidden desires, of a love that dare not speak its name.

Uncle John has needs, and Long Tall Sally has everything he is looking for, unbeknownst to Aunt Mary.  This is a bit of a seedy tale, perhaps which is complicated and made more tragic somehow  because Sally is also ‘bald-headed Sally’.  Uncle John is in the closet, as Penniman himself was when he recorded this song in March of 1956, being as he was a threat to the status quo even without being gay.

Little Richard’s onstage style, his flamboyant manner, and his wild, androgynous appearance seemed to confirm everything conservative critics believed about rock ‘n’ roll – that it was a corrupting force, that it threatened the fabric of society.  And in a certain respect, they were quite correct. It certainly showed teenagers that there was more out there imagined in the philosophies of post-war America and Britain.  And if this song isn’t exactly an anthem to gay pride, Little Richard’s delivery of it certainly has a lot going for it in this respect.

Fear of change, fear of ‘mixing the races’, homosexuality, and other related societal issues seemed to be reaching a boiling point by the mid-to-late Fifties with rock ‘n’ roll musicians and the Beat poets presenting alternative visions of how life really is, or can be.  And they took a lot of the flak as being dangerous voices.  But, what became evident as the years progressed was that Uncle John’s married life to Aunt Mary wasn’t the whole picture, societally speaking.  And by the 1960s and 70s, this was more than evident.

This is what great art does – it challenges expectations and assumptions.  Rock music would come into its own in the 60s in this respect.  But, challenging the status quo certainly didn’t start there.  In this respect, Little Richard is something of a visionary, even if he was , in the end, a pure entertainer on the surface.


Carl Perkins Sings “Blue Suede Shoes”

bluesuedeshoesListen to this song made famous by Elvis, but written and originally recorded by rockabilly demigod and Million Dollar Quartet member Carl Perkins.  It’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, not so much a song as a culturally significant statement that echoes down the decades as if from God’s own megaphone.

Carl Perkins never achieved the heights of fame when compared to his contemporaries, perhaps only because his career was not quite as fraught with controversy as it was in the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis (marrying his teenaged cousin), Chuck Berry (transporting an underage girl across a state line for the purposes of … well, you know), and Little Richard (a black, gay man in the 1950s? ‘Nuff said).

Yet, Perkins was as rock ‘n’ roll as any of them, mixing country with rhythm and blues with the greatest of ease,  demonstrating how interrelated those genres of American music are, and crafting many an anthem to inspire rock fans everywhere.

This hit song was one of these.  And even if  fellow Sun Records artist Elvis Presley kind of stole his thunder with this one, his influence did not go unnoticed by the next generation of rock ‘n’ roll groups, including the Beatles who recorded a number of Perkins tunes even during the height of their own careers.  His “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” is the closing number on 1964’s Beatles For Sale album.  That song’s lead singer, George Harrison, was a huge Perkins fan, temporarily christening himself as “Carl Harrison” when the Beatles were in Hamburg, and modeling his own approach to the guitar on Perkins’.

After a string of hits, Perkins appeared with Johnny Cash on a number of dates, including the historic Folsom Prison shows by the end of the 1960s with another Perkins – Luther Perkins – , Cash’s full-time guitar player in the Tennessee Three.  And his songwriting continued in earnest, particularly on the country standard “Daddy Sang Bass”, which Cash also famously recorded.   Perkins even wrote with Bob Dylan around the time of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album.

Carl Perkins with titular footwear
Carl Perkins with titular footwear

One characteristic of Perkins’ career, and his personality,  is consistency. Perkins held the torch high for the early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly sound, continued as a hard-working touring musician into the 80s and 90s, and working with a new generation of rockabillly musicians including revivalists the Stray Cats, and country-rock band The Kentucky Headhunters.  He remained married to his wife Valda through out, clearly valuing the stability of family even when singing dangerous rock ‘n’ roll songs .

Upon his death in death 1998, George Harrison attended his funeral, struggling himself with a battle against cancer at the time.  George passed by the original rock ‘n’ roller’s casket, and gave it an affectionate pat and then sang Perkins’ “Your True Love”, a final thank-you from one rock legend to another.


Chan Romero Sings ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’

chan-romero-hippy-hippy-shakeListen to this track, from Latino rock ‘n’ roll singer Chan Romero.  It’s the classic ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’, a storming R&B hit for Romero in 1959, and was to become a popular cover for bands ranging from The Beatles (who performed it during their Cavern Club days, with Paul singing lead), the Swinging Blue Jeans, and 80s southern rock outfit The Georgia Satellites.

Chan Romero was something of a parallel performer to the more well known Ritchie Valens, since the two of them were of similar talents, similar voices, came from a similar cultural background, and even recorded with the same band.

Yet incredibly, the two never met. Valens died on the same plane as Buddy Holly the year “Hippy Hippy Shake” was recorded.  Romero was as enamoured with rock ‘n’ roll as Valens of course, idolizing Elvis, and hitchhiking to California to seek his fortune as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist.

He would record this song on the Del-Fi label.  This is a startlingly raw rock n roll tune, with a full-on vocal that sounds like a challenge to any singer’s vocal chords.  It’s a pretty simple R&B song, and yet it seems imbued with something timeless, and primal too.

Romero’s delivery seems to burst with youthful vigour, and you can almost hear him smiling as he’s singing.  It’s irresistible.   No wonder the song has lasted so long as a rock band favourite by scrappy pick-up bands all over the world.

Chan Romero still lives in Palm springs.


Dale Hawkins Sings “Suzie Q”

Listen to this song by rockabilly foot soldier and R&B crossover phenomenon Dale Hawkins.  It’s “Suzie Q”, his hit from 1958 as taken from the album Oh Suzie Q, soon to be covered by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 12×5 album, and even more famously by Credence Clearwater Revival.

[clearspring_widget title=”Grooveshark Widget: Single Song” wid=”48f3f305ad1283e4″ pid=”497fe3e7acffb01e” width=”400″ height=”50″ domain=””]

Hawkins would not be the only one in his family to give birth to new strains of rock music. His cousin Ronnie Hawkins from Arkansas would move his brand of fiery R&B north to Toronto and form the Hawks, who would leave him to back an electrified Bob Dylan, and then subsequently become the Band.

Dale Hawkins hails from Louisiana, and brings something of the swamp to this rockabilly blues number, the song which would make him a star.  Hawkins was one of the only white artists on the Chess Records label, laying down some of the dirtiest rockabilly guitar, and primitive bluesy stomps ever commited to vinyl, while clearly under the influence of labelmate Bo Diddley.

Hawkins’ sound attracted a number of guitar luminaries to his side.  Some of these included Roy Buchannan, Elvis Presley sideman Scotty Moore, and another great  guitarist who would later play with Presley, James Burton, who plays the central riff here on this song.

If ever there was a case for the benefits of  ‘more cowbell’,  then “Suzie Q” is certainly exhibit A.  In addition to standard rockabilly instrumentation, the song is driven forward by the clatter of the cowbell.  To my ears, this makes it a bit edgy, and unpredictable somehow, and the song comes off as even more lustful in turn.

The song embodies the core nature of rock ‘n’ roll, tracing it back to its origins in the blues, and adding in a bit of country swagger at the same time.  Additionally, Hawkins added some of the percussive sounds of Louisiana folk music into his sonic stew.  And  in mixing these elements together, Hawkins became one of the architects of Swamp Rock or Swamp Boogie, a style which influenced later artists such as Tony Joe White, J.J Cale, and Little Feat.  It’s no wonder that back-to-basics CCR chose it as a cover version, later to have a hit with it.

Dale Hawkins would make modest success of his career, with ‘Suzie Q” being his greatest achievement.  He continued to champion rock music as a TV host (‘The Dale Hawkins Show”) and as a producer.

Dale Hawkins has been inducted into both the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

He still performs today.

For more music and information about Dale Hawkins, check out the Dale Hawkins MySpace page.


Little Willie John Performs ‘Need Your Love So Bad'”

Here’s a clip of R&B wunderkind Little Willie John Performing his 1960 hit “Need Your Love So Bad”. The song became an R&B revival and blues-rock standard, famously covered by the Peter Green-fronted incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, who recorded their version in 1968.

Little Willie John was discovered at the age of 14, apprenticing with bandleader Johnny Otis (father of Shuggie Otis).
Little Willie John was discovered at the age of 14, apprenticing with bandleader Johnny Otis (father of Shuggie Otis).

Little Willie John is an unappreciated titan of rhythm & blues, counting James Brown as a fan among many other of his fellow musicians of the era.  His name is derived from his 5’4″ height, yet his voice is a towering siren of heartfelt proto-soul and blues, touching on pop balladry too.  Beginning his career while still in his teens , John was always the bridesmaid never the bride when it came to fame, despite a string of hits, many of them crossover hits to the pop charts, from 1953 to 1962.  His superlative version of the song ‘Fever’ in 1956, which Peggy Lee recorded two years later and making her a star, set the stage for the kind of smouldering sexuality for which many singers would strive with less success. Although credited for being one of the pioneers of soul music, Sam Cooke gave the credit to Little Willie John, and the evidence is pretty compelling. His material has been covered by artists across the musical spectrum, and through the decades. Yet, he is unknown among many music fans, at least when compared to many of his contemporaries.

Despite his relative success as a singer, John was purportedly very insecure, largely because of his slight stature and his temper was his downfall.  In 1964, he was engaged in a fight with an ex-convict while out with his wife.  When his assailant hit him, he countered by stabbing him to death.  John was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to time in a Washington State prison, starting his sentence in May, 1966. He died in prison in 1968 of pneumonia.

For me, the thing that strikes me about his voice is how rich it is, how big it is, and from someone his age.  Maybe that seems like a cliché, that someone that short could have the voice of a guy twelve feet tall, or at least sounding like it.  It’s of no surprise to me that even if he didn’t gain the fame of singers that worked within the same musical idiom as he, he had an impact on those singers, and the songs (particularly ‘Fever’, which has also been covered by Madonna…) survive.

For more music and biographical information, check out the Little Willie John MySpace page.


Buddy Holly plays ‘Everyday’, His Hit from 1958

Listen to this song by Lubbock Texas’ favourite son, Buddy Holly. It’s  “Everyday”, a hit from 1958. The song was in many ways kind of an oddity in the rock’n’ roll world, using as it does a celesta as its lead instrument, rather than Buddy’s standard sunburst Fender stratocaster, and without a drum kit in sight, too.

Buddy Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock Texas.  His initial career as a country singer changed when he became enamoured of the sounds of rock n roll.  Eventually, he would be one of the first white performers to play the Apollo Theatre in an era where racial integration was not a mainstream idea.
Buddy Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock Texas, September 7, 1936. His initial career as a country singer changed course when he became enamoured with the sounds of electrified rock 'n' roll. Eventually, he would be one of the first white performers to play the Apollo Theatre in an era where racial integration was not a mainstream idea.

I think Holly’s unconventional approach to arranging his songs is one of the many reasons he was so ahead of his time. He understood the importance of timbre as a means of getting the attention of listeners, and expanded the definition of what a pop song could be in the process. And in this tune, kind of a soft-spoken rock n’ roll lullaby, he manages to make a song which is not only charming in its simplicity, but also one which is highly interpretable and timeless. Artists like Bobby Vee, and James Taylor had similar chart success when covering this unassuming little song, which sounds like a kid’s song, if not for the twisty-turny middle-eight section. He didn’t invent the middle-eight, but he sure did make it an important part of rock songwriting, breaking the pattern of verse-chorus-verse, and giving rock songwriting the same potential depth and variety as any tin pan alley tune. Holly knew how to structure a song as a whole, do it unconventionally, and still make it stick in your head.

The great thing about the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll is that everyone in the pantheon seemed to have a place in making sure that this music would make a lasting impact. Bo Diddley brought out the rhythm encoded in our genes all the way back to Africa. Chuck Berry gave us a clear manifesto; Cars, Makin’ out, and No School. Little Richard gave us theatricality, flamboyance, and a hint of the funk. Jerry Lee provided the danger. And Elvis gave the beast legs, in every sense of the word.

I think what Buddy Holly brought to the table in his 18 month recording career was pure craft. He could take three minutes and make them transcendent using odd timbres, weird chord changes that worked, and interesting rhythm patterns (see another Holly hit, “Peggy Sue” – where did he get that strumming pattern from?). In the process, he gave the act of songwriting a quality that was something akin to creating life beyond its creator, and beyond the times in which a song was first written. Songwriters spend their whole lives slaving over getting their craft up to this level. Holly seemed to be able to do it naturally, and in short order. He started a tradition of songwriting which lasts until today; the idea that a song can be immediate, and be immortal at the same time.

Still, it makes me sad to think that Holly would never see his musical baby grow up. His influence on other acts is well-documented. His sway over the songwriters of the British Invasion period, and even on modern country music, which is where I think Holly would have gone had he lived, is immense. In my alternate reality, he would have created some great, earthy music of his own well into the 1970s (including a cover version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cotton Jenny”, which is clearly written with Buddy in mind…), and maybe he would have joined the Highwaymen in the 80s, with his old friend Waylon Jennings. The 90s would have seen him become an elder statesman to alt-country acts, headlining festivals, and recording stripped-down albums that displayed his undiminished spark. Our 21st century would find him semi-retired, surrounded by grandkids and great grandkids, teaching them all to “hiccup” in his unique style while leading them in renditions of kids songs.

There have been a lot of artists who have been mourned as having been struck down in their prime. But, Holly was one of the most random and most senseless of all, killed in an airplane crash in Clearlake Iowa after a show, while his pregnant wife waited for him at home. Even if he didn’t record another note, he should have had the chance to be a dad.

For more music, check out the Buddy Holly MySpace page.


R&B legend and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams performs “Slow Down”

Here’s a clip featuring R&B foot soldier and Beatles-favourite Larry Williams with his 1958 hit, “Slow Down”.

Williams was solidly of the R&B school, eschewing guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll in favour of traditional R&B instrumentation – piano & sax as leads, with the guitar used mostly as a rhythm instrument. But, like Chuck Berry, he was an original songwriter, showing himself to be a gifted conveyor of bluesy grit and sexually-explosive 12-bar fury.

Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s
Larry Williams, R&B legend beloved of the Beatles who helped to inspire the British Invasion in the 1960s

Larry Williams, like Fats Domino, was based in New Orleans, yet missed the fame train that made Domino a star. Part of this had to do with his involvement in drugs, and his alleged inclination towards violence. Yet, his records were very popular in the Britain, celebrated by those who wanted the genuine article when it came to the kind of gritty rhythm & blues they were hearing on Radio Luxembourg. Williams delivered the goods, with this song and those in that shared its intensity being heavily covered by first-tier British beat groups: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” (the Beatles), “She Said Yeah” (the Rolling Stones), and “Bony Maronie” (The Who), just to name three. Williams was a key artist that drove the eventual R&B boom in England at the beginning of the 60s, which of course led to what is now known as “The British Invasion” by 1964.

“Slow Down” would be covered by a great many artists across the rock spectrum and across the decades including The Young Rascals, Blodwyn Pig, The Jam, and Brian May. It would also be featured in the Beatles bio-pic Backbeat, being as it was a key song in their repertoire while the band played the Hamburg club circuit. The Fabs would record it as a cut on their UK Long Tall Sally EP in 1964. Their version of the song also appears on Capitol Records release, Something New, and the UK compilation Past Masters, Vol.1.