Category Archives: Rock n’ Roll

Chuck Berry’s Promised Land

Matt Powell

Photo by Jean-Marie Périer, 1964


Chuck Berry was a walking contradiction. An inquisitive and highly intelligent student, born into a stable middle class family, who found himself incarcerated at 19 after an armed robbery spree with a broken pistol. A black man in his thirties in Jim Crow America who found a way to speak directly, successfully, to white teenagers. A cynic with an unyielding optimism. A sensitive, introspective man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Coupe de Ville. A bitter man with a sly and relentless sense of humor. A loner and eternal outsider, who was at times the most beloved musician in America. A self-professed lover of performing live, who often seemed to consider his audience little more than a necessary annoyance. A consummate craftsman, who seldom bothered to rehearse or even tune. His only number one record, his worst song.

He saw the highest highs and the lowest lows of the American experience – from Bandstand to Lompoc, the colored window to the Kennedy Center – and he performed at times as brilliantly and as badly as an artist can. Through it all, he did everything on his terms.

Chuck Berry was the embodiment of America, and one of its greatest chroniclers and creators. Yes, he helped create rock ‘n’ roll and heavily influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones and everyone after. But Chuck Berry’s genius is not tied to his chosen genre nor dependant on the successes of later British bands. His genius is independent, wholly American, self-contained, and has only solidified with time.

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There’s A Riot Goin’ On: Leiber & Stoller Behind Bars

It may seem odd that one of the most prolific and commercially successful songwriting teams of the second half of the 20th Century wrote almost exclusively comedy songs – and odder still when considering how many of those comedy songs take place inside a prison – but Leiber and Stoller were nothing if not original.

The career of these unparalleled songwriters requires a lengthy and voluminous exploration, which will not be attempted here. The abridged version is as follows: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two Jewish kids who met while attending Fairfax High School and Los Angeles City College, respectively. They immediately bonded over their shared obsession with black music and culture. They began writing songs together in the early 1950’s with Leiber composing the lyrics and Stoller working out the grooves, harmony and melody on the piano. Unlike traditional songwriting teams of the era, Leiber and Stoller weren’t (intentionally) writing the Great American Songbook, they were writing the blues.

Their greatest earliest success came in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog,” later immortalized by Elvis Presley. Not exactly a “comedy” song, but Leiber’s unorthodox lyric style was already in full bloom.

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Been snoopin’ ‘round the door

You can wag your tail

But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

More R&B hits followed including “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “Love Potion #9” (The Clovers) and “Ruby Baby” (The Drifters), as well as several iconic songs written for The King including “Love Me,” “Treat Me Nice” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Many would argue they reached an artistic apex with sophisticated pop records like “There Goes My Baby” or the magnificent Peggy Lee cabaret ballad “Is That All There Is?” – and perhaps they did – but it was with West Coast-based R&B vocal group The Coasters where Leiber and Stoller showcased the essence of what they were all about as tunesmiths.

The songwriting pair wrote and produced hit after hit for the Coasters, including iconic staples like “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” The earliest Coasters hits were recorded as The Robins, with a slightly different lineup. Each Coasters or Robins record found the group in exotic locals or humorous scenarios and, for some reason, often in jail. Continue reading →