When Joey was recovering from his pneumonia he shared a hospital room with a guy who plays the piano in a jazz group who's hoping to make a life in making new music. Joey tells this guy that even if he's truly creative he's going to have to learn some other popular music and 'cover' some of the pop songs just to make some money; that people will not pay for unknown artists. You gotta pay your dues by playin live on the road and covering some music that people are already familiar with. Music unites other forms of expression and is re-produced for a lot of different reasons. I guess money is probably the biggest reason to ‘cover’ someone else because even a share of the recording can be worth big bucks. If its’ been covered, it has good roots.
But I told Joey that sometimes it’s not the money.
Gary Carawan first introduced “we shall overcome” to the student non-violent coordinating committee in Atlanta in 1960. Pete Seeger got the credit for writing what was first sung as a blues ode in the cotton fields. It became the anthem of the civil rights movement, a song with good roots and covered by a lot of artists but, the folks who picked the cotton never got paid! This tendency to copy and cover folk and especially rhythm and blues found its way through to rock and roll.
In my ‘hood there were only a couple of guys that knew about the origins of rock n’ roll in Chicago – Joey was one of those guys. Another was Carlo Orlandini who took me to a bar where ‘Howlin Wolf’ took the stage – a black man from Mississippi who could shudder your soul with a shout that is used by “rock” musicians around the world to this day. This bar was on Roosevelt Road and Damen Ave where Carlo risked my life though I didn’t know it. The three story apartment building housed a mid-fifties inner city juke joint that had live music on Saturday nights – and the place was packed with black men and women dressed up special
ready for................... a long night out.
I was just in high school, youngest person in the joint, but the men in the bar were watchful over me ‘cause they could see I’m lovin’ the music they feel. The ‘Wolf’ made my blood curl with those electrified and amplified guitar riffs and the wail he let loose in nearly every song. He played one called ‘I Asked for Water’ and he made it sound like he was really dyin’ on stage.
“Oh I asked her for water, she brought me gasoline
That the troublenst 'WOO-HOO' woman
that I ever seen
The church bell tollin’, hearse come drivin slow”
Years of searching for this song yielded a realization of blues and country roots to me. Songs from the delta and the fields and the mountains of Appalachia and the inner city streets were rarely written down. These musicians were not songwriters: they were storytellers. Tales passed to them over time by people unknown. In this way I’ve come to know more about cultures than I could ever know if their stories had not been put to music. The 'Wolf' song was not written down and I never found a recording of "I asked for Water" but when he sang it, I was living the music of my 'hood.
Carlo, who was about nineteen, was drinkin wine while I had a bottle of Coke that I drank very slowly ‘cause I didn’t have money. During the ‘Wolf’s break, Carlo went outside and had a ‘meeting’ with two other guys – it didn’t take too long and besides, I had the ‘Wolf’ howlin to me. Right after Carlo came back in he said we had to leave. It’s okay ‘cause I got about forty rich minutes of west side blues. I wished Bobby and Dom and Joey were with me.
Joey knew that Chicago blues/rock came out of Mississippi during the late forties into the sixties; he knew about this guitar man by the name of Bo Diddley, the self-proclaimed “Father of Rock and Roll” who showed up on the streets with his ego blistering up from his own heat. Well, Bo walked right into one of the producers’ studios on south Michigan Ave.; they let him play on his square guitar and then they threw him and his black hat out the door saying they couldn’t understand him. Joey says Bo walked straight across the street to another studio called Chess Records run by some Jewish fellas and he did 37 takes and recorded a song he wrote called “I’m a Man”
I’m a man, made twenty one
You know baby, we have lots of fun
All you pretty women, stand in line
I’ll make love to you, for an hour’s time
I’m a man, I spell m-a-n …. man!
Bo later wrote a song called 'Mona' and The Rolling Stones covered it on their first album and I’m thinkin they met at Chess?
(Yes, the same Chess Records building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. where Chuck Berry recorded Johnny B. Goode and the Stones, in 1964, recorded their only instrumental and titled it ‘2120’.)
That record company that threw Bo onto the street was right about one thing; you gotta hear the poetry, the story in the song. First comes the verse – you shine a light to it and the words leap off the page and suddenly you see movement – the work now has physical space. It’s square, it’s round, it is red and yellow and morphs to glad and sad then ultimately shows its life as the poetry combines with the essentials of melody, harmony and rhythm to create tones and gives birth to new, until in that moment, never before heard combinations of word and sound, and only then it’s called
m u s i c
I remember ‘Louie, Louie’ reaching #1 and I can’t tell you why – maybe it was because the scene was so dry. Yes, it did have a good beat but you couldn’t understand the Richard Berry lyric as sung first by the Pharoahs, then the Kingsmen - when the song ended, you really didn't know what they had said – they’re worse than Bo!
I know folk music gives a lot to rock and roll but it isn’t their banjos or flat tuned guitars I’m talkin’ about; it’s their stories – their clarity, their meaning, their delivery – allowing repetition to somehow not sound boring. The stories in blues music is the heart rending verse of hard living, telling the story of survival through adversity in a tempo devised by magicians; country and western music’s got a million stories; jazz, not so much new stories as new styles of a story and gospel that shouts out their message in ‘world’ music. All of these are parts of what I’ve come to feel in my bones is so precious to me. Music moves me; it makes me glad all over; it makes me sad all over; love is better with it; hate is erased by it – I can dream with it, as it speaks to my spirit and I can work with it, it is my muse – it’s become one of the themes in my life.
“back beat, you can’t lose it”
It was not far from my ‘hood; straight east on Roosevelt Road, right past St. Ignatius hi-school, about a mile and a half to Halsted Street where a right turn would place you onto the mecca of ‘near west side blues’ –
Albert King was there. Little Walter and his blues harmonica was there. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells (who later moved south side) all met nearly every Sunday morning to play in an empty prairie between Halsted and the ‘Hill Street Blues’ police station on Morgan Street. There was always a drum set with the two guitars and harmonica though I never knew who those drummers were. Albert would almost always start up with a few licks to establish the bass beat and Lil Walter worked the chords on his harmonica searching for the right pitch. Then Buddy kicked in with his free wheeling style blues on his Fender guitar and Bassmans amp. He’d take the center and enter some vocal humming in the first few bars. Buddy’s poetry started a little soft until he knew he was pitched; only then to explode to an ear shattering volume. All amped and electrified as Buddy’s gunslinger technique took the lead with his fierce intensity. Buddy has a reputation as the man whose music could not be captured in a studio - studios were confining and left little room for improv. Buddy would string together eight chords and they would never again play out the same way. His call is to perform! Who could record with him?
Luther Allison always showed up late for these jams as third guitar and he plugged in to play to the prisoners in ‘the Hill’ three blocks away! Luther would walk in playin
“gotta move from the ‘hood
move away from the ‘hood
do it now or
your life ain’t no good”
There was never a lack of good guitar. There were sometimes four or five bands lookin for space to play and some good days you could find Robert Nighthawk and there was Sonny Boy Williams, Lightnin Hopkins and Daddy Stovepipe and local boys who would fill in and were lookin to learn from the masters.
AKA Muddy Waters.
– from Mississippi – with his electric guitar and his “mojo workin”.
The man who played “the right notes”. I never got to see him, but later bought his records. Muddy recorded with Chess Records and gave Bob Dylan and an international magazine and a British rock and roll Band their greatest gift –
a rolling stone
Anyone who wanted to learn the roots of blues/rock wanted to get next to him and learn from him – and he gave his wisdom, unselfishly, to many.
One of them was John Lee Hooker who came up to Chicago by way of Mississippi and Memphis and he didn’t know Muddy very long, but in a Chess studio he listened hard to the clear, uninterrupted masters’ chords. Together they recorded
“Big Leg Woman”.
She so fine, she so mellow, the rest I can’t explain
Way my baby stacked up
‘nough to drive a cat insane
she got great big legs, so pleasing to the eye
the preacher walked by, said my, my, my
Joey and I did see John Lee workin’ those chords one Sunday morning. John Lee came to Chicago about 1955 by way of Detroit so he had to break into the scene and his gig with Muddy did it for him. This Sunday, however, he sat on an old wooden chair right outside some diner, makin' his music and his name known on Maxwell Street and he opens
‘Boom Boom Boom Boom’
"i love the way you walk
i likes the way you talk"
and the folk on the street gathered ‘round.
Albert King showed up and they jammed and finally they did 'Born Under a Bad Sign'
"bad luck and trouble's my only friend
I been down ever since I was ten
if it wasn't for bad luck
i'd have no luck at all"
Booker T. Jones
I had the musical experience of my young life –
in the open air
it sounded and smelled like my city on the streets of my ‘hood.
It is amazing how the music of these men from Mississippi turned Chicago and Chess Records into legends. As I’ve listened to this music from my ‘hood over the years, I’ve come to realize how much of their original music from Mississippi that was awakened by plugged in guitars and electrified amps and new found freedoms all served as the most fertile roots ever for today’s’ rock and roll. My ‘near west side’ inner city provided cover material for so many great rock musicians: the Stones and Clapton and Zeppelin..............
"glad all over"
It’s now September 26 and James Meredith will make his second attempt to open the doors at Ole Miss.