How to go from a Legend to a leg end!
I know. The title’s a touch unfair. Chuck Berry was nothing less than one of the founding fathers of Rock & Roll. I mean how’s having that on your CV – I invented Rock & Roll? The term itself is as pure as icons get – you’d use it if you had to explain to intelligent extra-terrestrials what characterized us as a species. As a genre of music it branched out in a myriad of ways – some dropped the ‘roll’ & called it just rock music; as volume increased, some referred to their brand as ‘heavy’ or ‘hard’ rock & when you slowed it all down, it became the ‘blues!’ So, all the respect in the world to Mr. Berry but for this particular story, the title is perfect.
1972 was the year. I was 16. I’d finally got myself a guitar. I actually wanted one when I was 8. Sadly, even though my father had an ear for music he made a decision that I regret to this very day. He was a good man, honest to a fault. He’d grown up the hard way, having to earn his keep from the age of 10. 40 years later, it was a different world, one where kids could say to their parents, ‘buy me this mummy; buy me that daddy!’ What irony. With unerring regularity my father would ask what I wanted to do for a career. Most of the time I’d no idea but on this one occasion when I said ‘I want to learn the guitar’, my Dad looked on at me with disdain. He was strict & strictly old school with it. A proper job for him was to be a Doctor, Solicitor or Accountant. Playing the guitar was hardly a profession. It took one look in his eye to know this was a no-go area & hence my mistake – I never mentioned it again. Years later I realised I should have shown him more desire.
One day my older sister had friends from her school round – Betty & Mazen. It didn’t take long for Mazen to peel off & check out the noise from another bedroom. He too was a fan of the guitar. Anyway the next time they came round, he brought along an album which had just been released – HENDRIX IN THE WEST. We put it on but at the time my idol was Deep Purple’s guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Being an idiot of biblical proportions back then the mere thought of saying ‘yeah. He’s great too’ had become somewhat problematic. Ritchie was my idol. Everyone who knew me knew that! Well, how daft would I look if all of a sudden I had to tell everyone ‘err sorry. I made a bit of a rick folks! Ritchie was my idol……. in fact, he still is but I’ve got a new one now?’ Mazen & I went our separate ways. His Hendrix album though had found a new owner!
43 years passed & a few months ago, among my FB messages was – “is that the crazy guy who used to always say he was the best & if he wasn’t the best, he’d become the best. It was just a matter of time!”……… The message ended with “do you remember?” It took two seconds. I’d long since forgotten his name but it had to be the guy with wild hair & guitar licks who came round all those years ago. Honestly, we’ve not seen or heard from each other for all this time but I suppose good memories are not easily forgotten. It was great reminiscing & soon I’m sure we’ll link up again when I’m next in Paris. One has to be mightily impressed with Mazen – never once did he say – WHERE’S MY BLOODY HENDRIX ALBUM?
So back to the story. The album itself was a selection of some of Jimi’s finest live performances. What makes this version of Johnny B. Goode even more incredible is this was only the 2nd time & in fact last time the band played this song. Two weeks earlier (16th May 1970) they played it in Philadelphia. Then there’s the nonchalant manner in which Jimi introduces the song…….
WE GOT THIS OTHER THING CALLED, I DUNNO. WE’D LIKE TO DO A LITTLE LOOSE JAM TYPE OF THING. WHAT THE HELL – JOHNNY B. GOODE.
The intro literally thundered out. I thought …. WHAT? Great players abound but only a select few have what’s referred to as ‘attack!’ To have it is greatness & here, it was instantaneous. But all this comprised was part of the basic blues E scale – anyone can play these notes yet the intro alone was tantamount to an assault being launched. How does one even begin to describe such a thing? It wouldn’t take too long to learn to play the intro yet I knew I’d never be able to play it the exact way this guy was. Not that Ritchie Blackmore doesn’t possess this wondrous attack, virtuoso as he is, yet this was something else. Within two minutes of listening to Jimi Hendrix, it was a case of shall I give up now? And bless him……. this is what he calls a loose jam!
A virtuoso is one who’s mastered their instrument. You can play anything. However, the finest among them are best able to depict the mood of a composition, adding feel & touch to their mesmerising ability. Paganini, Liszt, Segovia are but a few who made it all but seem their instrument was part of their anatomy. Larry Adler’s rendition of Gershwin’s classic ‘Summertime’ is so incredible, his harmonica wasn’t playing – IT WAS BEGGING, CRYING. IT WAS PLEADING TO YOU; IT WAS TELLING YOU A STORY! Above all, this requires a level of concentration & control off the Richter scale………… Then, along came James Marshall Hendrix…….
Staring us in the face is a mind-boggling paradox – how can one play with such flamboyance; to be so footloose & fancy-free, yet display such outrageous precision & control?
Bear in mind, classical musicians rehearse in order to fine-tune the delivery of identical notes that they’ll play in concert. It’s rather like mastering a video game. Unlike most musicians who learn to play pieces note for note, Jimi never played a song the same way. Therefore, what he played was always open to interpretation & how he felt. Just watch this clip. Only the 2nd time he ever performed this song yet he manages to sing & play rhythm & lead guitar WITHOUT EVER LOOKING AT THE FRET-BOARD OF HIS FENDER STRATOCASTER. 6 solos. Each one, totally different. Each one, brilliant. I mean to even play 6 guitar solos in one song. Who ever does that? It’s so frighteningly good, it’s almost sickening!
Which conveniently brings me to the song’s composer Chuck Berry. It’s common knowledge his ego was lodged somewhere in the stratosphere but quite what must have been going through his head when he first heard Jimi’s rendition of his classic? Clapton had already witnessed the pain – a mere 23 year old showed God who was the maestro & no one was arguing about it either. It was all she wrote. God was gone! So what trouble can a legend be? Here was a guy who couldn’t read or write music making absolute mince-meat out of his song, chewing up & spitting out a version so vastly superior & doing so as if it was nothing. It was almost as if Jimi was saying – ‘excuse me Mr. Legend but out the way please. This is how you do it!’
While I acknowledge Chuck Berry’s contribution to music deserves a special place in the hall of fame, if he’s a musical legend, as many to this day continue to claim, it surely cannot be for his guitar playing. Berry knows it but he not going to admit it. In fact he’s one of the very few who never spoke of James Marshall Hendrix. Legend to leg end? I think not. Gossip & innuendo – who knows but years ago there was talk where Berry insiders suggested they felt this one performance by Hendrix, for a while at least, brought the legend crashing down to earth.