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Influences on The Band:

Chuck Berry

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998.

At least One Dozen Berries (a Berry album title too) have Band associations. According to Levon Helm, the first record he ever bought was School Days. Incidentally, Chuck Berry recorded an unissued version of The Weight in 1974.

Chuck Berry songs are favourites for jam sessions. Everyone knows them, everyone can play them, and there are a limited number of melodies. If you can play Johnny B. Goode and someone else wants to sing Bye, Bye, Johnny you don't have a problem. In my incompetent playing days, we called the basic Chuck Berry riff "tune 1" and the basic Bo Diddley riff, "tune 2." The other side of the equation is that playing Berry noticeably better than average is hard, and few versions better or equal the originals. Exceptions are The Rolling Stones version of Come On, The Beatles version of Roll Over Beethoven, and The Band versions of The Promised Land and Back to Memphis. You might also include The Beach Boys Surfin' USA which was such an obvious steal that Berry allegedly got a percentage out of it.

The Promised Land
Original: Chuck Berry single 1964 (UK #26) and on album You Never Can Tell
Band version: Moondog Matinee . Danko solo version - collectors' tapes
Around the time of The Band version, Johnny Allen had a hit with a Zydeco treatement and Elvis Presley had a hit single.

Back To Memphis
Original: single June 1967 (Mercury) and on the US album In Memphis,
December 1967 then again on St Louis to Frisco in 1968 backed by the Steve Miller Band. Mercury released Chuck Berry Medley in Britain in 1967 (Mercury) which contains the song. It mixes In Memphis and Live at the Fillmore and is missing from most discographies, though it's the easiest of Berry's Mercury albums to find secondhand in the UK.
It's unusual for anyone to cover post-Chess Berry, but the words of Back to Memphis seemed an ideal starter for Band gigs and logically a retrospective like To Kingdom Come. Chuck Berry's original version (unusually) sounds weak in comparison with its messy horns and a feeble guitar sound. There's no question that The Band improved on the original.

Band versions:

(1) To Kingdom Come
(2)Across The Great Divide, Live at Watkin's Glen
(3) video The Band: The Reunion Concert,
(4) The Band: Japan Tour

On To Kingdom Come 's excellent sleeve notes Rob Bowman states: Chuck Berry's apocryphal and somewhat obscure 'Back to Memphis' opened their set (at Watkin's Glen), with Bill Graham's introduction, just as it does this collection. The introduction here is from Watkin's Glen, the actual song is from a different concert.
The version on Across The Great Divide says it's from Watkin's Glen, and the one on Live at Watkin's Glen must be too. All three sound pretty similar to me.

Havana Moon
Original: B-side of single You Can't Catch Me (US #29 February 1957)
Woodstock neighbours Geoff & Maria Muldaur did a particularly memorable version of Berry's Caribbean-influenced song on their 1972 album Sweet Potatoes which featured Paul Butterfield on harp, and they recorded it at Bearsville Studios. It's my favourite version.
Levon Helm version: Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars

Thirty Days / Forty Days
Original: single, July 1955, onThe Chess Years
Ronnie Hawkins version of Forty Days: The Roulette Years, The Best of Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins first hit was Forty Days (also recorded under its correct title Thirty Days ), a version of Berry's second hit with ever-so-slightly altered lyric.
The sleeve notes to The Best of Ronnie Hawkins imply that Thirty Days is the unreleased 1958 session - in that no other version is mentioned on the detailed session notes. According to The Roulette Years this is from the same June 1958 Toronto session as the Quality single Hey Bo Diddley / Love Me Like You Can. The 1959 version Forty Days is also included.
It was part of Levon & The Hawks 1965 stage act

Memphis, Tennessee (Berry)
Original: single (US B-side, #37, June 1959, UK #6, October 1963)
There are widely available Basement tape bootlegs which include The Hawks with Tiny Tim on Memphis Tennessee
Part of Levon & The Hawks 1965 stage act

Deep Feeling ( Berry)
Original: 1957 B-side of School Day (US #3, UK #24, March 1957)
Instrumental. It has featured on many of The Band's 1990's shows (mislabelled Good Feeling on some set lists) and also on various Levon Helm shows.
Jim Weider version: Jim Weider & The Honky Tonk Gurus featuring Stan Szeleste - a pre-Jericho out-take with 1997 dubbing.

Nadine (Berry)
Original: single (US #23, UK #27, February 1964). This was Berry's brilliant post-jail comeback single, and my all-time favourite Berry song.
Dylan lurches into a Levon Helm concert (bootleg Crossing The Great Divide) at The Lone Star Cafe, New York, 29 May 1988, and they scat through Nadine with cavalier disregard for the outstanding Berry lyrics:

As I got on the city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walking down the street
I shouted to the driver, Hey, conductor, you must
Slow down, I think I see her, Please let me off this bus

I didn't check that with the record. It's purely from memory. Burned in there (hopefully correctly).

Let it Rock (Berry)
Original: single January 1960 (US #42)
Ronnie Hawkins featured several more Berry numbers live, including Maybelline and School Days, and Garth Hudson is on Hawkins' version of Let it Rock from The Hawk. Let it Rock is also the title of Ronnie's 60th Birthday CD and video.
Ronnie Hawkins: The Hawk, with Garth Hudson. It is also the title song of his 1995 60th Birthday Bash CD
Ronnie Hawkins with Rick Danko: TV show 2 November 1995

Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Berry)
Original: 1956 single,1958 After School Sessions album.
John Hammond version: includes Robertson, Helm and Hudson.
Ronnie Hawkins: various post-Hawks versions.

No Particular Place To Go (Berry)
Original single: ( US #10, June 1964, UK #3, May 1964) This was the follow up to Nadine.
Levon & The Hawks featured this as part of their 1965 stage act. Levon mentions Robbie's guitar solo favourably in his description of the Port Dover tape. Levon and Rick have performed it live.

Back in The USA
Original single: ( US #37, June 1959)
Features on Levon Helm All-Stars shows in 1987.

Around and Around (Berry)
Original: B-side of Johnny B. Goode single (US #8, April 1958). On album Chuck Berry is On Top (1959). It was a Rolling Stones perennial in their early days.
The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers played this as a three band combined encore at the Watkins Glen festival in 1973.

Johnny B. Goode (Berry)
Original: US single (US #8 April 1958). On album Chuck Berry is On Top (1959). The definitive Chuck Berry song which generated a series of follow-ups with the same tune, but different words which continued the storyline (Bye Bye Johnny, Rockin' on the Railroad).
The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers also played this as a three band combined encore at the Watkins Glen festival in 1973.

Video: Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll
According to Irwin Stambler's The Encylopaedia of Rock 'n' Roll, Robbie Robertson acted as creative consultant for this 1987 film / CD, featuring Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt and Julian Lennon. Reportedly he handed over totally to Keith Richards when the going got rough. Consequently he gets no credits at all on the soundtrack CD (MCA 1987).

There are so many Chuck Berry Greatest Hits CDs that it is only worth noting here that you should seek out the original versions, not budget live remakes. Every one of the Chess Berry titles is available on the 9 CD set Chuck Berry: The Chess Years . Single CD compilations of Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits will usually include The Promised Land, Thirty (aka 40!) Days (1955) and Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956). The Chess sets recently issued (1997/8) include Chuck Berry in remastered sound.
Back to Memphis
is extrememly hard to find, unless you can turn up an original vinyl copy. The Mercury years have been sadly neglected. There's supposed to be the odd ultra-cheap CD with Mercury material, but I haven't found one.

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