My America
50 years of living with the USA

Music
In the Sixties, I had been on the Beatles side of the Great Divide. Not that I didn't like the Rolling Stones, I just admired the Beatles more. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967, three years before I went to the USA, and like many I was impressed. "A Day in the Life" was a big step forward in popular music.

1970 changed everything. My Exeter school friends Rob Aberg (still playing with his wife Sarah in Dallas, and a child psychiatrist) and Doug Daly (now an eminent botanist, and see the "1970" sections) had a blues band with whom I hung out a lot. Rob, illustrating that curious Brits-take-American-blues-and-then-give-it-back phenomenon writ large by the Stones, introduced me to the "Beano" album, John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, recorded in 1966.

John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton

Apart from Mayall and Clapton, you may recognise John McVie, who from 1967 had huge success with Fleetwood Mac, and Hughie Flint, later with McGuinness Flint and The Blues Band. More about the first- and last-mentioned further down this piece. Oh dear, I can feel a blues family tree coming on. There's a side-trip waiting at every fork in the road.

The album is a homage to or celebration of (mostly) Chicago electric blues. Mayall was important, influential in bringing blues to Britain. Apart from his own songs, there are covers of Otis Rush, Freddie King, Sonny Thompson (popular bandleader and pianist in the 1940s and 1950s), Ray Charles, Mose Allison (best known for his version of "Parchman Farm", first recorded by Bukka White in 1940), Robert Johnson (more later), L. C. Frazier (aka Memphis Slim) and Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs - isn't "My Babe" the best harmonica song you've ever heard?).

My friend Rob picked out one song, "Hideaway", a guitar instrumental first recorded by Freddie King in 1960. It's alleged that Freddie stole it from Hound Dog Taylor via Magic Sam. On this Blues Breakers album, it's an early example of Clapton virtuosity. He plays every cliché blues riff you've ever heard. Try to count them ;-)


"Hideaway" - John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton - 1966

In July 1970 friends took me to see B.B. King at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in California. The whole arena was packed, the front rows with black women shouting "Give it to me BB!" It was my first proper blues concert. Later I bought my first blues albums in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. I'd never listened to them, but it seemed like a good start.

B B King - Live At The Regal
Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign

USA issue, so the records were heavy-duty brittle vinyl, the sleeves matt thick-ish card, at the time of purchase shrink-wrapped in cellophane. Remember those?

You may have already gathered that I love album covers. If the songs persist in my ear, the covers stick in my mind’s-eye. And of course the lyrics, perhaps a whole song, usually a fragment, often just a memorable couplet. The title track of the Albert King album above provides a good example:

Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all

Albert King, born Albert Nelson on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1923, was left-handed and played his "axe" upside-down. It wasn't re-strung, so to play the top notes important for lead guitar work he had to wrap his fingers right round the neck. I wonder, did this contribute to his distinctive sound, that raw unpolished attack?

I bought Live Wire Blues Power, recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium San Francisco in June 1968.

Albert King Live Wire Blues Power

The title song "Blues Power" starts with a lick and solo I'll never forget. King then launches into a lengthy chat about the blues, also still stuck in my head.

Everybody understands the blues. Are ya listening? [Yeah!] I say, everybody understands the blues. Everybody from one day to another have the blues. You take the little baby that's layin' in the cradle, he can't get that milk bottle fast enough, he goes to kickin' and cryin' and goin' on tearin' up the little baby bed ... he got the blues. Can you dig it? [Yeah!] You take this girl that's got this main squeeze, that's her boyfriend that is, you know, and he just bought a brand new GTO, you know she wanna be with him every time he cranks it up, and go round the corner to the soda fountain, this is where she wanna go and show it off where all the guys and gals be, you know what I mean? And she's gettin' ready to go out this particular night and her mother says, "Daughter, you was just out last night, you can't go out tonight, that's too many nights in a row." She goes in her room and fastens the door, and won't answer the 'phone, won't eat, won't talk to nobody ... she got the blues, that's what's wrong with her. Some people call them the "reds", the "pinks" ... when you get through it's the old-fashioned country blues. That's right. And I ain't seen my main squeeze in ten long weeks today, you know I got the blues. Can you dig it? [Yeah!]

And WHAM! ... in comes the guitar again. The whole song is ten minutes long, but all of the above is towards the beginning.


"Blues Power" - Live Wire Blues Power - 1968

B.B. King was born Riley King, like Albert on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, in 1925. He worked for a while at a cotton gin in nearby Indianola, Albert's birth town. He acquired his stage moniker from the nickname "Blues Boy".

He called his guitar Lucille. The story goes that in the winter of 1949 King played at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. The hall was heated by a barrel half-filled with kerosene set in the middle of the dance floor. Two men began to fight, knocking over the barrel and sending the burning fuel across the floor. The hall burst into flames and was evacuated. King realised that he had left his beloved Gibson guitar inside so he went back in to retrieve it. He learned the next day that the two men had been fighting over a woman - Lucille. He gave her name to the Gibson and every subsequent guitar as a reminder never again to do anything as stupid as run into a burning building or fight over a woman.

B.B. King with Lucille
Epiphone B.B. King Lucille headstock name

Although Albert and B.B. shared the blues and (almost) the same birthplace, they were very different. Where Albert was mean and feisty, B.B. was silky and melodic. He truly understood "less is more", that it wasn't how many notes you played but how good they were. He also wonderfully played lead melodies right across chord changes.

He worked very hard, performing well over 300 dates a year. In his 70s he cut down to 250. Good grief, there are only 252 days in the standard UK working year. This may have had something to do with the fact that his two marriages lasted a combined total of only 14 years. He is reputed to have fathered 15 children, never disputed paternity and was generous in bankrolling college tuition and trust funds.

There are many performances to share, but I'll pick a favourite from Indianola Mississippi Seeds, released in 1970 with contributions from other luminaries such as Joe Walsh, Hugh McCracken, Carole King, Leon Russell and Russ Kunkel.

B B King Indianola Mississippi Seeds

I've gone for "Ask Me No Questions", a perfect little 3-minute song. There's only so much solo guitar, it doesn't overwhelm ... and that's B.B. King.


"Ask Me No Questions" - Indianola Mississippi Seeds - 1970

Back to British blues and another of my early purchases, the eponymous debut LP of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac released in 1968, often called the "Dustbin" album.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac

Peter Green, born Peter Allen Greenbaum in Bethnal Green in 1946, had replaced Eric Clapton briefly in John Mayall's Blues Breakers. In 1967 he decided to start Fleetwood Mac, the name formed from the surnames of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie, although the latter didn't leave the Blues Breakers immediately. The other prominent musician engaged was Jeremy Spencer, slide guitar player, co-songwriter and singer.

This first album made an impact. It sold well, reaching number four in the British charts. Barry Gifford in Rolling Stone described it as "potent enough to make the South Side of Chicago take notice". It featured covers of Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail" and "Shake Your Moneymaker" by Elmore James. There were original numbers, five by Green and three by Spencer.

Peter Green is a British blues deity. Fellow musicians called him the "Green God". He had a good blues voice and his guitar-playing was exquisite. B.B. King said, "he has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats."

Peter Green in 1969

His writing drifted away from blues, but the songs had great merit, like "Albatross", "Oh Well" and "Man Of The World".

I've chosen two blues records here.

First, his composition "Black Magic Woman" from 1968, probably made more famous by Carlos Santana's later cover.


"Black Magic Woman" - single 1968

The second is Green's interpretation of the Mertis and Willie John ballad, "Need Your Love So Bad", released on The Pious Bird of Good Omen in 1969. I think of this as Peter Green's calling card. Like "Ask Me No Questions" above, not much solo guitar, but what's there is achingly beautiful.


"Need Your Love So Bad" - The Pious Bird of Good Omen - 1969

Sadly, Peter's godhead was short-lived. By his own admission, he took far too much LSD and blew away his mind, talent and life. He became obsessed with disposing of his and the band's money, a plan rejected fiercely by Mick Fleetwood. He had a breakdown, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed heavy medication. There was a long period as a near-hermit, once-glorious mane of thick black wavy long hair thinning and unkempt, clothes ragged, his fingernails grown extraordinarily long, certainly no good for guitar-playing. He returned to performance, notably with the Splinter Group (first album released in 1997, disbanded in 2004), but it wasn't the same. Hollowed-out. Voice weak and cracked. On some shows he didn't even play the classic soaring solos that made his name, but left them to somebody else while he played second guitar in the background. The word "tragic" is over-used, but the loss of Peter Green's special musical ability, not to mention the acute mental anguish he has endured, merit its use. But he's back, and alive.

The blues greats acknowledge the influence of Robert Johnson. Born in 1911, he died at the age of 27 in 1938, according to one theory poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. Twenty-nine songs were published, mostly recorded in Texas, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in 1936 and the Vitagraph Building in Dallas in 1937. Small-body acoustic Gibson, chunky arrhythmic playing, reedy voice, a single recording microphone, Johnson reputedly out of shyness faced the corner of the room, producing an effect Ry Cooder called "corner loading".

Robert Johnson circa 1935 

His songs have been covered by many, particularly "Cross Road Blues", or "Crossroads". Legend has it that Johnson went to the cross road near Dockery Plantation, Mississippi, and made a deal with the devil, giving up his soul in exchange for the ability to play the blues. The story is referenced in an interview with Son House, who maintained Johnson went from being a terrible guitar player to a good one in a very short time. There is no actual mention in the lyric of such an encounter, rather "Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by." The most notable cover of the song is by Eric Clapton and Cream, featured in 1968 on Wheels of Fire. Odd, I think, given the distance between such a power-rock supergroup and the sparse Johnson original. Clapton used the name for the addiction treatment centre on the island of Antigua founded with his help in 1998. The fund-raising Crossroads Guitar Festival has been held regularly since 1999. The September 2019 event will take place in Dallas. Clapton himself will perform; other artists expected include Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Albert Lee, Andy Fairweather Low, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Los Lobos, Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill.


"Cross Road Blues" - 1936

There's another big influence. Not pure blues, but rhythm and blues, rock and roll. Chuck Berry. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926, died 2017, both in Missouri.

Chuck Berry

He made a huge impact. You only have to look at the opinions of illustrious peers:

"If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."
John Lennon

"There's only one true king of rock n' roll. His name is Chuck Berry."
Stevie Wonder

"[My mama] said, 'You and Elvis are pretty good, but you're no Chuck Berry.'"
Jerry Lee Lewis

"To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme."
Keith Richards

So many covered or copied his songs. Here's an (incomplete) list: Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Carl Perkins, ELO, Status Quo, AC/DC, Bryan Adams, the Faces, the Kinks, Buddy Holly, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Winter.

His music went right to the heart of 1950s USA. Three-minute nuggets of teenage love, the golden age of the American automobile, new consumerism, like Elvis a shock in an era of conformity, of the McCarthyist fear of subversion. Bright, light, memorable, accessible, funny. Young people of the period could identify with the stories. Few could resist the urge to dance.

Two records sum up the teen and car themes for me, "Maybellene" and "No Particular Place To Go".

"Maybellene" was released in 1955, allegedly inspired by and adapted from the Western swing fiddle tune "Ida Red", recorded in 1938 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys - although I really can't hear the theft. His first single and hit, it tells the tale of a car race and broken romance.

Maybellene, why can't you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can't you be true?
You done started doin' the things you used to do

As I was motor-vatin' over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville
Cadillac rollin' on an open road
Nothin' outrun my V8 Ford
Cadillac doin' about ninety-five
She's bumper to bumper rollin' side to side


"Maybellene" - 1955

"No Particular Place to Go" was recorded on March 25th 1964 in Chicago and released by Chess Records in May of that year. The storyteller is cruising and cuddling with his girlfriend.

No particular place to go
So we parked way out on the kokomo
The night was young and the moon was bold
So we both decided to take a stroll
Can you imagine the way I felt?
I couldn't unfasten her safety belt


"No Particular Place To Go" - 1964

Then there's the famous riff, most prominent on the unaccompanied intro to "Johnny B. Goode". Every blues or rock guitarist must have tried to copy it at some time. The song is partly autobiographical; it tells of the rise to fame of a "country boy" (originally a "colored boy", but changed to encourage radio acceptance) who could play guitar "just like ringing a bell". Berry was born at 2520 Goode Avenue in St. Louis.


"Johnny B. Goode" - written 1955, recorded 1958

Berry was a showman. Mobile, expressive face and an energetic stage presence. His most recognisable move was the Duck Walk. Here's an edited video snippet of him performing "You Can't Catch Me" in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock! Berry was introduced in the film, a kind of jukebox musical, by the revered DJ Alan Freed; he appears at the end of the clip.


Chuck Berry duck walk - Rock, Rock, Rock! - 1956

Chuck Berry wasn't an easy man. He was sentenced to three years in prison in January 1962 for offences under the Mann Act; he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines. There were other accusations of assault. He liked money and preferred to be paid in cash. He would turn up at gigs with just his guitar - "tax deductible", he quipped - and expect a backing group. At one gig the support band were packing up to go. The promoter told them they couldn't leave as they were going to back Chuck Berry. He arrived and the band asked him what songs they were expected to play. "Chuck Berry songs," he replied.

There was a dispute over musical credits between Berry and Johnnie Johnson, pianist and collaborator on many records. It was Berry who joined Johnson's band, the Sir John Trio, not the other way around. On New Year's Eve 1952, Johnson's saxophonist Alvin Bennett had a stroke and could not perform. Searching for a last-minute replacement, Johnson called Berry, the only musician he knew who, because of his inexperience, would be unlikely to be playing on New Year's Eve.

Johnnie Johnson

Little recognised in Berry's climb to fame, Johnson sued him in 2000. The following was published in Rolling Stone magazine.

Rolling Stone, December 1, 2000 5:00AM ET
Johnnie Johnson Sues Chuck Berry
by Christina Saraceno

Johnnie Johnson, one of Chuck Berry's long-time sidemen and the man who inspired Berry's classic "Johnnie B. Goode", filed suit against Berry in a St. Louis Federal District Court on November 29. The multi-count suit alleges that Johnson and Berry were equal collaborators on early rock classics like "Roll Over Beethoven", "No Particular Place to Go" and "Sweet Little Sixteen", to name a few. Johnson claims that Berry registered the copyrights to the songs in his name alone and therefore was the sole recipient of royalties from those songs. Johnson's suit also seeks public recognition for his song writing role on the fifty songs he claims to have written with Berry. Publicists for Johnson say that Berry was contacted before the suit was filed in an effort to avoid litigation, but that Berry refused to discuss the matter. The suit is for unspecified damages.

Keith Richards was interesting on the subject.


Keith Richards talking about Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson

The case was eventually dismissed because too many years had passed since the songs were written. In 2001 Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a campaign by his biographer Travis Fitzpatrick and Keith Richards, in the category of Sideman. Given his contribution, rather unfair, almost a careless final snub.

Over to the west coast now and the Grateful Dead. The band grew up amidst the counterculture of the 60s, the height of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene. The area became a focus for the hippie community. 19th century multi-storey wooden houses, cheap rooms, cool bars, coffee houses, "head shops". Ron and Jay Thelin's Psychedelic Shop opened on Haight Street in 1966, a source of marijuana and LSD. Hunter S. Thompson nicknamed the district "Hashbury" in The New York Times Magazine.

The Red Victorian Hotel
Wacky Haight-Ashbury facade

The founding members of the Dead were Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). Others joined over the years: Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow (both lyrics), Tom Constanten (keyboards), Keith Godchaux (keyboards, vocals), Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals), Mickey Hart (drums), Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals), Vince Welnick (keyboards, vocals).

Their output straddled several genres. First was "psychedelic rock", of which they were at least co-creators. Fuelled by consumption of LSD, this led to long extemporised pieces at concerts. Listening to a Grateful Dead extended song, almost a jam, was an immersive experience of highs-and-lows, ebb-and-flow. A lot of summer-of-love dancing and swaying. Improvisation was central. In a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Garcia noted that "my own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along. The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that's difficult for me". An example on record is "Dark Star", the only song on side 1 of Live/Dead, released in 1969.

The band’s core comprised Garcia, Lesh and Weir. Jerry Garcia was a creative and imaginative guitarist, although to my ear sometimes slightly off-key. Phil Lesh originally trained as a classical trumpet-player. His bass lines are unusual and inventive. Bob Weir is a great driving rhythm guitarist.

The first album was released in 1967, eponymously The Grateful Dead. Note the beardless Garcia.

The Grateful Dead 1967 album cover

I’ve chosen the opening song on side 1, "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)". Bursting with energy, brash and tinny, eager. They must all have been on speed (and more besides).


"The Golden Road" - The Grateful Dead - 1967

Workingman's Dead was the fourth studio album, cut at Pacific High Recording Studio in San Francisco in February 1970 and released the following June. It marked a significant change from the heavy-duty rock material to a folksy, almost country style. Phil Lesh said, "The song lyrics reflected an old, weird America that perhaps never was ... a massive paradigm shift in our group mind from the [earlier] mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon." Even the sepia album cover was retrospective and nostalgic.

Workingman's Dead front cover
Workingman's Dead back cover

Here's the first song, "Uncle John's Band".


"Uncle John's Band" - Workingman's Dead - 1970

American Beauty followed later the same year, again with tuneful numbers like "Box Of Rain" and "Sugar Magnolia". Here's a classic photo from the promotional shoot that accompanied release.

Promotional photo for American Beauty 1970

"Truckin'" had some broad commercial success. A tale of travel through America, weird experiences and associated tiredness. One verse references a drug raid of the band's hotel lodgings in New Orleans during a concert tour earlier in 1970. The refrain "What a long strange trip it's been" entered the hip vernacular. Here's a video of a live performance interwoven with band member interviews.


"Truckin'" live performance and interviews

In October 1971 they released their second Grateful Dead live double album, often known as Skull and Roses, although when you opened the sleeve right out the full skeleton was revealed.

Grateful Dead (Live) 'Skull and Roses' 1971 full album cover

Some great original numbers like "Bertha" and "Playing in the Band". I've included here a double-cover, "Not Fade Away / Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad". The first part is originally credited to Buddy Holly and Norman Petty. The second was an American traditional song, also know as "Lonesome Road Blues". The Dead's live version (of both) is over nine minutes long, a demonstration of their willingness to let things go loose, to improvise, although it's nowhere near as unhinged as earlier free-form psychedelic offerings.


"Not Fade Away / Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" - Grateful Dead (Live) 'Skull and Roses' - 1971

Pigpen died of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage brought on by alcoholism and liver damage on March 8th 1973 aged 27. On August 9th 1995, after a long struggle with drug addiction, weight problems, sleep apnea, heavy smoking and diabetes Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack aged 53 in a rehabilitation clinic. After Garcia's death the remaining members decided to disband, then in 1998 Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, along with several other musicians, formed the Other Ones and toured until 2002. Various combinations of the band members have continued to play Grateful Dead music up to the present day.

In 2015 Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart reunited for five concerts called Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead. The shows were performed on June 27th and 28th at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and on July 3rd, 4th and 5th at Soldier Field in Chicago. The "Deadhead" following was loyal and many. Look at the crowd attending one of the Chicago dates.

Fare Thee Well concert Soldier Field Chicago July 2015

[To be continued ...]
© Charlie Lewis 2019
Email: charlie_c_lewis@hotmail.com