Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll: RIP Chuck Berry

“Johnny B. Goode”. “Roll Over, Beethoven”. “Sweet Little Sixteen”. “Rock and Roll Music”. The most iconic songs of the Golden Age of Rock’N’Roll belonged to one man, Chuck Berry. When I got home this evening and heard the news he passed away at the age of 90, I knew I’d have to preempt my regularly scheduled post and pay tribute. Because without Chuck Berry, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Beach Boys, no rock and roll as we know it. He was that influential on 20th century music, and the uncrowned King of Rock and Roll.

Sure, Elvis was bigger, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of kids listening to their radios searching for relief from the blandness of 50’s commercial pop. He spoke their language, the language of teenage lust, hot rods, high schools hops, all set to a rocking back beat. Berry was influenced by the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the electric blues of T-Bone Walker, the western swing of Bob Wills and the soulful singing of Nat King Cole, added his own “duck walking” brand of showmanship, all propelled by Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano, and created something totally unique. He called it rock and roll.

Chuck was no saint. Far from it. As a teen, he did time in a reformatory for armed robbery and car theft. He was found guilty of violating the Mann Act for crossing state lines with a 14-year-old waitress, got sued for installing a camera in the ladies room at his restaurant, did four months for tax evasion, and was busted for possession of weed. Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s real bad boy, and a notoriously cranky curmudgeon, but his fans remained ever loyal despite his flaws. They knew his talent outweighed all his faults.

Much as teens idolized him, the adults hated him, mainly because he was a black man selling teenage sex to their children. But he still sold out concerts and was featured in Hollywood rock flicks like ROCK ROCK ROCK and GO JOHNNY GO! Like most 50’s rockers, he suffered a career slump during the 60’s, but came back strong in 1972 with the #1 double-entendre hit “My Ding-a-Ling”:

The 1987 rock doc HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL a 60th birthday concert filmed by Taylor Hackford featuring a veritable Who’s Who of classic rockers joining Chuck onstage. There was Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and more celebrating the music of their idol. Earlier this year, on Chuck’s 90th birthday, it was announced he would be releasing his first new recording in 38 years, “Chuck”. I for one am eagerly awaiting it’s release.

Chuck Berry will live forever as one of the greats in rock’n’roll history, and one of the last century’s music pioneers. I own a compilation disc titled simply “Blues” that showcases his best recorded blues performances, and I’ll leave you with his “Wee Wee Hours”. All hail the uncrowned King!:

“The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore (Upon St. Patrick’s Day)” – Gene Kelly in TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

Continuing today’s salute to St. Patrick and all things Irish, how about Mrs. Kelly’s baby boy Gene dancing up a storm to “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore” from the 1949 musical TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (which you can read about here).  Does it get anymore Irish than this?

Rockin’ in the Film World #9: JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH (2015)

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Back in March, I attended the “Experience Hendrix” live show, featuring guitar gods Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Jonny Lang, and others jamming to the music of Jimi Hendrix. But as they say “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby”, and the documentary JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH is a full-on aural assault chronicling Hendrix’ 1970 performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival.

Director John McDermott begins the film with some famous talking heads (Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Susan Teschi, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis), as well as residents of the tiny town of Byron, where the festival was actually held (and they seem to be having a ball reminiscing!). There are clips of Hendrix on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW and of segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox (who hates them damn hippies!).

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Then it’s showtime, as Jimi and his band dive into classics like “Fire”. “All Along the Watchtower”, “Foxy Lady”, “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” , ‘Voodoo Child”, and “Stone Free”, which segues straight into “The Star Spangled Banner” and “‘Straight Ahead”. Jimi’s at the peak of his powers, using every trick in his repertoire, playing with his teeth, bending over backwards, working that whammy bar to bend those beautiful notes. It’s easy to forget what a powerhouse drummer Mitch Mitchell was in light of Jimi’s brilliance, but damn if he doesn’t approach Keith Moon territory with his furious playing. Billy Cox keeps a steady bass beat while Hendrix and Mitchell bounce off each other into the stratosphere.

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The performance was filmed on July 4, 1970, and less than three months later Jimi Hendrix was dead at age 27 of a barbiturate overdose. The footage for this film sat in filmmaker Steve Rash’s barn for over thirty years before being made into this documentary and released on the Showtime network. It’s been a long time coming, but now fans can enjoy this seminal piece of rock’n’roll history. It’s on DVD and Blu-Ray, and would make a fine Christmas gift for the classic rocker in your life.

Turn That Frown Upside Down With ANCHORS AWEIGH (MGM 1945)

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(Post-election blues got you depressed? Cheer up, buttercup, here’s a movie musical guaranteed to lift your sagging spirits!) 

Gene Kelly  and Frank Sinatra’s first screen pairing was ANCHORS AWEIGH, a fun-filled musical with a Hollywood backdrop that’s important in film history for a number of reasons: it gave Kelly his first chance to create his own dance routines for an entire film, it’s Sinatra’s first top-billed role (he was red-hot at the time), it gives viewers a glimpse of the MGM backlot in the Fabulous 40’s, and it features the iconic live action/animation dance between Kelly and Jerry the Mouse (of TOM & JERRY fame). It’s a showcase of Hollywood movie magic, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Kelly), Color Cinematography (Charles P. Boyle), and Song (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn’s ” I Fall in Love Too Easily”), winning for George Stoll’s Best Original Score.

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The plot’s pretty basic: Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on four-day shore leave in Hollywood. Kelly’s a notorious wolf, ready to go out and chase “dames”, while Sinatra’s the shy type (a former assistant choirmaster from Brooklyn!). Kelly once saved Sinatra’s life, so now Frank feels Gene “owes” him, and wants to learn how to pick up girls. They come across a little boy (cute-as-a-button Dean Stockwell) who’s run away from home to join the Navy. They return the tyke to his pretty Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), an extra trying to break into movies who Frank falls for. Kelly concocts a yarn about Sinatra being friends with famous conductor/pianist Jose Iturbi, and promises Aunt Susie an audition. He’s also fallen for her, though he tries to deny his feelings, and the usual musical comedy complications develop.

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What’s important about ANCHORS AWEIGH isn’t the thin plot, it’s those incredible musical numbers that help carry it from routine fluff to a higher level of art. Kelly and Sinatra perform together on “We Hate to Leave”, “I Begged Her”, and “If You Knew Susie” (a raunchy tune with funnyman Grady Sutton as Grayson’s would-be suitor). If you look closely at the dance numbers you can see Frank’s eyes watching Gene’s feet as he tries to follow his steps. The skinny-as-a-rail singer was no hoofer, and Kelly had to teach him to dance, later chiding Sinatra that he made him look “adequate”. Frank gets his chance to shine in his solo singing efforts with that incredible phrasing of his, interpreting the aforementioned “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Brahm’s Lullaby” (sung to Stockwell at bedtime, which also puts Kelly to sleep!), “What Makes the Sun Set”, and “The Charm of You”, all of which no doubt had the bobbysoxers swooning in the aisles.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the dance numbers, and the success of this film led to the pair eventually co-directing such classics as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. They’d met on Broadway when Kelly starred in PAL JOEY, and were reunited in Hollywood for his breakthrough in COVER GIRL. ANCHORS AWEIGH made them a force to be reckoned with at the movies. Gene’s athletic dancing in a number with Sharon McManus as a little beggar girl to “Las Ciapanecas” is a delight, and the fantasy “The Princess and the Bandit”, where he finally confesses his love for Grayson, is a marvelous precursor to the AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet.

But it’s for the sequence with Jerry Mouse that fans cherish most. Reportedly, Kelly and Donen approached Walt Disney with the idea of using Mickey Mouse as Kelly’s dance partner, but the cartoon giant turned them down flat. The duo then went to MGM’s own animation department, where producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were more than eager to take part in this joyful scene. Kelly visits little Dean Stockwell at his school, and enthralls the kids with a tale of how he once served “in the Pomeranian Navy” and brought laughter back to an animated fairy-tale land by teaching the King (Jerry) how to sing and dance. This whimsical set piece still holds up 71 years later , a true work of Hollywood art that hasn’t lost any of its charm:

Beautiful Kathryn Grayson’s operatic warbling has never been my cup of tea, but she’s more than okay as Aunt Susie, and I did enjoy her singing the Spanish-flavored “Jealousy” in a very well shot nightclub scene. Jose Iturbi’s flashing fingers on the piano uplift the standards “The Donkey Serenade” and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” (performed by Iturbi and a battalion of young pianists at the Hollywood Bowl), and he brings humor and warmth to his small but pivotal role. A battalion of Familiar Faces is also on hand, including Pamela Britton as a waitress (from Brooklyn, of course!) with designs on Sinatra, Leon Ames , Henry Armetta, Bobby Barber, Steve Brodie, Chester Clute, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy , Henry O’Neill, Milton Parsons, Rags Ragland , Renie Riano, and the entire United States Navy Band! With MGM, it was always go big or go home!

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Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops in this lavish Technicolor marvel. Sidney started in MGM’s shorts department, most notably the OUR GANG series, before being promoted to features, and quickly became one of their top musical directors. His friendship with Hanna and Barbera helped secure their services for the Jerry Mouse segment, for which we can be forever grateful! Isobel Lennart’s screenplay doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful musical numbers, and has more than enough good jokes and quips to keep the viewer interested between the dancing and singing. ANCHORS AWEIGH is one of the great 40’s musicals from MGM’s dream factory, a film to be viewed and enjoyed over and over again. As they say in show biz, “Now THAT’S entertainment!”.

Halloween Havoc! Extra: Bobby “Boris” Pickett Does THE MONSTER MASH With Zacherley!

Happy Halloween! One of my favorite Halloween traditions is hearing Bobby “Boris” Pickett sing his 1962 smash THE MONSTER MASH, and this year I’ve discovered a real treat. Bobby doing a live performance at the Chiller Theater con in 2005 with none other than the late, great Zacherley! Enjoy!

Halloween Havoc! Extra: SCREAMING JAY HAWKINS, the Original “Shock Rocker”

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Before Alice Cooper brought his theatrical “shock rock” to audiences, before Black Sabbath sang hymns to Satan, there was Screaming Jay Hawkins! A blues belting maniac from Cleveland, Hawkins incorporated horror into his stage shows, the likes of which had never been seen. Crowds ate it up as Screaming Jay popped out of his coffin, dressed as a voodoo priest complete with cape, top hat, and a smoking skull named ‘Henry’ atop his staff, performing his best known hit, “I Put a Spell On You”:

The story goes Hawkins and his band originally planned “I Put a Spell On You” as a slow blues ballad, but they all got roaring drunk at the session, resulting in Hawkins guttural screaming, and turning the song into a frenzied rock classic. The tune has been covered by dozens of artists, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Annie Lennox and beyond. Screaming Jay recorded many other horror-themed hits like “Frenzy” (featured in an episode of THE X-FILES) and the gruesome, cannibal themed “Feast of the Mau Mau”:

Like many early rockers, Hawkins found greater fame in Europe than his native country, and toured incessantly until his death in 2000 at age 70. He’s said to have sired between 50-75 children, thirty of which showed up at a reunion. Whether that boast is true or not, it only adds to the legend of one of the most colorful characters in rock history, the original “shock rocker” Screaming Jay Hawkins!