Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Godfather of Rock n Roll

I was pretty much around for the birth of rock n roll. A little too young to really make the scene but, thanks to my older brother, I latched onto the music from the get-go. He had a great collection of all the early stuff… Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, The Platters, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, etc. All 45’s played on a little Motorola stack box “hi-fi”. Late at night I would spend hours tuning my AM radio into far-away places. If you ran a wire from the radio to the window screen (the screens were copper back then) you could extend the range ten-fold. When all things aligned, I could just barely pick up a station in Chicago, a pretty far piece from Baja Georgia. But my favorite station was WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a “race music” station and “John R” was my favorite jockey. There, I was introduced to Ray Charles, The Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Brown and John Lee Hooker to name a few. I loved it. Couldn’t get enough. If I had to choose the single most influential person on my life musically, it would have to be Ray Charles. He was the man. But this story is about another giant influence, not only on me, but the entire genre, the Godfather of Rock n Roll… Chuck Berry. On a hot summer Saturday afternoon, must have been around 1958, my brother was in a downtown music store when he heard some familiar licks coming from somewhere in the back of the store. He walked back to see who was causing all the commotion and came upon none other than Chuck Berry, sitting atop a Fender Twin, trying it out. My bro recognized the great man and approached him for an autograph. Apparently, my brother was the only honky in the place who recognized Mr. Berry and he must have been flattered because he struck up a brief conversation and invited my brother and his friends out to the club he was performing at that evening, a negro club on the northside called The Palms. When bro got home he was as excited as you might expect and he set about looking for some friends to go with him to the show. It turned out that none of his friends had the nerve to go off into darkest Africa and thought he was crazy to even think about it. Determined, but still afraid to go by himself, he stopped at a neighbor’s house, a black family, and asked the boy there who was about my brother’s age (Everett) if he would like to go. Well, asking a young black kid if he would like to be a guest of Chuck Berry at a show was about like asking him if he would like to meet Sweet Jesus himself. Hell yeah! Only there was a catch. Everett didn’t have a car and my dad wasn’t about to let bro take the family sedan downtown to a negro honky-tonk in the middle of the night. In fact, my dad wasn’t about to let bro go down there at all without an adult going with him. It seemed the whole scheme was on the rocks until Everett suggested asking his older brother, Big Eugene, if he would like to go. Big Eugene was about 25 or so, all grown up, and agreed to chaperone and chauffeur. I happened to be standing nearby when bro approached dad with the idea that they had found an adult to take them. Dad pondered on it a moment. He had no objection to Eugene looking after them, he was level-headed and big enough to look after the president, but he didn’t like the idea of my bro possibly being the only white kid in the place. It was then that I heard the magic words spill from by brother’s mouth…. “Well, Charleston can go with us.” I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Hell Yeah! “Come on dad, please! Please let us go, we’ll be alright. Puleeeeeze!” The ride across town to the club in the back of Eugene’s souped-up ’51 Ford coupe is something I’ll never forget. It was sensory overload to the tenth power. In the back seat of a hot rod Ford on a hot summer night with a couple of black friends and my bro passing a brown paper bag heading to a mysterious honky-tonk on the other side of town to see Chuck Berry. Faulkner should have had it so good. I was scared to death. But not about to let on. The Palms was located deep in Durkeeville. It was a part of town white people just don’t go to without good reason. At least, not decent folk. But here we were. The club was sort of on the outskirts of town on a large tree covered lot. The trees were Live Oaks with lights strung from one to another over the low hanging, Spanish moss covered limbs. It was an eerie, half-lit scene with cars scattered among the trees on the dirt lot. People were gathered in small groups, smoking, laughing and enjoying themselves. Not-so-discrete bottles in evidence. The club itself was a squat wood frame building. It was completely open. It had no glass windows, but large shutters that opened horizontally, propped up by sticks. Colored Christmas lights were strung from the ceiling and I could hear music from a juke box. People were beginning to stream in. My heart was in my throat as we walked up to the front door. Big Eugene told the man at the door we were guests of Chuck Berry and gave him my brothers name. The bouncer checked his list and I’ll be damned, bro’s name was on it! In we went, but not before the bouncer gave me a good once over. Probably wondering what a kid like me was doing there in the first place and if he should let me in at all. But he did, probably thinking me safer inside than outside, and it was the only time the entire evening anyone gave me a second glance. I remember feeling pleased to discover that there were other white people there. It gave me a lifelong empathy for black folks in a white world. It took Chuck over an hour to finally take the stage, but in the meantime we were entertained by a local band that’s since become a regional hit and a favorite at Carolina beach parties… The Hot Nuts. At some point during their show, they stripped off their sequined jump suits and wore nothing but hot pink briefs, very brief. The crowd went nuts, which seemed apropos. By the time Chuck took over it was nearly midnight. He tore the place down. Johnny B. Goode, Little Queenie, Almost Grown, Maybelline, Sweet Little Sixteen, Roll Over Beethoven. He screamed, he sweated, he duck-walked, he flirted with the girls. It was a rock n roll smorgasbord of the first degree. By the time we got home it was past three. Dad was waiting for us. Bro was grounded for a month. I laid awake the rest of the night with a smile from ear-to-ear. I went back to the place twice more, to see Ray Charles and the Howin’ Wolf. My education was complete.


  1. What an incredible experience and memory. This was a really big deal in that era. My step Dad listened to all this music and it's truly a part of my soul. Ray Charles and Otis Redding are forever etched in my heart.

  2. Dude what are you about 95 years old ha ha ha haha I am just jealous is all.

  3. Peach... Yes, it was a big deal in that era. I realize that more now looking back on it than I did at the time. But it was scary. I was about 14 yrs. old and very un-streetwise. But I loved the music so much all that quickly went away. Plus the whole spectacle of it all. I've spent a whole lot of time in my life in honky tonks and bars listening to rock n roll. Probably too much time. But hey, too late to look back now.

    Not quite 95 WM. About 30 yrs less.

  4. When it comes to Rock and Roll, the great founders that come to my mind are Ike, Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee.

    Ike parted the waters,
    Chuck showed them the promised land
    Elvis showed them the honey
    Jerry Lee? Well he just knew what do to.

  5. I was supposed to be the kind of kid that enjoyed classic rock, I really was, mariachi music was simply forced up on me!

    I LOVE this blog!! Definitely following, so glad you stopped by!

  6. Loving this post C.

    Being an old, no, former (wm), blues drummer, I can't help but think we may have run into one another. I never had the good fortune of seeing someone such as Chuck Berry in person, in a black club, but I sure as hell went to a few of them, and saw some lesser know, but great black blues bands...even sitting in on occasion. And it was a damn dangerous thing to do in those days. Not from the clubs, but from the local white folks possibly finding out what a couple of friends and I were doing.

    We started this whole black bar hopping...underage, I might add...due to listening and discovering black blues on a local black radio station. There were three of us and we became forever addicted to the blues. Our musical heros weren't Elvis, or God forbid, Pat Boone (fruity tutty, my ass), they were Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker...all the greats you mentioned above.

    The one white exception in our line-up of course, was Jerry Lee Lewis...in a place all by himself. Definitely not white.

    I feel sorry for people who never really discovered, or got into the real blues.

    Good post bro.

  7. Juan Pablo... So nice of you to stop by. Personally, I love Mariachi, maybe because it wasn't forced on me. I was born in Panama and my folks loved the island and salsa music. They would dance the Rumba and Samba. I was really lucky, my parents loved to party and gave me plenty of lee way.

    JJ... do you remember the Outside Club in Baja Georgia? Can you remember the names of any of the clubs you hopped? You might have gone to the Palms. The old one I described burned down and was replaced by a newer model. Somewhere mid 60's maybe.

  8. Outside...no. Many of them didn't even have names...I don't recall them at any rate. The Palms seems right...up off of Moncref Road(sp?)I think? There was a hell of a place out that way. It is all a bit foggy now, due to some rather "inclement" weather, and I think I am SLIGHTLY older than thou. Late fifties, early sixties for me.

  9. Yes, the Palms was off of Moncrief. Same place but probably the newer building. The Outside was on Atlantic near Arlington. Great rock 'n roll club for local bands. There was a club downtown called The Gates of Eden, it's where I first saw Dickie Betts and Butch Trucks playing in a Byrds cover band. But that's another story.
    BTY... I've got you by a few years.

  10. Ok, I was there then...albeit, foggedly.


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