Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Roll Over Beethoven: Chuck Berry Passes On

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry died on March 18 2017 at the age of 90.

Chuck Berry was born on October 18 1926 in St. Louis. He grew up in The Ville, a historic and largely middle-class neighbourhood in the north of the city. He took an interest in music while still young, and gave his first public performance when he was about 15 and still in high school. He served time at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at  the Algoa Correctional Centre near Jefferson City for a series of car thefts and armed robbery. He was released after three years on his 21st birthday.

After marrying  Themetta "Toddy" Suggs in 1948, Chuck Berry trained as a hair stylist at the Poro College of Cosmetology in St. Louis. He worked for a time as a beautician. By the early Fifties he was playing with various bands in St. Louis. It was in 1953 that he joined pianist Johnnie Johnson's Sir John Trio. Chuck Berry not only added vocals to the group, but also incorporated country songs into their repertoire of ballads and blues. He even reworked Western Swing musician Bob Willis's version of "Ida Red' for the group. Chuck Berry and the Sir John Trio proved very popular at St. Louis's Cosmopolitan Club, playing to audiences that included people of European American as well as African American descent.

It was in May 1955 that Chuck Berry travelled to Chicago. It was there that he asked the legendary Muddy Waters about recording. Muddy Waters directed him to Leonard Chess and his label Chess Records. Chuck Berry thought Mr. Chess would be most interested in his various blues songs, but instead he was drawn to Chuck Berry's version of the traditional country tune "Ida Red". It was then on May 21 1955 that Chuck Berry recorded a variant of "Ida Red" under the title of "Maybellene". Johnnie Johnson played piano on the track, while Willie Dixon played bass. "Maybellene" proved to be a hit, reaching number one on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and number five on the Billboard singles chart.

Chuck Berry's next two singles, "Thirty Days (To Come Back Home)" and "No Money Down", reached the top ten of the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. His fourth single, "Roll Over Beethoven", not only reached number 2 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart, but peaked at number 28 on the Billboard singles chart. It has since become a rock music standard, covered by bands ranging from The Beatles to the Electric Light Orchestra. His next crossover hit, "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)", would do even better on the charts. It reached no. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 3 on the Billboard singles chart.

It was with "Rock and Roll Music" that Chuck Berry released a string of singles that were hits on both the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and the Billboard singles chart.  "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode" would prove to be huge hits. "Sweet Little Sixteen" reached no. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and number 2 on the Billboard singles chart. "Johnny B. Goode" reached no. 2 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 8 on the Billboard singles chart.

Unfortunately "Johnny B. Goode" would be his last huge hit for some time. While the songs Chuck Berry released in the latter part of 1958 and the early part of 1959 did well on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart, they performed poorly on the Billboard Hot 100. A scandal involving a 14 year old waitress eventually resulted in his arrest for violating the Mann Act after several trials, and he spent one and  a half years in prison from February 1962 to October 1963. Perhaps because of the scandal, many of his songs from late 1959 to 1961 did not even chart.

It would be 1964 that would see a comeback for Chuck Berry. His single "Nadine" peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. His single "No Particular Place to Go" performed even better, peaking at no. 10 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. His single "You Never Can Tell" peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Chuck Berry's other singles released in 1964 also did relatively well.

Unfortunately Chuck Berry's comeback would be short lived. While he continued to do well playing concerts, he had no more hits for the remainder of the Sixties. In fact, it would not be until 1972 that he would have another hit. "My Ding-a-Ling" became his only record to reach no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was followed by "Reelin' and Rockin'", which peaked at no. 27 on the chart and was his very last hit.

Chuck Berry released several albums throughout his career. His first album, After School Session, was released in 1957. He continued to release albums throughout the Sixties and the Seventies. His album Rock It, released in 1979, would be his final album until his last album Chuck, is released later this year.

On May 31 1961 Chuck Berry opened his own amusement park, Berryland, outside St. Louis. It would close later that year. In the 1980s Chuck Berry bought the restaurant The Southern Air in Wentzville, Missouri. The restaurant would close not long after controversy erupted following claims that Chuck Berry had installed a camera in the women's restroom. Chuck Berry elected to settle a class action suit consisting of 59 women, although his guilt in the case was never proven in a court of law.

Chuck Berry continued to tour throughout the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. From 1996 to 2014 he performed one Wednesday a month at Blueberry Hill,  a restaurant in University City, Missouri.

Regardless of whatever Chuck Berry might or might not have done in his personal life, there can be no doubt that he had a huge impact on rock music. In fact, a strong argument can be made that Chuck Berry was one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll. Growing up in St. Louis where he was exposed to the blues, rhythm and blues, country, and Western music, he blended them together to create a whole new sound. The roots of Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll can be traced back to such diverse artists as Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole, T-Bone Walker, Bob Willis, and Bill Monroe.

Beyond blending various music genre into rock 'n' roll, it is because of Chuck Berry that the guitar would become the primary instrument of rock music. Guitars solos were a central feature of Chuck Berry's songs and would continue to be characteristic of rock music forever afterwards. What is more, Chuck Berry utilised a clearer electric guitar sound than earlier rock 'n' roll artists. He often utilised electronic effects in his songs.

Chuck Berry would even shape the subject matter of rock 'n' roll for years to come. Mr. Berry's songs were directed towards teenagers, with references to school, dances, fast cars, good times, and, of course, rock 'n' roll. What is more, his songs were always done with a sly sense of humour, so that one did not have to be a teenager to appreciate them. Indeed, many of his songs were essentially stories. Chuck Berry not only provided much of the subject matter of early rock 'n' roll, but he also introduced a new level of showmanship to the fledgeling genre as well. With his swagger and trademark duck walk, Chuck Berry influenced rock performances for decades to come.

In the end it would be difficult to find an artist who influenced rock music more than Chuck Berry. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an artist or band that did not feel Chuck Berry's impact. Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others were influenced by Chuck Berry. His influence can be seen in entire subgenres of rock music, from power pop to punk. While Elvis Presley might have been rock 'n' roll's first superstar, arguably it would be the Brown Eyed Handsome Man who would have the bigger influence on rock music. Ultimately, rock music might simply not have been possible without Chuck Berry.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Dame Vera Lynn Turns 100

Most Americans when asked the question, "Who was the first British artist to top the American singles charts?", would probably reply "The Beatles." They would also happen to be wrong. That honour would go to Dame Vera Lynn, who topped the Billboard singles chart on July 12 1952 with "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart"  nearly eleven years before The Beatles arrived in the United States. It remained at the top of the chart for nine weeks.

There should be little wonder that Dame Vera Lynn would be the first British artist to top the American charts, as she is easily one of the most popular British recording artists of all time. Her first single, The General's Fast Asleep", was released in 1935. It was in 1939 that her recording of  "We'll Meet Again" made her a superstar. It proved to be one of the most popular songs of the World War II era and perhaps the song most associated with Dame Vera Lynn. Later Dame Vera Lynn's recording of the song would be used as the closing song of the classic film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).  By 1941 Dame Vera Lynn had her own radio show, Sincerely Yours. During World War II she toured Egypt, India, and Burma, entertaining the troops.

Although she is now strongly identified with World War II, Dame Vera Lynn continued to be successful well after the war. When the New Music Express compiled the first ever British singles chart in 1952, Dame Vera Lynn had no less than three entries in the top twelve for the year: "The Homing Waltz", "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart", and  "Forget Me Not". Her song "My Son, My Son" became her first number one on the British singles chart in 1954. In 1967  "It Hurts To Say Goodbye" proved to be a hit for Dame Vera Lynn in several countries, including the United States.

Ultimately Dame Vera Lynn would be the only artist to have hits on the British singles and album charts since their very beginning in 1952 into the 21st Century. She is also the oldest living artist to have a hit on the British album chart. The greatest hits album We'll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn topped the chart in September 2009, when Dame Vera Lynn was 92. Her new album, Vera Lynn 100, is currently burning up the British album chart, so that ultimately Dame Vera Lynn might break her own record.

Of course, Dame Vera Lynn is not only revered by the British public for her success as a recording star. She entertained British troops during World War II. In 1958 she formed a charity for The Stars Organisation for Cerebral Palsy. In 1976 she founded the Vera Lynn Charity Breast Cancer Research Trust. She has also dedicated time to charities for ex-servicemen and disabled children. Between her success as a recording star and her considerable charity work, Dame Vera Lynn was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1975 Birthday Honours. In 2000 Dame Vera Lynn topped a poll of Brits who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

At 100 years old Dame Vera Lynn definitely has the one of the longest careers of any singer anywhere. And as demonstrated by the success of her current album, she is still extremely popular. Indeed, short of perhaps The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, it would be difficult to find any British recording star who has had the success of Dame Vera Lynn.

In honour of Dame Vera Lynn's 100th birthday, here is perhaps her most famous song, "We'll Meet Again".

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Remembering Robert Osborne: A Collection of Tributes

Film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne died on March 6 2017 at the age of 84. He was survived by his partner, stage director and producer David Staller; his family; his friends; and a legion of adoring fans. Robert Osborne was something special, both to those who knew him personally and the many who only knew him as the host of Turner Classic Movies. His importance to the classic film community cannot be overestimated. With the perfect combination of charm, class, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of film history, Robert Osborne not only ensured that Turner Classic Movies would be a success, but he introduced an entire new generation to classic film. Those who knew him personally always had the same thing to say of Robert Osborne, that he was a consummate gentleman. No one ever heard a bad word said of Robert Osborne. He was known not only for his class and charm, but for his kindness, his warmth, his respect for others, and his integrity.

In honour of Robert Osborne I thought I would put together a small collection of tributes to him from my fellow classic film buffs, as well as links to the many tributes to him that have been published since his death.

K.C. of A Classic Movie Blog:

When Robert Osborne interviewed classic film stars, he served as a sort of surrogate for his audience. Our love for these legends flowed through him. He was so courtly and kind, especially with the ladies, who are always held up to so much more scrutiny in their later years. With the added difficulties of age, from frailty to fading memories or hearing, he always managed to read the emotions of his subjects, calibrating his tone and approach perfectly. He seemed incapable of being offensive or inappropriate. I think he had inherent charm.

Osborne had a taste of the acting life, and devoted his career to entertainment and the history of cinema. It gave him more compassion. He understood when a much-desired interview subject, having already given so much to the public, no longer saw the benefit in traveling to a film festival or a television studio to give more. For that reason he was adored and trusted.

Paula Guthat of Paula's Cinema Club, Founder of TCM Party and Co-Founder of Cinema Detroit:
My memory has been pretty sketchy lately, and I have not much to fall back on since my MacBookPro failed last week. But I do remember most vividly some of the few times I saw Robert Osborne in person at the 2013 TCMFF, and his extraordinary grace and unflappability.

The first time occurred at the media call. It was my first time going to the festival and I was so in awe of him. I was actually nervous to be in the same room with him. He strolled out and spoke for a little while and then took questions. He didn't shy away from opinions. I remember specifically that he defended the studio system, and said the Production Code actually produced some really creative filmmaking, and that explicitness doesn't guarantee sexiness or humor -- in fact it sometimes destroyed both. "Having a cap on some of that stuff so that people had to sneak around it made it a little more clever.”

He alluded the darker side of Old Hollywood with a reference to the "5 o'clock girls," one of whom he said Marilyn Monroe had been. He was a bridge to the studio era, he knew everyone, or someone who had known them. He was a total authority, but he carried it lightly; he had this way of disagreeing with or correcting people that was so smooth you barely noticed it.

He absolutely knew what I was just starting to understand: he and TCM were important, and that he, as the channel's standard bearer and most important face, was helping viewers through unemployment, illness, grief, divorce, family issues...whatever was going on. He and TCM were also bringing people together on- and off-line, and he got that too. He knew about TCM Party, the live tweet of TCM I started, and I was just shocked and delighted to hear him mention it.

Later I saw him in the lobby of the hotel, and I feared for his safety. No, seriously. To say he was mobbed would be an understatement. I always thought the first thing I'd ask him was whether he needed security on the TCM Cruise. There's not much place to hide on a ship in the middle of the ocean.

One of 2013's hot tickets was The General at Grauman's. Robert introduced it and mentioned that that particular screening was one of the last before they remodeled it. It turned out that the remodel was fairly respectful, but at the time no one truly knew what was going to happen with it. People booed, actually booed, him! He didn't even flinch. "Don’t throw anything," he said. "Well, if you do, throw a Porsche.”

Next year, I said. Next year I'll talk to him. I was too afraid this year, but next year, I'll definitely go right up to him and talk to him.

But it didn't happen. By the time the TCMFF 2014 rolled around, my husband and I had a movie theatre of our own, and I had this idea that if I programmed some classics, people would show up. This idea was wrong, as it turned out, but to my eternal regret, I stuck to the multiplex, checking out possible bookings, during what is now the de facto farewell to Mr. Osborne, the surprise tribute at the Montalban Theatre. In my defense, it was listed as a Q & A in the schedule, and it was a total surprise, even to him apparently.

In retrospect, he seemed in very good health in 2014, but he missed the 2015 fest, and was seen so infrequently on the channel itself, that by the time the 2016 fest rolled around, I wasn't really expecting him to be there, and he wasn't.

So I missed out meeting and chatting with him on this plane of existence. I hope there is a classic movie section of Heaven, maybe I can finally meet him there.

I can't help but think it's a shame that he never wrote a tell-all. Robert Osborne had forgotten more about Hollywood and its denizens than most anyone else ever knew. The changes in society and the industry he witnessed in his lifetime were massive and so was the institutional knowledge of Old Hollywood that went with him. But that wasn't his style. He epitomized elegance and discretion, and we'll never see his like again.

Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane, Freelance Social Media & Copywriting at getTV, Video Producer/Director at Red Thread, and Freelance Writer/Producer:

Over the years I often saw interviews with Robert Osborne where he talked about comforting fans during times of illness. He didn’t visit them in person, of course, but he did come into their homes (or hospital rooms) three or four times every night, thanks to his job as host of Turner Classic Movies.

It makes sense. For those of us who grew up loving them, old movies are comfort food. They’re the best pick-me-up, tranquilizer, insomnia treatment, companion, family heirloom. Whatever you need it to be tonight, that’s what a classic film is. And Robert was like that friend who can always be counted on to bring flowers when you’re under the weather. Except his bouquet was filled with movies.

I always figured, “How nice it is for the older folks, that they have Robert when they’re ill.” And then I got sick. It wasn’t planned, of course; these things never are. But it happened, and there I was in the hospital for weeks on end. It was December, cold and dark, and I was scared. But there was Robert Osborne on TCM every night, excited to show me a film I had never seen, or seen a million times.

Years later, I met him. I shook his hand. He smiled warmly, like he had waited his whole life to meet me.
“Thank you,” I said. “For all you do for classic film fans. We appreciate it more than you know.”  

Links to Various Tributes:

"Farewell, Our Silver Fox" by Brandie Ashe at True Classics

"Farewell Robert O" by Andy Ross at The Loafer

"Farewell to Robert Osborne" by Laura at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"How Turner Classic Movies Is Helping One of Its Hosts Grieve Robert Osborne’s Death" by Tiffany Vazquez from Slate

"The Late Great Robert Osborne" by Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts

"My Memories of Robert Osborne" by Raquel Stecher at Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog

"Remembering Robert Osborne" by  Lara Gabrielle Fowler at Backlots

"Remembering Robert Osborne, a Friend to All Classic Film Fans" by Jessica Pickens at Comet Over Hollywood

"Remembering Robert Osborne" by Beth Ann Gallagher at Spellbound

"Remembering Robert Osborne" by Jill Blake at Streamline, the Filmstruck Blog

"Robert Osborne - Requiescat in Pace" by Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog

"TCM's Ben Mankiewicz Remembers Robert Osborne: 'The Signature Face of a Network Unlike Any Other'" by Ben Makiewicz at The Hollywood Reporter

"You're Welcome Here Anytime--Remembering Robert Osborne" by Jill Blake from The Retro Set