Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Transformation of Chuck

Rock and Roll's DNA suggests an evolution from rogue versions of country, blues, and more energetic forms of African American church music (the term "rocking" had its origins in both religious hymns and sea chanty's––rocking and rolling referring to the movements of the ocean). Add other various ancestral cross pollinations to the process and eventually we have this sometimes beautiful bastard that is called Rock and Roll. (Its constituent components also evolved from messes of other musics as well.) Who were rock's first adopters and whence it all came has been the well argued territory of fanatics and other cultural nitpickers for at least a few generations now. Some argue that the more rollicking forms of hillbilly music may have seeded some of the form's earliest zygotes. Chuck Berry and Bill Hailey (Rock Around the Clock especially) are common citations to this argument.

An example of rock's hillbilly origins are on ample display in this vid from 1955 (same year Elvis made his first recordings for Sun). It's been suggested that Berry borrowed the name Maybelline from a line of popular beauty products. This seems unlikely as Maybelline cosmetics wouldn't appear on the market until the early '60s. (The cosmetic is said to have been named after the sister of the chemist who'd developed mascara––in Spanish meaning more face. The titular sister Maybel had been using a mixture of coal dust and Vaseline to darken her lashes: Hence, Maybel + Vaseline = Maybelline. Skeptics may find this story too precious and apocryphal to not be a classic invention of cosmetic copywriters. It's more likely that the cosmetic company borrowed the name from Berry to apply some pop cultural cred.)

Note how the song's hillbilly-ness is unwittingly boosted by the backing from these European jazz hacks. Their cultural tourism better allows the country quotient to be cold-cocked into submission as Berry tears into his guitar interlude. Berry throws in his characteristic trick bag and more than a few sparks as he abstracts his usual technique in the heat of his live performance. It's an iconic performance that Berry tosses off like a guy casually busking for coins for a bus ride home. Often the great thing about historic moments is that they don't know how historic they are.

The studio band vamps as it waits for Berry to enter the shot as if he were finishing an off camera cigarette with some cute chick he was hoping to hook up with later. (Berry runs onto the stage having to both plug in his guitar and turn on the amp––was no one expecting him?) The besuited audience appears as stoic and enthusiastic as a party of Secret Service agents. Berry doesn't care. He digs into his performance like a pro and nails his chicken walk as if it were a screaming crowd of teenage girls throwing lacey thongs at him.

Good stuff: Another tip o' the hat to Art Chantry for bringing this to my attention.

No comments: