Nadine (Chuck Berry)

 

This is my favorite Chuck Berry lyric, which is saying a lot. He was a phenomenal writer, with a gift for fitting words together so they scanned, rhymed, and still felt like normal human speech spiked with flashes of wry humor:

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walking down the street.
I yelled to the driver, “Hey, conductor, you mus’
Slow down, I think I see her — Please let me off the bus!”

Berry is usually classed as a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, which of course is true, as far as it goes. His most influential moment was the mid 1950s, when he recorded “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Memphis,” and a string of other hits, as well as lesser-known masterpieces like “Too Much Monkey Business” and “No Money Down.” But that was only part of the story: he kept developing as a writer over the next decade, and some of his greatest lyrics were penned in the early 1960s (maybe during his year and a half in prison on a racist Mann Act conviction): “Nadine,” “Promised Land,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “You Never Can Tell.”

After that, he pretty much cruised as an oldies artist — his only number one hit came in 1972 with “My Ding-a-ling,” but that was a naughty novelty he’d been performing at live shows for years. There was another prison stint for income tax evasion and some unpleasant stories… but whatever the complexities of his personal life, his songs changed the world. It is impossible to imagine Bob Dylan writing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” without Berry’s example, and no one ever turned street language into poetry as naturally, at least until the classic era of rap.

I only saw Berry twice, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent circa 1970 and a quarter century later at the one-off Newport R&B Festival. That was an incredible line-up, two days of music with Dr. John’s band backing everybody on day one and Allen Toussaint’s band backing everybody on day two. Chuck played with Toussaint, and it was the weirdest and most memorable set of the weekend.

I won’t say it was good, exactly — but it was real music, not canned, not the hits, not going through the motions… which was noteworthy, because Chuck was by then notorious for just playing the hits and going through the motions. As far as I could tell, that was his plan at Newport as well, but he came out and there was Allen Toussaint on piano — a giant in his own right — playing the piano parts off Chuck’s old records, note for note, like he’d assimilated every note in his youth and been waiting forty years for the chance to play them with the master… which I’m guessing is exactly right.

Chuck responded by getting into the instrumental breaks, trading licks with Toussaint, and they weren’t the rote licks off his records — his guitar was out of tune, and they were strange licks, and some folks thought the whole set was a disaster, and I’m not arguing, but… Berry and Toussaint were both giants and they were so obviously enjoying themselves that it felt like a privilege to be there.

This version of “Nadine” is sort of an accidental tribute to that afternoon, since I do it as a rumba in the style of Snooks Eaglin, who was Toussaint’s guitarist in the Flamingos, their first band, back in their teens. I’ve loved Eaglin’s playing since I was a kid, but frankly ended up with this arrangement because I couldn’t play Berry’s straight-ahead 8-to-the-bar for three minutes without getting cramps in my right hand…