Blues at Newport was one of my life-changing albums. I don’t remember how or why I bought it (or got my mom to buy it for me), but it was Dave Van Ronk’s version of “That’ll Never Happen No More” on that set, more than his version of “Cocaine” on a Fantasy sampler, that persuaded me to persuade my mom to go see him in concert. Neither recording had captured my imagination on first hearing, but when I saw the poster for the gig I recognized the name and went home and listened, and that was enough to send us to the concert that changed my life.
The tracks on that album that did capture my imagination immediately were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee doing “Key to the Highway,” and in particular John Hammond’s performance of “No Money Down.” I don’t think I was yet aware of Chuck Berry, and certainly hadn’t heard his version of that particular song — and when I did, it took a while for me to accept it, because my first reaction was that it was too perky and didn’t have the guts of Hammond’s. I’ve revised that opinion over the years, but there’s still more Hammond than Berry in the way I do this.
“No Money Down” is an interesting example of a self-penned follow-up or “answer song”: Berry had hit with “Maybellene,” in which his little Ford was “motorvating” over the hill and won a race with a Cadillac Coupe de Ville driven by the title lady. But rather than being true to his Ford (never mind the lady), in his follow-up he’s motorvating back into town and jumps at the opportunity to trade up.
Musically, this was one of the many offshoots of Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Written by Willie Dixon, that song started a wave of comically exaggerated blues songs using versions of Muddy’s trademark riff. Ray Charles had “It Should’ve Been Me,” the Robins/Coasters had “Riot In Cell Block Number 9” and “Framed,” Ruth Brown had “I Can’t Hear a Word You Say,” and Chuck Berry had this one.
Incidentally, Hammond changed “Murphy bed” to “roll-away bed,” apparently to be more up-to-date, and I went back to the original because I thought it was charmingly archaic (my only experience of a Murphy bed being the site of Britt Eklund’s downfall in The Night they Raided Minsky’s) — but now that we’re in a new age of chic urban living, I find Murphy beds are advertised everywhere from Costco to Ikea.