It was one of those early parties soon after coming to Glasgow. I was innocently nursing a beer when my pal came up to me and determined he would know my opinion. I saw a slight madness in his eyes and knew the argument would not be settled unless I agreed to the principle of the hypothesis. ‘Who is it Rick?…. Tell me,’ he gently pushed, ‘ Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry?’ It was pointless asking if we had to choose, he was way beyond that. ‘Oh, it’s Chuck, Swan..it’s definitely Chuck.’ He slid off my shoulder and fell back into a relaxed slump on the carpet. I’d passed the test.
35 years later I have often thought of that conversation and how, I feel slightly guilty at letting Buddy down. (Females please note, only blokes have time to worry about this kind of stuff) I chose Chuck then and for many of the same reasons I’d pick him now, though I pray we are beyond the binary when it comes to musical decision making. Back then I knew some basic things about Chuck Berry that I still think are pretty important. His name was in the brackets of some of the records I’d owned as a kid that meant the world to me, every band I knew or wanted to know covered at least one of his songs and he was, to me, a great singer songwriter. Retrospectively all of that and more could be said about Buddy Holly too but there was one other factor about Chuck…well, he was kinda dangerous.
Aged 18 and still in school, Chuck was sent to reformatory for armed robbery. There was no ‘Merle sees Johnny’ moment here however. On his release he settled down to work in an auto plant before his big break arrived nearly ten years later. He met Leonard Chess in May 1955 who signed him to his legendary label in Chicago starting an incredible 60 year career. Chuck’s first single and still one of his most loved songs, Maybellene was his own take on Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys‘ traditional song Ida Red. From George Jones through to Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris Chuck’s songs have weaved their way through country music and rock ‘n’ roll. Nothing would have been possible had he not written the songs or played and sung the way he did. Last year he announced plans to make his first new album in 38 years which he would be making for Nashville’s own Dualtone Records. This is the cover of the album which has still to come out.
On Tuesday we’ll play Chuck and we’ll explain a little of his country connections. We’re delighted to say we are also going to include a new track from the (excellent) new Angaleena Presley album, some vinyl from Conor Oberst, a new song from Scotland’s own Eugene Twist and Edinburgh band, Mersault. Look out for more tracks from Hurray For The Riff Raff and we pay tribute to Dolly Parton’s Mr Everything, pedal steel player Don Warden who died last week.
It all starts at five past nine on BBC Radio Scotland FM this Tuesday. Join me if you can.