On 16th April 1956 Chuck Berry sat in a studio in Chicago and recorded “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”. It was released in September the same year and reached #5 on the Billboard R’n’B singles.
The song was produced by brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess and backing was provided by Johnnie Johnson on piano, L. C. Davis on tenor saxophone, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums.
There have been many different ideas of the basis of the lyrics but a quote from Berry in his Autobiography gives a lot of insight.
“’Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ came to mind when I was touring California for the first time. After leaving St Louis with six feet of snow lying in sub-freezing temperatures, I found green grass and clear blue skies with eighty-degree breezes loitering along the evening sunset.
What I didn’t see, at least in the areas I was booked in, was too many blue eyes. The auditoriums were predominantly filled with Hispanics and ‘us’. But then I did see unbelievable harmony between the mix, which got the idea of the song started. I saw, through the length of the tour, quite a few situations concerning the life of Mexican people. For example, a Caucasian officer was picking up a fairly handsome male loiterer near the auditorium when some woman came up shouting at the policeman to let him go. He promptly did so, laughingly saluting the feminine rescuer. The verse in the song as situated a bit differently but was derived from that incident. The verse about Venus de Milo (believe it or not) came from thoughts out of a book I had come across Venus In Furs and the last verse from a fictional condition always appreciated in a baseball game.”
In 1963 Buddy Holly posthumously had a top-five hit with the song in the UK
Look here for the origin of more of Berry’s’ songs from his autobiography.
In 1933 John Lomax and his son Alan began their journey to compile an anthology of American ballads and folk songs for the Library of Congress. They wanted to particularly emphasize the contributions of African Americans. At the time Texas prisons contained a disproportionate number of African American men. In 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon, (Lomax’s predecessor at the Library of Congress) wrote in the New York Times that “Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries”. Lomax and his son believed that prisoners are “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” (They wrote this in application for the grant that allowed them to begin this anthology).
They began scouring Texas prisons and would discover folk songs that would later become some of the iconic lyrics of Rock and Roll. Songs like, ‘The midnight Special’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘He was a friend of mine’ all got their start as African American folk songs first recorded by the Lomax’s.
One such song, Black Betty, was first recorded in Central State Prison Farm in Sugar land Texas. Although it was made famous by Lead Belly, the original recording was of fellow prisoner James ‘Iron Head’ Baker in April 1933. The nickname Iron head had originated from an incident in which a tree fell on Bakers head during work detail, breaking apart the branches but leaving his head unscathed.
The Lomax’s recorded Baker numerous times in following years. Dates can be found here.
Black Betty was considered to be numerous things over the years from the songs conception, but most commonly a musket or the black car that took inmates to and from the prison.
Three years after the Lomax’s had made Lead Belly a folk success they returned to do the same with Baker. By that stage Baker was back in Sugar land serving a 99 year sentence for being a habitual burglar. The Lomax family used their connections to get him out on parole to tour the south’s prisons, after which he would be a free man. He was originally going to set up a business weaving mats out of corn shucks, a skill he had learned in prison. However he was not the success as Lead Belly had been and did not take to the life and found himself back in prison just three years later.
Sometimes also written as ‘be true to yourself. Its all you’ve got’, this quote by Janis Joplin is understood to be a paraphrased version of an interview after the Royal Albert Hall Concert on 21 April 1969.
This is the original quote:
“This whole thing that’s happened to me, you see, this whole success thing, er, it hasn’t yet really compromised the position that I took a long time ago in Texas, that was to be true to myself, to be the person that I f … that was on inside of me and not play games. You see, actually what I’m trying to do mostly, if I, in the whole world, is to not bullshit myself, and not bullshit anybody else. To be righteous to myself, I mean to be real, you know what I mean ? And so far, you know I’m, I’m just tryin’ to … I’m doin’ that, I am, you know. I’m not wearin’ cardboard eyelashes, and, and, you know, and girdles, and playin’ in Las Vegas. By still bein’ Janis, I just happens to be on a slightly different level or somethin’ now. And … you know I suppose it’s because I’ve never been premeditated enough in show-business that I was worried about putting on a, a face, you know what I mean ? So I can sit here and tell you the truth. You know ? Otherwise it’s slightly inhibiting, really, it doesn’t, it doesn’t force a game on me, because I refuse to let it force a game on me. So I can sit here and be just as honest as I would be in a bar, although I’d be a lot happier in a bar!”
76 years ago today, a pioneer of the music that would become known as rock and roll, was born. Charles Hardin Holley was born (Sept 7, 1936) and raised in the town of Lubbock in Texas. Buddy was a nickname adorned by his mother who believed ‘Charles’ was too grown up for a young boy and ‘Holly’ came from the misspelling of his surname on his first contract as Buddy Holly and the Three Tunes in 1956.
He began performing from a young age, learning to play numerous instruments such as the piano and guitar from his older brothers. Originally playing country music he was inspired to try rock after attending an Elvis concert in 1955.
In 1958 holly proposed on his first date with receptionist Maria Elena Santiago, they were married just two months later. However tragedy stuck just 7 months later when a plane carrying Buddy Holly along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and JP ‘Big Bopper’ Richardson crashed minutes after leaving the aiport in Clear Lake Iowa. All three rising musicians died on impact as well as the pilot. The day of the crash, 3rd Feb 1959 is often referred to as ‘The Day the Music Died’.
In the short 22 years of his life he created a music legacy that shaped rock and Roll into what it is today. He popularized Rock music with its rockabilly and rhythm and blues roots, to a broader white audience, bridging the racial divide. Holly recorded with music icons such as Chuck Berry as they shared a similar style and tone. People were sometimes unable to determine whether it was a white or black singer on the record. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first ever white act to play the Apollo Theatre because the booking agent assumed they were black because they played “colored music”.
Holly is often cited as a key influence to rock and roll icons such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The later even attended Holly’s final concert just two days before his demise and shared this experience in his acceptance of his 1998 Grammy for Album of the year.
“I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him…and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was—I don’t know how or why—but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
The Crickets (Holly’s band that the Beatles later got the inspiration for their own name) pioneered what became the standard rock lineup.Two guitars, bass, and drums. Holly was well known for his glasses and it is reported that a young Elton John began wearing glasses to imitate his idol, Holly, and later his eyes became so accustomed to them that he was then forced to get a subscription.
Don McLeans ‘American Pie’, although not confirmed, is believed to be suggesting that the crash in which Buddy Holly died was when rock and roll started to go down hill. It even uses a paraphrased version of the Holly hit ‘That’ll be the Day’ in the line ‘This’ll be the day that I die’.
We may never really know how far Holly’s influence spread but imagine what would have possible if we had those 53 extra years. It could have been extraordinary.
This quote comes from snippet of a May 1965 interview reportedly for In-Beat Magazine. Dylan is in fact in a discussion with the interviewer comparing poetry, lyrics and whether there is a definitive definition of both. In typical Dylan style the interview is a bit abstract but definitely worth a read as it gives just a glimpse into the enigma that is Bob Dylan. Here is the snippet that contains the actual quote.
Interviewer: If you put it in lyrics instead of poetry, you have a higher chance of hitting the people who have to be hit?
Bob Dylan: I do, but I don’t expect anything from it, you dig? All I can do is be me — whoever that is — for those people that I do play to, and not come on with them, tell them I’m something that I’m not. I’m not going to tell them that I’m The Great Cause Fighter or The Great Lover or Great Boy Genius or whatever. Because I’m not, man. Why mislead them? That’s all just Madison Avenue, that’s just selling. Sure, Madison Avenue is selling me, but it’s not really selling me, because I was hip to it before I got there.
Full interview can be found here
‘Knowledge speaks but wisdom listens’ is a phrase that has often been attributed to the music legend Jimi Hendrix. It is a valuable quote not just in relation to music but most aspects of life. The interesting thing to note is that although numerous websites list Hendrix as the origin of the quote, it is believed to have a beginning much earlier than those four years in the 60’s when Hendrix thrived as the greatest electric guitarist that the world is yet to see. Some suggest that it is a derivative of ‘It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen ‘ a quote by 19th century author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. However the basis of the quote can be seen early on in the philosophy of Socrates, who stated “I only know that I know nothing’ in an account by Plato. It seems that the message remains the same despite the ever changing consumer, and that changing the vessel may be the key to adapting to different audiences. In the 20th century, it seems the form of an electric guitarist with a love of rock and roll that changed music forever, was the ideal vessel.