Saturday, October 4, 2008

Semper Fi

God bless my cousin Jimmy. He is Aunt Eileen's elder son, and he and his brother, Bob, put up with my presence in their bachelor pad for close to two months in the summer of 1970. When the "Overture from Tommy" by the Assembled Multitude started getting airplay on WLS, Jimmy patiently explained to me that, in addition to the overture, Tommy had an underture. Another time, I was reading, and Jim took the book and closed it, then handed it back. Bob protested, but I thought it was a good exercise in always remembering to stay aware of the page you were on, in case you should drop the book or something.

And after I went back home in September, 1970, Jimmy challenged me: I was skinny, so if I would do as many sit-ups and push-ups as I could do, each day for a month, he would give me ten dollars. I was faithful to the task, and after thirty days, I could do 50 push-ups and 100 sit-ups. I showed Jimmy my chart, my dad verified it, and Jimmy paid me. I was, alas, still skinny.

But these memories have not had the enduring effect that an older experience has had on my music listening. One day, four-year-old caithiseach asked Jimmy to read him the title of a 45 Uncle Tom had recently brought over. Jimmy kindly obliged, and I went away thinking that I had a military song to pair with "General of Broken Hearts" by Marlin Greene. This new song's title was "Little Marine."

I already had a song about the Army, and I didn't know a lot about the Marines, so when I dropped the needle on the record, the Marine theme didn't entice me, and the chugging guitar didn't, either. As was always the case with unimpressive songs, this platter went into the Stack of Oblivion, and thereby it avoided becoming a Victim of the Great Vinyl Meltdown of 1972.

The issue I now have with that scenario is that the song's title is not "Little Marine." It's "Little Marie." The single (Chess 1912) was released by a guy named Chuck Berry, and while the song didn't crack the Top 40, it did enter the Hot 100 on October 24, 1964. I figured out the title a number of years ago, but I didn't bother to play the single to see if I liked the song better than I had when I was four.

I played it this summer, when I was digitizing the song for this post. I didn't figure the song would do much for me, though I enjoy Chuck Berry's other songs, many of which follow the same basic pattern (for better or for worse).

Imagine my surprise when "Little Marie" turned out to be a sequel to "Memphis," his 1959 composition that Johnny Rivers took to #2 in 1964. "Little Marie" uses the same melody, subject matter and characters from the story line of "Memphis." The song doesn't seem too contrived, but its release at about the same time that Johnny Rivers was riding high with Part 1 of the story makes it seem that the inspiration was an opportunity to mint some extra money.

Chuck Berry is one of the true icons of rock and roll, with 14 Top 40 hits to his credit between 1955 and 1973, including "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven" (later covered by the Electric Light Orchestra), "Rock & Roll Music" (covered later by the Beach Boys), "Johnny B Goode" (referred to in Rick Nelson's "Garden Party"), "Back in the U.S.A." (covered by Linda Ronstadt and the obvious basis for a semi-parody by the Beatles, "Back in the U.S.S.R.") and "No Particular Place to Go." I won't bother to mention that Chuck's only #1 hit came in 1972 and was called "My Ding-A-Ling." No, I didn't mention that, and you can't prove that I did.

It also turned out that "Surfin' USA" by the Beach Boys was patterned so closely after Chuck's "Sweet Little Sixteen" that he is now credited as the writer of the Beach Boys classic.

Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926, which means he was 28 when his first Top 40 hit entered the charts. That makes him a late bloomer, but he is still going strong as he approaches his 82nd birthday. (I would have held this post until later in the month to acknowledge his birthday, but I have a series of related posts scheduled for that time frame.)

Chuck won the Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1984 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He has created a whole lot of enjoyable music, and if I had known he was singing about a little girl, rather than some Marine, I might have given today's song more attention.

Here's a glimpse of Chuck's live performance style. No one is like him. In the middle of the song, he does his famous duck walk, which I see as a misnomer, since he does not resemble a duck.

I'm away from my home computer, and I can't remember what I have planned for Wednesday. Thus, no teaser. Just a request that you stop by to visit on Wednesday!

Chuck Berry, Little Marie


whiteray said...

Ah, good ol' Chuck: One of the main trees in the rock 'n' roll forest of the Fifties. Great post, great record, great clip. Might have wanted to mention that the Beatles did more than credible covers of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock & Roll Music." That last, in fact, was the first Beatles' recording I truly loved, having found it on the recombinant album "Beatles '65".

caithiseach said...

As one might expect, whiteray points out an essential fact. The Beatles showed more intensity on "Rock & Roll Music" than the Beach Boys did, and I did mention them. Thanks, whiteray, for this addition to the story.