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Doug Phelps talks about Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and the late Johnnie Johnson.

The Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson: Meet Me In Bluesland

The Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson: Meet Me In Bluesland

“We dead stopped right out on there in the middle of recording Soul and basically spent three days writing in the studio as we went. It was all off the cuff, spur of the moment stuff and we came up with Meet Me In Bluesland. It was so organic…”Doug Phelps

Country rebels, The Kentucky Headhunters are set to release Meet Me in Bluesland [Alligator Records] on June 2nd, a recording made with late pianist Johnnie Johnson, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, known for his work with Chuck Berry, not long before his passing.

The Kentucky Headhunters met Johnnie Johnson at a Grammy after party in 1989 after they had won the Grammy for best Country performance by a group or duo for Pickin’ On Nashville.

Their name would be brought up by Keith Richards when Johnnie was getting ready to record his second solo album. A friendship both personal and professional endured through recordings, jam sessions and live gigs until Johnnie’s passing in 2005.

Brad Hardisty / The Nashville Bridge: How did you work with Johnnie Johnson in the first place?

Doug Phelps / Kentucky Headhunters: Keith, Eric Clapton and NRBQ got on the project with Johnnie for his first solo record. That would have been, I guess that was the early nineties when that came out. They wanted to do another album and Keith recommended The Kentucky Headhunters, because he couldn’t do it at the time.

TNB: So, Keith recommended you guys. I guess that was really an honor. Most people are still not aware how important Johnnie Johnson was to Chuck Berry’s songwriting and recordings as well as some of the other things he did.

DP: Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Johnnie hired Chuck Berry in 1955 to be his guitar player. He had a sax player that couldn’t make it to a gig and he knew about Chuck. Of course, you know, Chuck ended up taking over. Anyways, Johnnie was the initial person that hired Chuck and that’s how he got that ball rollin’ in the first place. So, Johnnie sang on all the early hits and played with him for years. Chuck at one point in time decided he just wanted to start playing with the local band and he let everybody go. So, Johnnie played with Albert King for a while and recorded with him and toured with others.

TNB: I never heard much about him after that.

DP: Johnnie got off the road and became a bus driver in St. Louis. He was a city bus driver.

TNB: The realization of how important he was to Chuck Berry’s style as well as the way Chuck would do two string leads didn’t really come to my attention until the film Hail Hail Rock and Roll and Johnnie Johnson was up there playing and Chuck’s music sounded like it was supposed to.

Kentucky Headhunters Live

Kentucky Headhunters Live

DP: Yeah, Keith Richards kind of brought that out and got them playing together for the first time in quite a while. When they chose Keith to be the director, he said “I’ll do this on one condition, I’ve got to find Johnnie Johnson and put Johnny and Chuck together. “

TNB: Keith knew how important that original partnership was to the integrity of those songs. Chuck and Johnnie were really partners at one time.

DP: When you think of Johnnie and Chuck back in the day, you think so much of the teams like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page or Keith and Mick. They were the first rock and roll team if you can call it that.

TNB: What period of time was the band in when you got approached to work with Johnnie?

DP: We were approached to do the second Johnnie record.

TNB: Didn’t you meet Johnnie Johnson at the Grammys before that?

DP: I wasn’t there at the Grammys. At that time, they had just brought the Johnnie record over there to the Grammys. The first thing they ran into at this Grammy after party was Johnnie Johnson. He was over there by himself. So, they immediately went over to him and hung out with him all night. And that’s really where they first met him and they became friends with Johnnie. Then they got approached to do the second project with Johnnie which was called That’ll Work and that was in 93. So, that’ll fix you up on how they met.

TNB: So what was that first session like?

DP: Johnnie walked into the practice house and said, “Play a song and if I like it great and if I don’t, I’m out.” They tore into something and Johnnie loved it. Johnnie said, “Alright, I’m in the Headhunters!”

TNB: It sounds kind of like it gelled from the first time the band jammed with Johnnie.

DP: We really just love Johnnie. I came back in the band in 95. So, when I met Jonnie we did some shows together. We` would bring him out and use him on some of his recordings.

TNB: So, how did Meet Me In Bluesland come about?

DP: It came time for us to do our next project for Audium during 2003 and so we were recording Soul and on that particular album we were going to do the Freddie King song, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and we wanted Johnnie to play on it so we got in touch with him. The night before he was in Houston and sat in with The [Rolling] Stones. He is a heavy heavyweight in music. He had hung out with The Stones all night., In the meantime, Francis, Johnnie’s wife, called Richard and said “I know you have him coming into record this one song for this project but you are going to have him for two or three days there. He’s not getting any younger.” I think he was seventy eight at the time. She basically said she would love us to record and write with him, do some stuff and record with Johnnie because who knows how much longer he is going be around, so that is basically what we did.

TNB: You’re in the middle of recording Soul and the project stops?

DP: We dead stopped right out on there in the middle of recording Soul and basically spent three days writing in the studio as we went. It was all off the cuff, spur of the moment stuff and we came up with Meet Me In Bluesland. It was so organic and Johnnie made you play like men. He made you grow up in your playing. We got the project finished and just basically put it under the bed. Richard literally put it under his bed at the house. We figured there would be some point when we would take a look at it and see what we could do with it.

TNB: It’s been over a decade since it was recorded. The public never knew about it. Why didn’t this come out earlier?

photo courtesy The Kentucky Headhunters

photo courtesy The Kentucky Headhunters

DP: Now, we have been asked this question already. Johnnie passed away in April 2005 so it wasn’t much beyond this project that he passed. You know, we were asked the question, why didn’t you release it at that point? It just seemed like we didn’t want to misconstrue the fact that we were taking advantage of his death. We had the highest regard for Johnnie as well so we just we said we will just wait until Francis says what about the project or what are you gonna do with it?

TNB: So, ten years passes.

DP: It’s October of last year and we get the call from Francis, “I’m not getting any younger myself. Now, I know you got the project and I’d love to hear it.” And we said okay that’s our sign that it’s time for us to do something. Ironically, we were in the middle of writing for a new Headhunter record. We weren’t in the studio yet but kind of like that same thing like when he came in we just stopped Soul in the middle of recording.

TNB: You dropped everything again.

DP: We stopped our writing and then went full force, full speed on getting this project back out. We knew we’d done it. We were really under the gun and in a hurry. We knew it was good when we did it but it had been a long time since we had heard it so we didn’t know what we were going to get into when we pulled the tracks back up and to our surprise it was all there. I re-sang two songs. Richard re-sang two songs. Greg wanted to re-do one of the guitar parts. It was just little bits here and there and that was it. It was all there.

TNB: It was only a few days but the magic was there. Johnnie had really fit in with the band or vice versa.

DP: It was one of those magical things that just happened in the studio with Johnnie.

TNB: Yeah, then you had to figure out distribution and all that.

DP: The first thing we did was go to Alligator Records and wanted Bruce Iglauer to hear it. We figured that would be a great blues label home for it. He loved it and we started negotiating immediately with Alligator Records. We wanna make sure it gets its due. There is a lot of historical value with this project that we did with Johnnie. Johnnie brings a lot to the table and we just happened to be along for the ride. We want to be good stewards of what we do with the project. We thought that if anybody could pull that off, Alligator Records could.

TNB: It’s good to see that The Kentucky Headhunters are still around. A lot of the big rock sound in Country today can trace back to what you started back then.

DP: We were ahead of our time. Yet, we still somehow or another broke through and you know it was just such a crazy time that we were just fortunate that it turned out like it did. Well we’re all the way back to where we started with just the four of us. That’s how we started.

TNB: What about the new Headhunters album you were working on?

DP: We were about seven songs into our writing process when Francis called. We waited too long. We should have had a Headhunters project out last year or even at the end of the year before last because Dixie came out in 2010. We knew were a little behind and coming out with something new helps our tour dates. It kind of goes hand in hand. When this came up, we knew this was the project that we need to work on right now. Once it gets past the bulk of this, we are going to get back into writing and finishing up the record ahead of us. So there will be another one of them sooner than later.

TNB: This is a cool project.

photo courtesy The Kentucky Headhunters

photo courtesy The Kentucky Headhunters

DP: I still get chills when I talk about it. That’s how special it was for us and how much respect we had for Johnnie and how close we became over the years. We’re very excited about it.

  •  Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN
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backtoback recordRecord Store Day has been a major phenomenon not just for the resurgence of vinyl, but, for musicologists and developing a deeper palette for this emerging generation.

One of the big features are Back-to-Back 7inch releases which have usually been two different bands performing the same song such as this year’s Deep Purple “Highway Star” with the flip side being Type O Negative’s version of “Highway Star.”

One release that could have been improved upon would have been The Stooges’ “No Fun” backed by the cover version by The Black Keyes. The current  relativity of The Black Keyes should not have been overshadowed by The Sex Pistols performance of “No Fun” as the only song performed at their final gig not only in the United States, but, as a band where Johnny Rotten stated ”We will perform one song and one song only…No Fun.”  At the end of the song Johnny is heard saying, “Have you ever felt you’ve been cheated?” That singular performance ignited the Northern California punk scene that brought forth The Avengers, MX-80 Sound and the Dead Kennedys to name a few. The Sex Pistols should have been the flip side. Can you music company tastemakers get it right? We shall see.

Let’s start with some serious suggestions for future 7 inch releases.

(Hyperlinks will get you a listen)

backtoback terry reidTerry Reid – Rich Kid’s Blues  / The Raconteurs – Rich Kid’s Blues

Terry Reid was Jimmy Page’s first choice for The New Yardbirds. Terry was busy enough with his solo career and suggested Jimmy Page check out Robert Plant who was in a band called Band Of Joy. The Raconteurs did a spot on rendition on their second album. This would be an easier one to see happen since Jack White has the label and reissue experience to make this one. “Rich Kid’s Blues” could be a great first introduction to most people for little known Terry Reid in the United States.

backtoback jimiChuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode / Jimi Hendrix – Johnny B. Goode

Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” could be the de facto rock and roll song. It is a 1-4-5 in major chords instead of 7th’s like the blues and the beat was fast. This was the song that any band could sit down and jam to see if things would work back in the 60’s and 70’s. When Jimi Hendrix performed “Johnny B. Goode” in Berkeley, California, it was caught on film and featured on Hendrix In The West and Jimi Plays Berkeley.  Jimi did “Johnny B. Goode” like he did “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, this was a total barnburner not only showcasing his ability, but, there may even be more of a mental back story then you know. Jimi’s mother named him Johnny when he was born while his Dad was away in the war. One of the last places Jimi was known as Johnny was staying with relatives in Berkeley, California before he went back to Seattle and his father legally changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix.  He wasn’t too happy about it. He insisted on being called “Buster” after a character from Flash Gordon.  So, in a way, Jimi is the real Johnny B. Goode in disguise.

backtoback hey judeThe Beatles – Hey Jude / Wilson Pickett – Hey Jude

Okay, while The Beatles “Hey Jude” may be one the longest singles ever and had a great story about Paul McCartney writing a piece of music for John’s son, Julian to help him get over his parent’s divorce, being a great supportive “uncle”’ Wilson Pickett’s version has an interesting twist as well.

It goes like this. Wilson Pickett was in the middle of recording an album at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama when the band decided to take a break and head out to go get some food and drinks. Wilson decided to hang out in the studio because he was black and didn’t feel like getting harassed by the locals and Duane Allman who was playing guitar on the session stayed with Wilson because he had long hair and would face some teasing by local folks as well. So, Wilson started jamming on the organ the recently released Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Duane liked what he was doing, putting a little gospel soul into the British rock ballad. He started laying some guitar on Wilson and by the time the band got back in the morning, Duane and Wilson had the making of one heck of a “Hey Jude” cover. It was not only a great cover, but, is considered the record that started southern rock. The groundswell hit that spawned the Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and countless other Capricorn Records.

Okay how about some call and response 7inch?

backtoback bear catBig Mama Thornton – Hound Dog / Rufus Thomas – Bear Cat

Okay, we all know about Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”, but, let’s go with the original on this. Big Mama Thornton singing something that Elvis’ probably heard on the “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show in Memphis. Well, Sam Phillip’s over at Sun decided it would be good to put out a response to “Hound Dog” with the cut “Bear Cat.” The only problem was it was too close to the original and “Bear Cat” ended up in a big lawsuit at the time. Now this all happened before Elvis recorded at Sun.

Okay here is a call and response that is a really sly one. Let’s see if you caught this one.

backtoback the holliesThe Hollies – The Air That I Breathe  / Pink Floyd – Breathe

Both songs move at similar tempo and feature some lucid beautiful guitar. The Hollies have almost that slow Eric Clapton sans George Harrison lead while Pink Floyd has the flowing pedal steel going on.  It’s almost like Pink Floyd came up with the idea while listening to The Hollies. They say that Pink Floyd may have been watching film of The Wizard of Oz, but, maybe it was The Hollies as Pink Floyd sang, “Breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care, leave but don’t leave me,” was really lead-n bridge as the first lines after the chorus by The Hollies, “Sometime all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you.”

Hey here is a debate I started.

freecovers.netQueen – Bohemian Rhapsody / Mott The Hoople – Marionette

You really need to know the back story on this to see a link. Queen and Mott The Hoople used to tour together in England before Queen really broke big.  They really got along well and Queen even referenced Mott in the song “Now I’m Here” off of Sheer Heart Attack in the line, “Down in the city just Hoople and me.” One time while enjoying “Marionette” which was written a couple of years before “Bohemian Rhapsody” I was really paying attention to the story line in the song. “Marionette” was similarly like a mini rock opera piece with changes in tempo and dynamics and told the story of a person trying to keep from selling-out, told in first person it starts out, “No Puppet, no liar, won’t bend my lips to wire.”  Before going to the chorus, “Marionette – I Aint One Yet, Teacher’s pet – will you better forget it.” Before the outro, “They gambled, with my life and now I’ve lost my will to fight, Oh God these wires are so tight … I’m just a Marionette.” It is a whole conceived story that could be with a true to yourself musician eventually losing his soul to the corporate music entity, but, the way the story is told is really resembles how Queen went through structuring a “song” like Bohemian Rhapsody” another mini-opera.

I decided to contact Ian Hunter directly through his website and the interactive Horses Mouth page to see if he ever felt Queen got the idea to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” from touring together and Mott doing “Marionette?”  Ian Hunter responded, “I’ve no idea. You’d have to ask them. You know Freddie was kinda like that anyway. They were what they were and we were what we were. We got on famously though. Still do.”

Okay, how about similar riffs?

back to back xX – White Girl / Nirvana – Come As You Are

Okay, the verse parts include similar almost dead-on riffs. X, who was considered the flag bearers of the Los Angeles punk scene, included “White Girl” on their second critically acclaimed album Wild Gift in 1981 while Nirvana slowed the riff down a little and featured “Come As You Are” on their second album for major label Geffen, oh, I mean DGC. While Nirvana did do a song called “About A Girl” I could never find a cover version of “White Girl.” The part where Nirvana sings, “No, I don’t have a gun,” is almost like X’s tag of “She’s a white girl, but I’m living with a white girl.”  Kurt Cobain described “Come As You Are” as lyrics about “people and what they’re expected to act like”. “White Girl” was John Doe’s ode to The Germs’ bassist – Lorna Doom.  John was dealing with attraction and good ol’ Catholic guilt being married to Exene.  While, he may have cheated a little “mentally” it was not John’s “Norwegian Wood” since Exene knew what it was all about at the time.

backtoback black sabbathRed Hot Chili Peppers – Give It Away / Black Sabbath – Sweet Leaf

Okay, hey, Red Hot Chili Peppers sampled “White Girl” in one of their songs off of Mother’s Milk, so, were they just funkin’ thing up a bit while listening to Sweet Leaf off Masters of Reality? Hey Rick Rubin was producing the thing. Rick was also working with Slayer around the same time and he just produced the new Black Sabbath album. Rick was known for mashing things up like sampling Led Zeppelin on Beastie Boys tracks. Okay, here is my presumptive back story. Rick throws Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” up loud and lets the Chili Peppers jam with it until they come up with their own funky masterpiece.

Dude, you don’t want me running your record company because I’ll be too creative with these back to back 7 inch records and your mind won’t be able to handle it.

Well, the “Iko,Iko” super secret release was not bad.

–          Brad Hardisty, Nashville, Tn     thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com