Tribute CD to Chuck Berry rolls out

By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


September 16, 2004

It's not that Chuck Berry is a stranger in his own town. He performs once a month at Blueberry Hill, within yards of his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and can be spotted just about anywhere wearing his trademark skipper's cap. So he can't be accused of keeping a low profile. As a founding father of rock 'n' roll -- we won't argue here whether he should be The Founding Father -- and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Berry has paid his dues and been given his due "Around and Around" the world.

But Kip Loui, a singer, songwriter and guitarist with the Rockhouse Ramblers and a KDHX-FM (88.1) DJ, thinks it's criminal that Berry is taken for granted in his hometown.

"That really bothers me," Loui says. "Take Hank Williams in Montgomery, Ala. I'm told there's a statue of him

downtown. What's Chuck got here? He's got a star that everybody walks over. That just seems wrong to me."

It also bothered Loui that nobody had produced a tribute CD to the man whose music was a major inspiration for the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and just about anybody who's strapped on a guitar over the past 40 years.

"These days, the lefthanded drummer for Whitesnake has a tribute album," Loui says. "It just shocked me that the father of rock 'n' roll didn't have one yet."

Well, he does now, thanks to the work of Loui, Tom "Papa" Ray of KDHX, and Chris Grabau of Undertow Records and the band Magnolia Summer, among many others. The CD "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock & Roll" is scheduled to be released Oct. 5, just 13 days before Berry's 78th birthday.

And on Saturday night at the Pageant, some of the St. Louis artists who contributed to the project will throw a CD-release party. The Bottle Rockets will headline and back up the great Fontella Bass, who will sing her '60s smash "Rescue Me" as well as her bluesy rendition of the CD's title track -- which is worth the price all by itself. Also on the bill will be the Trip Daddys, doing an all-Chuck Berry set, and Waterloo, plus a special appearance by former Uncle Tupelo/ Son Volt front man Jay Farrar.

The big question is: Will Chuck Berry be there? His friend Joe Edwards, owner of Blueberry Hill in University City and the nearby Pageant on Delmar Boulevard, says he won't know -- and that Berry probably won't know -- until just before the show.

The CD will benefit listener-supported KDHX, and it's been a labor of love for all involved. All of the artists donated their time and talent; the Broom Factory and Smith-Lee Productions donated studio time; and Undertow Records/Redeye Distribution is pressing, distributing nationally and promoting the CD, with all proceeds going to KDHX.

Missing, however, from the CD are pianist Johnnie Johnson, as well as Nelly or any of the St. Louis-based rappers and hip-hop artists. But Loui says it's not for lack of trying. Johnson and Berry, who started out together, have had their legal and business differences over the years, but Johnson played with Berry at Blueberry Hill about four months ago.

"I can't tell you how hard we tried to get some of our town's most famous rappers, and we got nowhere, unfortunately," Loui says. "We had four different people approaching the big names (Nelly, Murphy Lee, J-Kwon). It bums me out. I don't know why."

For the artists who did participate, it's a chance to pay back the man whose hits -- "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days," "Oh, Carol" and on and on -- inspired them.

Dade Farrar, 42, of the Rockhouse Ramblers, who nails "Tulane" on the CD, remembers first hearing "School Days" about 1970, with its lines "studyin' hard and hopin' to pass" and "the guy behind you won't leave you alone."

"He was singing about me in school," Farrar says. "It seemed like it was somebody I knew singing about my situation."

Farrar says he was captivated by Berry's ability "to tell a story, developing characters and images and getting you moving somewhere, all in three minutes. His voice is also amazing. The way he articulates the words clearly with soul and a hint of Midwest country twang makes you really listen. He pulls you into his world."

Drummer Matt Picker, 26, of the Gentleman Callers, who contribute "Ramona, Say Yes" to the CD, says, "I remember thinking how amazing it was that he could make so many different and amazing songs out of a standard 1-4-5 progression. To this day, no one can do it like Chuck could."

Jay Farrar, 37 and brother of Dade, says that he probably first heard "Roll Over Beethoven" on AM radio but that his first exposure to Berry's music in the early '70s came from covers by the Beatles and Stones.

"Chuck's guitar-playing technique was essentially the starting point for rock guitarists for the past three decades," says Jay Farrar, who chose a relatively obscure blues number, "Why Should We End This Way," for the tribute CD.

Brian Henneman, 43, of the Bottle Rockets, a self-described "Chuck wannabe," admires Berry's smart and funny lyrics and especially his guitar playing. "Nobody can touch him as far as hitting the right notes for the mood of a song," Henneman says. "He can paint a complete picture in 12 bars or less."

David Toretta, 52, of the band Fairchild, who recorded "Almost Grown," recalls that New Yorker writer Douglas Brinkley was in St. Louis a couple of years ago "for a piece he was writing and offered his opinion that, in a literary sense, Chuck's lyrics invented the American teenager."

"I liked that," Toretta says.