Chuck Berry on a Summer’s Day

I was meaning to post this yesterday about Chuck Berry to mark his 90th Birthday. I’m putting it here as a bit of an oddity but I hope you find it interesting.

Chuck Berry appeared in Bert Stern’s classic film Jazz on Summer’s Day which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. He performed on that occasion with a pick-up band called the Newport All-Stars, and the number that made it into the film was Sweet Little Sixteen, a tune that he actually wrote. I find two things fascinating about this performance. One is that the “backing band” is a stellar group of Jazz legends: the drummer is the great Jo Jones (who led the lightly swinging rhythm section of the great Count Basie band of the 1930s); the trumpeter is Buck Clayton, another Basie alumnus; and the trombonist is none other than Jack Teagarden. To a Jazz fan like myself, the talents of these musicians are totally wasted: they seem somewhat bemused by Chuck Berry’s gyrations on stage as well as bored by the material. When the time comes for the improvised solos that a jazz audience demands, only the relatively unknown clarinettist Rudy Rutherford – usually a tenor saxophonist who played with a number of bands, including Count Basie’s – was prepared to stand up and be counted, his strange effort is evidently a source of great amusement to the rest of the band, but at least he got into the spirit!

The other fascinating thing is what a historical document this is. During the 1950s Jazz was beginning to lose out to Rock and Roll in the popularity stakes, hence the plan of booking Chuck Berry to boost the audience figures at the Newport Jazz Festival. The tension on stage is almost palpable and even Chuck Berry occasionally looks a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. But it’s also a wonderfully observed portrayal of the styles of the time, especially through the audience shots. I wonder what happened to the cute couple dancing to this performance?

Anyway, belated best wishes on his 90th Birthday, here’s Chuck Berry recorded live 58 years ago at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, singing and playing Sweet Little Sixteen.

 

P.S. I forgot to mention the superb photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to “Chuck Berry on a Summer’s Day”

  1. Of course, the lyrics are filtered through the mores of the time, so it might not be obvious to all that the song is about what was later known as a groupie, though of course not yet taking it to the level of the later plaster casters.

  2. “I wonder what happened to the cute couple dancing to this performance?”

    There is a significant probability that they are dead now.

    Ars longa, vita brevis.

  3. “One is that the “backing band” is a stellar group of Jazz legends”

    Berry often (always?) played with a (local) pickup band. On various occasions, these were people who were famous in their own right, and sometimes forming their own band.

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