By the Way

Jimmy Hall, ‘the greatest living blues singer,’ remembers Chuck Berry

If you missed the Rock U2 Foundation’s Rock the Block benefit concert Thursday at the IP Casino Resort, you missed out on some fantastic entertainment from some very talented local students. There was also some delicious grilled mahi and a silent auction that included items such as a guitar autographed by Loretta Lynn and footballs signed by Billy Cannon and Archie Manning.

Harrison County supervisor Connie Rockco was there, as was Rebecca Powers, who emceed the event, Vicki Applewhite, Steve Fitzgerald, Blackwater Brass and TK Lively, who is one of my favorite drummers. They were among the 100 or so people there to help the cause, which supports music education through its Ocean Springs Academy of Popular Music.

They were also there to see Mobile native and Wet Willie front man Jimmy Hall, whom I consider to be the greatest living blues singer. One of the good things about writing a blog or online column is that I can speak in superlatives, and superlatively speaking, or writing, Jimmy Hall is the best. If you don’t believe me, that’s perfectly fine. But this is also the sentiment of Jeff Beck, Gregg Allman, Hank Williams Jr. and a host of other musicians.

There’s also the “Jimmy Hall litmus test,” which is watching this video of Hall and Wet Willie performing on TV in Macon, Georgia, in 1973. It’s so good that I once had a 30 minute conversation about the performance with Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. Trust me — or don’t — it’s that good.

Hall, who is currently on a break from touring with Jeff Beck, was a fan of the great Chuck Berry, who died March 18 at the age of 90.

Do you remember the first time you heard Chuck Berry?

I think it was either “Sweet Little 16” or “Maybeline.” It was just such a mixture of rock ’n’ roll and country — I thought it had some country in it. He didn’t sound like a black guy and he didn’t sound like a white guy — it was a mix. That’s what I liked about it — it was for everyman. Just hearing a guy singing with the insight of a teenager or young high schooler that liked cars and girls and to have fun, to me, that was very interesting.

Did you ever see him perform?

I saw him play in the late 1960s or early 70s at the Mobile Municipal Auditorium. I remember he was coaching the players. He would hire local players from whatever town he was in to play with him. That was an epiphany to see. Here’s a pro who has all of these hits on the radio and he’s using a pick-up band. Basically, he would fly in — somebody once told me he had a rider that had a Lincoln Town Car in ever city for him to use and he got paid in cash and wanted the cash counted out before he went onstage. I really enjoyed that show.

One of my experiences was that I played with his keyboard player Johnny Johnson — I later found out that he wrote “Johnny B. Goode” as a shout out to Johnny. Johnny did an album with the Kentucky Headhunters — I think it was in the mid-1990s because they had a different singer than Ricky Lee Phelps. They called me and asked me to play some sax and harp and do some background vocals and some duet vocals. I enjoyed meeting Johnny. We even did a tour along the East Coast and did the Conan O’Brien show. It was really fun.

I really love “Memphis, Tennessee.” Do you have a favorite Chuck Berry song?

I like “Memphis, Tennessee” a lot. I like the story songs. I’ve always like “Maybeline.”

Here’s something that comes to mind about Chuck Berry. In 1986, I did my first tour with Jeff Beck. It was a tour of Japan with Carlos Santana and his band and Buddy Miles was the singer. We had a big jam at the end of our shows. Carlos came out and joined Jeff and so did (Toto) guitarist Steve Lukather. Those guys were all together and Buddy and I did “People Get Ready” together. Then somebody said we should do “Johnny B. Goode” as an encore. There were like 10,000 people there.

We get out there and we’re doing “Johnny B. Good” and having fun — it was like a guitar orgy. Then Buddy says, “Jimmy, for the last chorus, jump on my back. I’m strong — do it.” So, I jumped on his back and he’s riding me back and fourth across the stage. It’s the funniest thing — a skinny white guy on Buddy Miles’ back singing and having fun. That is a crazy Chuck Berry parallel.