Monthly Archives: June 2009

They still go in threes

Koko Taylor. Sam Butera. David Carradine. All gone in the last day.

Yep, they still go in threes.

I’ll leave Miss Taylor to the blues enthusiasts and Mr. Carradine to the film enthusiasts.

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Sam Butera, who was 81 when he died Wednesday in Las Vegas, almost certainly is the least known of the three. He was the frenzied yet disciplined sax player who helped forge Louis Prima’s wild, swinging jazz sound in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t rock, but you could see it in the distance.

Butera and his band, the Witnesses, helped make Prima one of the top draws in Vegas. That’s Butera above at right, on stage with Prima and singer Keely Smith at the Sahara in 1957. Prima and Butera, native sons of New Orleans, played together from 1954 to 1975.

Here’s what Prima’s widow, singer Gia Maione, told the Las Vegas Sun:

“Louis Prima’s true ace in the hole for 21 years was Sam Butera.  I don’t care what vocalists were with Louis, his true ace in the hole was Sam Butera. Side by side, Louis and Sam kicked Las Vegas’ butt for 21 years. …

“I really do not believe over all of these years that Sam Butera got the accolades he deserved as a tenor saxophone player. I defy anyone to name someone that played better tenor sax that Sam Butera.”

Even if you can’t place Butera, you know his sound.

David Lee Roth’s cover of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera never got paid for it.

That Gap ad featuring “Jump, Jive an’ Wail?” That’s Butera’s arrangement and sax solo. Butera was paid $371 and received three pairs of pants that didn’t quite fit. He had to pay to have them tailored.

Here, then, the real sound of Sam Butera.

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“Night Train” and “Oh Marie,” both featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “The Wildest,” Louis Prima, 1957. As the liner notes say, the former is a “slow, bluesy” instrumental. The latter, an “Italian evergreen,” swings. (The album link is to a remastered 2002 CD release.)

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“St. Louis Blues,” featuring Sam Butera on sax, from “Louis Prima: Collector’s Series,” a 1991 CD compilation. Ain’t nothing bluesy about this rave-up from 1962. Butera’s scorching sax sets up Prima’s wild scatting.

Want to learn more about Sam Butera? That story in the Las Vegas paper is highly recommended, as is a 2000 interview by the Sun and an appreciation done by his hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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Filed under June 2009, Sounds

You never can tell

She was right. I was wrong.

When it was announced a while back that Chuck Berry would be playing a gig at our local casino, I was skeptical. Now 82, he rarely plays outside of St. Louis, where he lives. I bought tickets, but I figured it was 50-50 that the show ever would take place.

When I heard he was playing a benefit in New Orleans on the night before he was to play here, I became doubly skeptical. No way does he make all those trips. Our paper’s entertainment writer, who’d asked me to cover the show, said she was sure he’d make it. I wasn’t so sure.

With Chuck Berry, you never can tell.

But there he was on Sunday night, on stage in the ballroom at our local casino. It was terrific, even if it wasn’t perfect, especially because it wasn’t perfect. Here’s a little of what I wrote for the paper:

“Chuck Berry played a show here on Sunday night that won’t soon be forgotten. …

“Was it that he opened with a little ‘Roll Over Beethoven,’ then a little ‘’Round and ‘Round,’ then a little ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ all played only slightly faster than a shuffle pace … then announced: “If you guarantee at this moment that we are in tune, we would like to open our show.”

“Speaking of which, was it that Berry’s guitar seemed to lurch in and out of tune as he jumped from song to song?

“Was it that Berry was in fine voice and genially accepted requests all night long … then never performed a song in its entirety?

“Was it that his backing band – two young guys on piano and drums and an older, more familiar cat on bass – gamely tried to keep up as Berry played a little of this, a little of that, perhaps only Berry knowing where he was headed, and in which key.

“Was it that Berry played for roughly an hour … or played roughly for an hour?”

I had only a fan’s access, so I don’t know whether Berry’s backing band was a group of locals who could play his songs, as contractually required. I suspect so. I recall Bruce Springsteen’s story of backing Berry, told in the 1987 film “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and it rang true. Knowing that only made this show all the more enjoyable.

Berry played bits and pieces of almost everything you’d want to hear, closed “Memphis” with a sassy little strut and started his exit from the stage with — what else? — a short duck walk.

And, yeah, he still can play the guitar like a ringing a bell.

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“Bye Bye Johnny,” Chuck Berry, 1960, from “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade,” 1967. My vinyl copy is a 1972 reissue. It’s out of print. This tune, a follow-up to “Johnny B. Goode,” is available on “The Chess Box: Chuck Berry,” released in 1990. The 3-CD set is $30 and well worth it.

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Filed under June 2009, Sounds