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Photo by Jenny LensTake the white man's table scraps, transform them into something new, and spice it up so good that the white man wants it back. That's much of the story of black American culture in the past century. At the Doheny Blues Festival this Saturday, you will for sure see many shirtless white guys eating pork tips and listening to Little Milton sing.
Milton is filling in at the fest for his blues contemporary, Otis Rush, who had to cancel to recover from a stroke. Both were first discovered by Ike Turner, who is also on the Doheny bill.
Like other bluesmen, they all probably started their careers on used or department-store guitars and amps, which they turned up to distort and growl in ways the manufacturers never intended. When Turner graduated to a Fender Stratocaster, he was the first player to force its vibrato bar into making sproingy, flying-saucer-mating sounds, far from the gentle warble for which it had been designed. Don't blacks ever read owner's manuals?
Most people only know of Ike in the context of Tina Turner's story, as a wife-slappin' SOB, which is never a good thing to be. But he also helped shape 20th-century popular music, recording possibly the world's first rock song, 1951's "Rocket 88"; discovering talents like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and others; and making some damn good records with Tina and his Kings of Rhythm.
A half-century ago, while Turner and Co. were electrifying the blues at Memphis' Sun Studio, fellow Dohenyite Chuck Berry was up in Chicago's Chess studios creating rock & roll. Both Turner and Berry were rocking before Elvis, and Berry is the rock's essential wellspring. It's not just that his guitar licks became rock's signature sound, or that he was the music's first auteur, singing and playing his own songs, with lyrics that place him among the great American poets. It's that the whole of modern America was just burstingout of him, like some titan vomiting forth the mass of creation.
The idea of teenagers as distinct beings scarcely even existed before Berry started delineating their dreams and woes in songs such as "School Days." Before you could sing about sexual frustration in song, Berry did in "No Particular Place to Go," in which his calaboose's newfangled "safety belt" stands in for the chastity belt of old. A decade before the black-pride movement and certainly before American radio would play songs about racial aspirations, Berry was doing it in code with "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." Other Berry songs celebrated the new consumer society, reveling in Coupe de Villes and "coolerators." The fact that people of his color weren't allowed in most of the stores selling such items doubtless added to the frustration with modern life evoked in "Too Much Monkey Business." His lyrics were always sly, mischievous, exuberant, rocking, and whenever their staccato rhythm let up, Berry's guitar would jump in like a buttered buzz saw.
But what's he done lately, you might ask? The onetime human torrent has only released one album of new songs in three decades, 1979's Rock It. His live shows have often been masterpieces of indifference, playing a brutally out-of-tune guitar in front of an unrehearsed band. But even with a blunt instrument, Berry can still bludgeon you with anarchic solos or between-song flights of poetry. He may be 77 now, but he's probably still slier than the rest of us.The Doheny Blues Festival at Doheny State Beach, 25300 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, (949) 360-7800 or (949) 262-2662. Sat., 11 a.m. $35. All ages.