Sunday, April 15, 2007

1st Anniversary: It Was A Brown Eyed Handsome Man!

It’s been a whole year since I began this blog, and I only realised this morning! I got a little writer’s block coming up with some more historical posts about soul in Britain, when I thought, why don’t I write about Chuck Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man?

After deciding to make a blog while not really knowing what it entailed, and discovering that every variation of ‘sweet soul music’ had been taken already, I stayed up all night watching The Buddy Holly Story on TV, where they play Buddy’s cover of this song, and in the morning the title still appealed to me. Thinking about the song and its lyrics, it seemed to evoke a lot of things about the significance of black musical forms in America. While being a ‘rock and roll’ song meant it would highlight a broader definition of rhythm and blues, that make more sense outside of the narrow genres in the racks of your local music store.

Coded language and social commentary have a long history in music, from the rhythmic patterns and drumbeats of slave songs, through the exodus and salvation imagery of revival songs and spirituals and into gospel music. In the blues, the telling of someone’s troubles in song has revealed something of the conditions of the world around them. Characters like Stag-O-Lee have lived through many decades, informing us through their fictional exploits of the desperate side of life, much in the same way as today’s hip-hop artists continue to do. Jazz followed all of these trends also, using music itself to express it.

The emergence of rockabilly and rock and roll highlighted a changing society in which the old divisions and the certainties of the folkways of segregation in America were being challenged and bypassed. In the first of the tracks featured today, you can hear four individuals challenging those changes as they struggle to get to grips with playing Brown Eyed Handsome Man at Sun Studios in Memphis in December 4th 1956. Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Four white boys who’d, between them, spent their youths listening to gospel in black churches, learning to play blues guitar from black musicians, grown up picking cotton on mixed farming communes thanks to the New Deal, amongst other influences. Carl Perkins, always shy and thoughtful, and a little unsure of his true talent, is clearly awestruck, as they all are, as they ponder the complexity and the wit of the lyrics, and while Elvis struggles to keep the words in rhythm. Finally, he confides earnestly to the others:

“You oughta hear some of this stuff sitting around, boy”, says Carl Perkins. “I’ve just come offa a tour with this guy, Chuck Berry. Man, he sat down behind the stage and just … man, I ain’t no good!”

Chuck Berry creates a series of entertaining, racy tale of the allure of brown-eyed handsome men and their exploits, and puts his penchant for suggestiveness to good use by this time exhorting the women to seek them out, while he of course plays the role. The race of the character is never made explicit, but is inferred by the distinctive choice of brown eyes, as opposed to the very popular ‘blue eyes’ of dozens of popular crooners’ tunes. There lies the element of social danger that was implicit in all rock and roll performed by black artists, sexual desire between races. Little Richard for example was overt about courting publicly women of all races. Chuck is going further than this, however, in his lyrics. He subverts the dominant assumptions of the era that white women were chaste, unwilling victims of ‘miscegenation’ by threading the song with the line, “Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself …” The suggestion is that the sexual colour line was never as rigid as society’s elders wanted it to appear. Chuck tells us “Way back in history three thousand years, Back ever since the world began.” In the realm of individual relations, the reality defied the constructs of social stricture.

Roy Kasten, writing last year at the Living In Stereo blog, made a detailed appreciation of the lyrical talent of Chuck Berry, and said:

“Berry turned the sound of a sub-culture into a universal lingo and made three minute dance numbers into comprehensive portraits of life.”

How did the song story originate? According to some sources, the first verse was inspired by Berry observing a West Coast policeman trying to arrest a Hispanic man for loitering until a girl talked him out of the arrest. The second verse is alleged to be inspired by images in the sadomasochistic novel Venus In Furs. Meanwhile, in the final verse, Chuck Berry is said to celebrate the baseball player Jackie Robinson, though again, some claim that he is talking about Larry Doby, first African-American player in the American League. It is the one verse where a brown eyed handsome man is shown beyond the arena of sexuality, beating the odds and winning the game, and is an image of power.

It’s a brilliantly written tale, and elements of its lyrical techniques have influenced others such as Van Morrison with his Brown Eyed Girl. Meanwhile, in the hands of other singers, such as Nina Simone and Fontella Bass, the song gets a different treatment, as when sung from a black female perspective in the black power era, it took on connotations of a call to support black men. While this was never the original intention of the song, it certainly adds something interesting, especially since the underlying causes of alienation of black men in American society have not been addressed and have merely become worse over the decades.

Eventually, I imagine, Elvis got the hang of the lyrics.

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge's wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a-walkin' thirty miles en route to Bombay.
To get a brown eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
Back every since the world began
There's been a whole lot of good women shed a tear
For a brown eyed handsome man
That's what the trouble was brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn't make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That's what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man
Two, three count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man

The Million Dollar Quartet – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Rehearsal Outtake) (Sun Records) Dec 4th 1956

Chuck Berry – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956)

Buddy Holly – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (released 1963)

Nina Simone – Brown Eyed Handsome Man (High Priestess of Soul LP, New York 1966)

Thanks To Living In Stereo blog for giving me some inspiration for this post, and they are always worth a read for descriptive and thoughtful appreciations of music. Read their Chuck Berry posts starting here. Also interesting is this account by Dave Marsh of the story of Johnny B Goode and the way society affected its lyrics:


Red Kelly said...

Hey! Congratulations on the anniversary, Rob!

Keep up the great work!

-red kelly

tgrundy said...


"Happy 1st Anniversary" and thanks for all of the good music and great information. Looking forward to another informative and enjoyable year of the Brown Eyed Handsome Man!

Darcy said...

Happy Anniversary Rob. Thanks for the in depth posts. Keep on doing what you're doing.

Rob Whatman said...

Cheers guys!

Glad you have enjoyed it so far. I hope to carry on, as long as my girlfriend doesn't discover how much I'm actually spending on records!


Vincent said...

Hello, Rob.
Happy anniversary to you first of all. Secondly, thank you for the link and the shoutout. I will respond in kind once I return home from my mini vacation and get back to my broadband connection; it's kinda tough up here with a very stubborn dialup connection...

The Stepfather of Soul said...

Happy Anniversary! Great article also. I think that often people choose to overlook the racial issues that undergirded the entire history of R&B music and very well continue to the present day. Here's to another year of good soul music!

sexy said...