For My Mom: Dance On Donna Sue

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Madonna Sue Barr Hilligoss dressed to the nines as she always was. Lanphier High School class reunion, Springfield, Il

 

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations on Immortality.

 

 

My mother loved music and she loved dancing. All the music that has been played today are songs and artists that she enjoyed throughout her life. Mom was not always good at articulating her feelings and thoughts, but she loved music and dancing from the time she was born. In a way, all of these songs are a part of her, who she was as a person, her thoughts, her fears, her passions, her loves. In short, all of the music is our way of letting mom speak for herself through the music that she loved.

 

I was lucky enough to have two parents who introduced me to a lot of the good music and musicians from their times, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Anyone who knows me understands how important music and live music are in my life, as they are for Kevin and were for Sean, and we can thank mom and dad for that. Mom and dad took me to see my first concert at the age of 10 when we went to see Neil Diamond at the old Checkerdome in St.Louis. Dad and I have talked about this and I believe the facts support it, but I believe my first memory as a child that I remember vividly was August 16, 1977 when I was three years old. I remember riding in a car with my mom and looking up at her across the seat as she wept, tears streaming down her face as she heard the news on the radio that Elvis Presley had died at the age of 42. I think it stuck out to me because as a child, your parents are these huge personalities that dominate our lives and to see my mom for the first time as something less than perfect, as a vulnerable, earthly being was shocking to a three year old boy.

 

 

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Mom doing the Twist with Chubby Checker, Alton Argosy, 1995

 

Mom loved to dance and watching her on the dance floor was like watching poetry in motion as she effortlessly glided over the dance floor. When my mom and Aunt Glenda were little girls, our Grandfather Hubert and Grandmother Ivy taught them how to dance….swing dances, slow dances including the waltz and square dance. Instead of getting baby sitters, they would take the girls with to the dances and taught them how to dance, little by little, piece by piece. And from there, mom took off on her own, dancing up a storm at school dances, weddings, social gatherings and on and on. One of my favorite things as a kid was when we went to a wedding and we got see mom and dad out on the dance floor, it seemed so effortless as they worked in perfect tandem with big grins on their faces. When Bruce Springsteen  was just a boy, his family came from very humble beginnings and they did not have much in the way of worldly possessions, but his mom Estelle loved music and always had the radio on and would grab her kids and dance around the kitchen and living room. So on the night of that concert, when he looked down into that fans eyes, he was remembering all those moments of dancing with his mom as a child and relived it in front of 30,000 people. Just as when mom took to the dance floor, she was remembering all those great moments of dancing with her dad and mom so many years ago.

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Save The Last Dance was written by Doc Pomus, one of the most famous and prolific song writers of the 20th century, many of them made famous by the Drifters and Elvis. But what was ironic about it was even though he wrote all of these great songs that included a lot of different styles and rhythms like calypso, salsa, two step, cha cha, Doc himself couldn’t dance because he had suffered from polio as a child and walked with crutches. But his wife loved to dance, and they would go to clubs and watch as she danced with one guy after another, always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye because he knew that no matter how many people she danced with, she was going home with him.

 

When they were younger, mom and dad would go to social dances with a group of somewhat older people. During the dance, all of the guys would be clamoring and lining up to dance with mom, this young, beautiful vivacious girl who could dance so well. And be the gracious guy he was, dad would let them dance with her while he was left to dance with the other wives. And as he told me, “I’d look across the dance floor watching all these other guys have the time of their life dancing with her and me dancing with other women, but I didn’t want to dance with them, I wanted to dance with my wife.” No matter how many other guys she danced with, she was always going home with him, so she always saved the last dance for him.

 

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Every time I’ve lost someone in my life, I like to think of their small personality traits to give myself something to hold onto and help jump start my memory a little.

 

  • Some of her Favorite Movies included: Turner and Hooch, Casper, Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair To Remember, Somewhere in Time, Dr.Zhivago and Out of Africa. She loved watching Dancing With The Stars and American Idol.

 

  • She worked as a lifeguard while living in Springfield, As a teenager, she was a babysitter earning 50 cents an hour watching 6 kids. She worked as a personal assistant to State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego and served as an aide to the Speaker of the Illinois House. She got to meet Muhammad Ali who came to the state capitol to give a speech. Even though she had previously thought he was loud and obnoxious, she came home and told dad that he was a very nice man, very articulate and very handsome. She wanted to be a funeral director and even went to the school for a tour before deciding not to pursue it.

 

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  • In 1968, mom and dad attended an event held for US Senator Charles Percy. They went through the greeting line and Mr.Percy took her hand at the same time as the Mayor of Springfield interrupted and proceeded to bend Percy’s ear.  After about 5 minutes, mom turned to dad and whispered, “He has been holding my hand for 5 minutes.”  Dad looked over her shoulder and SURE enough Percy was holding her hand.  Percy looked dad in the eye and said, “And I’m enjoying every second of it!”

 

  • She worked for Illinois State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego, Illinois as his personal assistant and secretary

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  • When they were young, Easter was a special holiday for her and her sister and parents …new outfits including hats and patent leather shoes, a church service followed by an Easter Egg Hunt in the iris’s that ringed their house in Mattoon. When I was kid, she always made Easter special for us with colored eggs, egg hunts, baskets and plenty of marshmallow Peeps.
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Hubert, Iva, Glenda Lou and Madonna Sue Barr, SPringfield, Il 1958

  • When they were first married, mom and dad spent $13 a week on groceries. She could cook 4 things: fried hot dogs, fried hamburgers, deep fried shrimp and grilled cheese that she broiled instead of toasting in a skillet. (Correction, my aunt Ruth said she could also make iced tea and angel food cake 🙂

 

  • She had many boyfriends and suitors before she met dad including her first crush, Billy Gas from Mattoon.

 

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  • She was dad’s designated driver, refusing to drink other than a sloe gin fizz every once in a while

 

 

  • The two people outside of our aunt Glenda who knew her the longest are Bill and Norma Thomas, very good friends of her parents. Bill called her Donnie Pig but doesn’t know why, just a colorful nickname, but one that carried her through her life.
  • She argued with a bank loan officer about being able to sign for a loan to buy furniture by herself without having her husband cosign which was standard for the time in the middle 60s.

 

  • She didn’t like it when people in public life spoke out such as Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, or politicians and yet she lived her life as a poster child for Women’s Equality and the ERA by working hard all of her life, always dressing well and carrying herself in a very professional manner while at the same time, raising three boys and a husband, some could argue she was raising 4 boys 🙂

 

Mom with boys black and white

Standing in the half light with her three boys, Rochester, Il

  • Mom and dad met while attending college at Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, Illinois. They first met in 1963 on a snowy cold December night. Her parents had bought her a black and white 1960 Nash Metropolitan. The battery to her car was dead as she stood in the parking lot of Blair Hall and dad happened to be walking across campus. As he approached her car, she asked if he had jumper cables. He went back to his car to get them and after searching for a time, found the battery under the front seat and jump started her car for her and as they say, the rest is history.

 

Mom and dad wedding day

Wedding Day, 1965, Springfield, Il

 

A Note of Gratitude

While everyone is gathered here, on behalf of the family, we want to thank everyone for the kindness shown to mom and dad and Kevin and I and the rest of the family after Sean’s passing two years ago, many of whom are here today and have done the same now……at a time when terrible things are happening in the world on a daily basis and we see so much darkness and pain around us, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and we lose sight of all the beauty and kindness in the world.  The things I witnessed during the last 2 years echo many of mom’s own thoughts and traits…. Be kind, be compassionate, love your friends and family, take care of yourself and take care of those around us.

 

Life of Service- Giving yourself to others…making sacrifices of yourself, your pride, your ego, your own interests in life, your own wishes and desires to help others. She served her life raising three kids and being a good wife, a good sister and a good daughter. And in the end, she served another human being through the gift of her liver as an organ donor, giving someone else a second chance at life. In the last 5 years, I have lost both of my in laws who I loved very much and watched their daughter Kim serve them on a daily basis, helping them through their time of need. In the last 2 years, I’ve witnessed our father do the same for our mom and I want to thank him. Many people have helped during these hard months and years and I want to say a special thanks to our neighbor and friends Diane and Jeff. Diane helped mom in countless ways, right up until the end. And also to our friend Karin Witt who helped both mom and dad in many ways in the last few years. For everyone who helped, you were performing an Act of love…..words and concern are important but actions speak louder than words and nothing speaks louder than an act of love.

When we are born, we start with a collection of family members we are born to: mother and father, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. As you grow older, you develop a secondary circle of neighbors, friends, school mates that form a security blanket of people in your life who you spend time with, those you trust, those you share your feelings and thoughts, those you share your time with. As years pass and time rolls on, one by one, you start to lose those around you. However, for those of us who are lucky enough, your family can grow to include people not related by blood, but related through the heart and kindness. There is the family we are born with and then there’s the family we grow older with. Through the size of her heart, mom had many people around her I consider family including surrogate daughters and sons from our days at the restaurant, an adopted son in Sean’s best friend, kids she volunteered with at the Alton schools, neighbors and people she mentored over the years. I think mom often struggled with issues of insecurity and low self-esteem, never quite measuring up to the high standards she held for others and herself, but as you can tell from the amount of people here today, she was truly loved and respected by those around her, whether through blood or friendship and in the end, that is one of the best measures of a person.

 

Family with Mike, 2016

I would like to close with this from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I depart as air…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Mom as little girl(2)

Last Waltz:

She’s not going in the ground, per her wishes, she will be cremated but like Whitman said, she’ll never be far from us, stopped somewhere waiting for us. I know that she now has joined her mom and dad and Sean and they are dancing above, free of physical pain and enjoying the music. For those of us like mom who love music, it’s an ever present part of our lives, bringing companionship, inspiration and enjoyment, the melody and rhythm running beneath our feet like a river, a river of life transporting us from one side of shore to the other.

Musicians come and go, bands come and go, the fans and listeners come and go, but the music always plays on, the band plays on, and the dancers dance on. Sometimes the song might be a shuffle, a Texas two-step, sometimes a cha cha or the twist or sometimes in ¾ waltz time…But whatever the rhythm, rise from your seats, feel the water under your feet and dance on my friends, dance on.

And one last thing, if you’re out looking for love, make sure to bring your dancing shoes and a really good set of jumper cables, you never know when love might walk in.

 

Mom and dad dancing 2017

One More Waltz, Grafton, Il, Father’s Day 2017. Music and 3/4 time supplied by the Eclectic Horseman Stan Corliss

 

We Should Always Remember: Robert Sean Two Years On

Kevin's 40th family picSeptember 28, 2017

I am a week late in posting this but life has been rough the past month as it has been for two years since my brother, our brother, son, father, nephew, cousin, friend, Robert Sean Hilligoss, passed away on September 22, 2015.

Just like older generations who can remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt passing, John Kennedy’s assassination, younger generations will always remember where they were when they heard about the tragedy of September 11, 2001 among other historical events of our times. Those dates and times are guide posts that mark the movement in time for ourselves, our nation and the world we inhabit. I’ll always remember the day my brother passed away, emblazoned in my memory with a single, quick phone call from my father, four words, “Sean didn’t make it.” Not knowing what he meant, having no idea of what had transpired over the last few hours, being 300 miles away, my mind couldn’t process the information in a coherent manner. Didn’t make what? His doctor’s appointment, a job interview? What are we talking about here?

Not that it matters, but I was sitting at a table at Starbucks in Belvidere, Illinois, working on my laptop after having spent the morning in Chicago for work and driving to watch Graham run in his 6th grade cross country meet. It was a beautiful, cloudless, warm day in northern Illinois. I had a thousand things on my mind at the moment. Trying to handle things for work, coordinate on the track meet, how was Graham going to do today, how is Rory feeling, thinking about my mom, home in Godfrey recovering from a broken hip, thinking about my dad taking care of her. Then four simple words: Sean didn’t make it. Four words that knocked me sideways, a timequake from which I haven’t recovered from, nor will I recover from on many profound levels. Watching your two parents struggle with losing a child has often been unbearable. Watching your brother struggle with losing a sibling has been heartbreaking. Hearing from his aunts and uncles and cousins and close friends and seeing the grief. Knowing his two young daughters lost their father and will grow older having little to no memory of him and not having their father has been beyond the pale.

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Robert Sean Hilligoss with his girls Audrey and Annalynn, 2015

 

My brother was a different man, a man who did things his way come hell or high water, and for which he paid an awfully high price. He struggled with juvenile diabetes from the age of 3. The doctor who diagnosed him at the time said, with Sean lying in the hospital bed feet away, he wouldn’t live past 25. How does a three year old hear those words and process them in a way that could make sense? He internalized those words and from then on out, set out to prove that doctor, his parents and friends, his boss, were wrong about him. He stuck out his chin to the world and wore a badge of courage that said, “Oh yeah, well just watch me you son of a bitch. I’ll show you.” Our mom told him not to get earrings, so he got 5. She said not to get a tattoo, so he got sleeves on both arms. She said not to get a motorcycle, so he got several. Just like Sinatra, he did things his way. Doing things your way is a long and lonely highway, but one on which he traveled gladly, sitting on his Harley, with a doo rag flapping in the wind, his glasses covering his eyes, the eyes with a glint in them, a glint of humor, a glint of pride, and wearing a smile, a smile to a joke only he knew the punchline.

Sean with mom on motorcylce

In the weeks after, I stayed to help my parents and brother in whatever way I could, physically, emotionally, spiritually. We helped organize his house and affairs and at least try to handle the things he left behind the best way we could, to give him the respect he deserved in life, but often times did not receive. In a way, we tried to make sure his grave, as it were, was kept clean. I kept some of his things. Some practical, like his clothes, personal effects, concert ticket stubs, photo albums, his CD collection, the music he loved, the things he carried in his pockets. The things we carry. While sorting through his personal papers, I came across a few of the poems he wrote. He wrote more and I guess those are lost to the hands of time. But one hit me like a shot through the heart. Sean had a good friend of his, a fellow member of his motorcycle club who passed away a few years ago while riding on his motorcycle from Indiana back to Chicago after one of their gatherings. Sean was deeply saddened and bereft of a close friend, the loss weighed on him daily. He wrote this poem for his friend as his eulogy, but he could have written it for himself and those of us left behind. And in his own memory, is the poem for all of you to read and pause and think of Sean.

 

“Times shared never seem enough, whether they are the best or they are rough

Friends and family always within reach, to help to guide and to teach

First as children and again in later years, with words of wisdom for our hopes and our fears

To fill our minds with thoughts so tender, the words we’ve heard we should always remember

To those who believe that we sit and do not understand

It is those who I look forward to the day when again you’ll guide my hand”               –Robert Sean “Piper” Hilligoss

The moments were not enough, the best and the rough my brother, but the words and moments we remember, like a guiding hand. Always.

Sean at Wedding-4

Postscript, Tuesday’s Gone

Sean loved music, both recorded and live, seeing hundreds of concerts in his life, near and far. He had a very wide and deep range appreciation for music of every kind, stripe, shape and color. Blues, country, rock, southern rock, swing, old school rock and roll. Some of his favorite artists included Buddy Guy, Dale Watson, The Allman Brothers, Hank Williams III, BB King, Johnny Cash and Lynyrd Skynrd. He gravitated towards those who carried the kindred spirit of outlaws, those on the edge of the law and civil society. In the last few months, I had the privilege of going to see two artists in concert, with family and friends, he never saw but know he would have loved. Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, country, rock, blues based artists with great songs, lyrics and guitar playing out of this world. Sturgill Simpson burned down the Fox Theater in St.Louis shredding his Les Paul in pure, raw blues while a wild man did a stage long worm dance before getting bounced by security. Chris Stapleton played his song The Devil Named Music with an intro of Tuesday’s Gone. I recently ran across a version of Tuesday’s Gone, Sean’s ultimate favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song, sung by recently passed Gregg Allman. If you ever hear this song on the radio, you can stop and think of Sean standing at a concert, standing in the dark of a smokey theater, soaking in the music, surrounded by friends and family. “Train roll on….on down the line. I don’t know where I’m going, when this train ends, I’ll try again.”

 

 

 

 

Bye Bye Johnny B Goode: The Lasting Impact of Chuck Berry on Bruce Springsteen

Bruce and Chuck

Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry, 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, June 14, 2017

My friend Shawn Poole and I  today celebrate the music and legacy of Chuck Berry. While Chuck passed away last March at the ripe old age of 91, his legacy will be everlasting. To help prove it, his first album in 38 years, simply entitled Chuck was just released on Dualtone Records last week. Containing 10 new tracks, 8 originals and 2 cover songs, it reflects Chuck’s continuing artistic powers up to the very end. Bob Dylan once referred to Chuck Berry and his lyrics as being the Shakespeare of rock and roll, and this album contains plenty more great lyrics just like the rest of his classics.

We are celebrating this new Chuck Berry album, as well as Chuck’s enduring influence on Bruce Springsteen and all of rock and roll music. So let’s start this off with “Big Boys,” the first single released from the album, featuring Chuck on vocals and guitar along with backing vocals from powerhouse Nathaniel Rateliff, of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats, one of our favorite new bands, and backing guitar from key Springsteen collaborator and part-time E Street Band member Tom Morello. Morello takes the final and extended guitar solo on this recording and while remaining true to Chuck’s signature guitar sound, pushes it well into the 21st century where Chuck’s music firmly belongs for new generations of fans to listen to and enjoy. The video below is the first official Chuck Berry video and clearly recalls the movie Back To The Future and the scene at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance wherein a young Michael J Fox as Marty McFly rips into Johnny B Goode at the school dance while band leader Marvin Berry phones his cousin Chuck to have him listen to the music of the future.

 

Go….Go…. Go…. Little Queenie!!!!

The recordings Chuck Berry did at Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, mainly with  the backing of Johnny Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums, have inspired countless musicians the world over including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and of course, Bruce Springsteen. Berry’s influence on Springsteen has been evident throughout Springsteen’s career including lyrics, guitar rhythms and stylings, similar song titles, and  Berry references in his live performances including the classic Growin Up’ outro  ‘And it was bye-bye New Jersey, we were airborne.’ During a 1972 interview with rock journalist Paul Nelson, Springsteen was asked what inspires him musically, “Eddie Floyd’s arrangement of Raise Your Hand, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, and Chuck Berry. I saw him the other night at a show. He was to the 50s what Dylan was to the 60s. He just laid it down so much…just incredible.”

In 1975, after 18 grueling months of recording the Born To Run album, Springsteen was very ambivalent about the music and releasing the album. He even threatened to scrap the whole project and just release a live album of material recorded at the Bottom Line. According to Dave Marsh,  a very concerned Jon Landau talked to Springsteen and said, “Look,” he told him, “You’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybellene’? And when he does hear it, don’t you think the wishes a few things could be changed? Now come on, it’s time to put the record out.’ It was an argument Springsteen could understand, and he accepted it. So it was over. The monster was tamed at last.” The key to that paragraph is “it was an argument Springsteen could understand.” Landau knew how deep Springsteen’s love and admiration of Chuck Berry’s music ran, and by using Berry’s name and song, he was putting the argument in terms near and dear to the young artist’s heart. And we as the audience are all the better for that discussion.

Bruce Springsteen with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

When Chuck Berry died last March, Springsteen issued an internet statement that sums up what Chuck Berry meant, both to him personally and to music in general. Here’s what Bruce wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.” Springsteen has played Berry covers hundreds of times in concert over his career, possibly the most infamous being the “bomb scare” version of Little Queenie played on October 2, 1975 at the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee. A threat had been called into the theater and the band was sent back to the Hotel PFFFFFister where they enjoyed some spirits and then came back and performed the show including a…lively and “spirited” version of the Berry classic. Here are two cover versions from more recent years. First up is Bruce and the E Street Band performing Chuck Berry’s classic “Little Queenie” live in concert in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri back in August 2008. Incidentally one of the best concerts Ryan has ever attended and one that was just recently released via Nugs as an official release. Second is a great 2013 version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” featuring the E Street Horns, live in Leipzig, Germany, complete with on the fly arrangement and key selections, a master class demonstration to all musicians on the beauty of watching seasoned, incredible musicians improvising and creating magic out of thin air.

 

 

Stranded Way Out On The Kokomo- No Particular Place to Go

If you go the Backstreets.com NEWS page and click on the “News Archive” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives, you’ll see our appropriately extensive coverage on the death and enduring impact of Chuck Berry:  four separate reports in all, and I’m honored to have written three of them. The last one I wrote came about courtesy of Born To Run cover photographer Eric Meola, who was smart and kind enough to point out to us what probably is the earliest known Chuck Berry lyrical reference in a Bruce Springsteen song. Some of the characters in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” park at a place called The Kokomo, which also gets mentioned in Berry’s classic song “No Particular Place To Go.” You can read all of the interesting details online, but another Springsteen reference to The Kokomo popped up again years later in the song “Light of Day,” which certainly sounds a lot more like a Chuck Berry song than “Sandy” does. So here back to back are Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and Bruce’s “Light of Day,” performed back in 2001 with the great Joan Jett, another guitar-slinger heavily inspired by Chuck Berry.  Take it away, Chuck!

 

Mister I Ain’t A Boy, No I’m A Man and I Believe In The Promised Land

Regarding the fact that both Chuck and Bruce wrote about the Promised Land, I’ll just advise you to go to the Backstreets.com NEWS page, click on the “News Archives” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives and check out Shawn’s essay entitled “Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen: Seeing The Promised Land from Different Sides of the Divide.” There’s a lot of interesting information there about the layers of meaning and the connections between Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.”

 

 

Cadillac, Cadillac Long and Dark, Shiny and Black

While learning his musical craft playing in clubs at night, Chuck Berry had many jobs including carpentry, which he learned from his father, a beautician, and he also worked on the assembly line at the local General Motors plant producing,……you guessed it, Cadillacs, the trademark vehicle in so many of his classic songs. In his lyrics, many of Berry’s characters obtained freedom by either buying a car, cruising the highways, or getting friendly with their loved ones in a Cadillac. To Berry, in his own life and in those early songs, the Cadillac represented elegance, grace, social currency, and freedom: personal, racial, and, sexual. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes, “Cars were dear to me and provided luxuries far greater than any others. It wasn’t so much travelling that motivated me to better cars, it was the quality of settling down I anticipated. With the restrictions we had at home, it was imperative to have a place to base for face-to-face. In your car, you could enjoy any sort of spectacular performance without the likelihood of a heckler or someone crossing the stage during the climax of your show.” Berry’s use of the cars for escaping seem to have rubbed on Springsteen who often times used cars as central characters in many of his early songs including Born To Run, Thunder Road and Racing In the Street. During The River tour, Springsteen often used a small portion of Berry’s No Money Down as an introduction to Cadillac Ranch, purposefully demonstrating the influence of Chuck Berry on  his own work.

Last year during an interview Springsteen did with Apple after his autobiography Born To Run was released, the interviewer seemed perplexed about Springsteen’s propensity to write about cars despite the fact he himself didn’t obtain a driver’s license until well into his 20’s. Springsteen’s final summation was perfect, “Look, Chuck Berry wasn’t in high school when he wrote all those great songs, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, and I didn’t drive cars Ok?”

 

 

Chuck

Berry’s newest album, his first in 38 years is full of surprises and shows that he was still writing and recording quality songs as he aged. Recorded mostly at his personal studio at Berry Park in Wentzville, Mo along with a live recording at Blueberry Hill, the St.Louis institution where he played over 200 shows, mostly on Wednesday nights once a month for over 20 years. The album was recorded with his normal house band from his St.Louis shows and features his son Charles Junior on guitar as well as his daughter Ingrid, a fine singer and harmonica player in her own right, both of whom typically accompanied Chuck at his live shows. As you heard above, “Big Boys” is a modern day rocker with that classic driving beat and Chuck guitar tones. Other highlights for us include “You Got To My Head”, a standard cover but showing Chuck’s still fine voice, “Wonderful Woman” with lyrics just as playful and descriptive as “Nadine”, and the “Dutchman”, a talking blues of original lyrics with a driving guitar and modern rhythm behind his solid, smoky voice. Our biggest favorite is “Darling”, featuring Chuck as he sings to his daughter Ingrid who backs him on vocals about “her father growing older each year”. The back and forth between the two is touching to say the least and you can hear the love between father and daughter in the twilight of the father’s life.

 

Way Down In New Orleans, There Stood A Boy Along The Railroad Tracks

In Dave Marsh’s excellent, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he places Johnny B. Goode second best of all time, only behind Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and he writes,“Buried deep in the collective unconscious of rock and roll, there’s a simple figure drawn from real life: One man, one guitar, singing the blues. But he’s not any man. He’s black, Southern, poor and (this is the part that’s easiest to miss) dreaming. In many ways, his story is terrible and terrifying. We’re speaking after all of someone like Robert Johnson, by all evidence as sensitive and perceptive as, say, F.Scottt Fitzgerald, but rather than pursuing lissome Zeldas through Alabama mansions, he’s enduring the pitiless reality of sharecropping, segregation, the threat of lynching, and all but inescapable twentieth century serfdom in Mississippi.”

“Chuck Berry’s genius lay in his ability to shape those gruesome facts into a story about joy and freedom. Not that he didn’t have to make concessions to the reality he was subverting. He says in his autobiography that he wanted to sing, “There lived a colored boy named Johnny B Goode,” rather than the “country boy” we now have, but, “I thought it would seem biased to the white fans.” Especially no doubt those white listeners who programmed the radio stations that would determine whether the record became a hit or was not heard at all.”

“Already a star, Chuck Berry was on intimate terms with the pop game and the limits it imposed on famous men with black skin. Standing at the edge of the rules, Berry shot himself right past one crucial dilemma of American culture into the center of another. By changing “colored” to country, he found that, instead of speaking for himself alone, he’d created a  character who also symbolized the likes of Elvis Presley, another kid whose mama promised that “someday your name will be in lights.” Horrible as the source of the compromise may have been, its effect was to treble the song’s force. For ultimately, if you could identify with either Berry or Presley, there was a chance you could identify with both. The result is history- and not just pop music history.” DM

The correlation between Presley and Berry is an important one given their placement in the firmament of rock and roll and its’ development. Both artists combined all of their influences into a new sound, both equally great, but equally different and containing slightly divergent genres. Throughout his career, Elvis Presley loved to play the music of Chuck Berry, both on stage and in the studio. I recently stumbled across a release of live audio taken from Presley’s performances during his brief but important tenure on the Louisiana Hayride radio program from 1955-1956 which contains several versions of Presley playing Berry’s first hit, Maybellene. In the 1960s, amidst the dearth of movie music, Presley recorded great versions of Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and Too Much Monkey Business. In later years, Johnny B. Goode was a Presley concert staple and in 1973, Presley recorded Berry’s Promised Land, as Presley may have seen a lot of his own life story in the lyrics of a poor southern boy who makes good and sees his name in neon lights. Berry wrote the sequel of Johnny B. Goode, entitled Bye Bye Johnny in which a tearful mother “pulls her money from the southern trust and put her little boy on the Greyhound bus to make motion pictures out in Hollywood.”

Unwittingly, Berry had written the lyrics that Presley had lived out in his own life with this: “She remembered taking money out from gathering crop/And buying Johnny’s guitar at the broker shop/As long as he would play it by the railroad side/And wouldn’t get in trouble, he was satisfied.” Given the level of Presley’s poverty, not many people would know at that time, but those four lines sum up the first 20 years of Presley’s life. Gladys had indeed worked in the cotton fields around Tupelo, Mississippi while pulling a very young Elvis down the rows on her cotton sack. She then used the little money the family had saved to help Presley buy his first guitar on his 11th birthday. And, the Presleys lived along the railroad tracks in the Shakerag neighborhood of East Tupelo, the poor side of the tracks amongst the African-American section of the town.

After Presley died in 1977, Springsteen, a devoted fan of both artists, chose to write his elegy for Presley and reversed Berry’s title and borrowed the first two lines of Berry’s song to open his farewell. For this, Berry is given co-writing credits on the studio release.You can also hear the basic Chuck Berry guitar rhythm which accompanies the lyrics.  Below are Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny and Springsteen’s Johnny Bye Bye. For the clip of Little Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen singing Bye Bye Johnny, please forward to 4:47 mark in the video. This was taken from Steve’s Soulfire CD release show 4/22/17 held in Asbury Park.

 

 

Even This Shall Pass Away

After Chuck passed away, director Taylor Hackford gave an interview and discussed details of filming the great documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! Hackford stated that knowing the influence Berry had on Springsteen and his music, they reached out to Springsteen to perform at the highlighted concert filmed at the Fox Theater in St.Louis on Berry’s 60th birthday. Hackford said Springsteen was the biggest rock star in the world at the time, coming off the success of Born In The USA, and they felt like his presence would push the film along in it’s narrative. While Springsteen was unable to perform, he did agree to be interviewed for the film and Hackford said it was the cornerstone of the whole film.

Berry was the 4th of 6 children born to William and Martha Berry in a segregated St.Louis, Missouri. William was a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church where the family attended services and sang in the choir. At night, William would gather the children around and recite poetry, literature and biblical passages. The poetry and word play seemed to have worked their magic as Berry began writing poetry at a very early age and this helped foster his incredible lyrics later in his career, In this outtake from the film, Chuck recites a poem taught to him by his father years ago, a poem written by Theodore Tilton during the Civil War entitled, Even This Shall Pass Away. As Robbie strums the guitar, Chuck recites the poem strictly from memory and then on the fly, demonstrating his agile, quick mind, he makes up a final stanza of his own, and looking into the camera, relates a story befitting his own life.

 

Johnny B Good Belongs To The Stars

Yes, Chuck Berry has passed away at the age of 91, but his music will live forever as people continue to listen to his music, the lyrics, and that singular, much mimicked, but never to be replicated guitar sound. As Shawn pointed out to me before, Chuck’s “Johnny B Goode” was the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager “Golden Record” which was launched into outer space in 1977 as a representation to extraterrestrials of life and culture on Earth. Coincidentally, that record was put together with help from noted Springsteen collaborator Jimmy Iovine. According to historian Douglas Brinkley who wrote the liner notes for the Chuck album, Chuck loved the idea that Johnny B Goode is now past Jupiter and Saturn, over 4 billion miles away, out of our solar system. Brinkley asked Chuck if he ever looked up at the stars and wondered where exactly Johnny B Goode was to which Chuck replied, “Sure, it’s somewhere in the heavens. That’s as good as it gets jack.”

I think I know what John Lennon was onto when he suggested if you needed to come up with another name for rock and roll you could call it Chuck Berry because when you a hear a Chuck Berry song with that back beat and driving guitar rhythm, it gets into your body and makes you feel good, it makes you want to get up and dance in the aisles, and it makes you feel like it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. May you rest in peace, Chuck, out there somewhere in the universe among the stars. Thanks for the all the artistry, music and joy you have brought to all of us. Thank you, you beautiful, hard rockin’, guitar playin’, Cadillac drivin’, song writin’, highway cruisin’, booty shakin’, motorvatin’, space travelin’, musician inspirin’,  duck walkin’, legendary, hard-core, rock and roll genius. Hail Hail!!! Rock and roll. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry!!!

 

 

 

Like A Steel Driving Hammer: Favorite Chuck Berry Performances:

Through The Eye of The Needle

“My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known
Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home
Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned” Mellencamp, Minutes to Memories

By Ryan Hilligoss, June 7, 2017

The Things We Carry

Words can have powerful meaning and significance. On a daily basis, we talk and listen to hundreds, thousands of words during our workday, through our friendships and daily encounters as we walk through life. Words wash over us from the radio, television, the printed word, and on on. Thousands upon thousands turn into millions. Many of those go in and out without reaching us or making any impact. However, if we stop and listen, some of those words reach us at the perfect time, the perfect place in our lives and send us off into another direction and force us to stop and consider life anew.

Recently, I sat on a patio having a nice, unhurried conversation among friends, surrounded by trees, fragrant flowers, bushes and good company on a beautiful, quiet summer evening. Early evening, the time of the day when the world slows down and you can unwind your mind and body from a long day of work and activity. Early evening, when the sun starts to set and turns the leaves a different color, sunlight falling at a low angle muting the world around. Ancient coins, relics and totems are passed around and explained. Coins and bracelets carried and worn by Israelites, Italians, Africans and Irish 2,000 years ago sit in the palms of our hands like secrets from days gone by. Did a peasant walking the streets of Rome 1,800 years go ever consider the possibility of people long in the future carrying the same coin? The sunlight reflects off a beautiful cross and chain necklace.

I stare off into the woods behind the house. Woods made of scrub bushes, black locust trees, and a meandering, shallow creek. My brother Sean and I used to walk these woods back in our childhood, what seems like a lifetime ago in one sense, but also just like yesterday in another. We walked these woods on spring and summer days, walking for the sheer joy of childhood, unencumbered by life and the burdens of adulthood yet to come. We walked the woods on winter nights, with snow filling the ground, carrying our sleds looking for one more hill to glide down before heading home in the dark.

A very kind, humble man tells stories of his life experiences, travels, and lessons he’s learned during his time here. Tales from Greece, Germany and Switzerland flow as easily as wine from a bottle. He once was invited to give a speech in Switzerland and sat next to astronaut John Glen. They shared their past as pilots in the Marines. When someone from the event tried to interrupt their conversation, John Glen turned and said, “Excuse me, I’m talking with the Major here, I’ll be with you in a minute. ” In recounting all the people he’s known in his life including family, his professional life and his military experience, he stopped and said, “I can count on two hands the people I have known who if I called and needed help, they would be here tomorrow. Those are my true friends.”

His statement made me stop and consider my own life, not as a competition, just as a measurement of what I have in life. My mind quickly worked through my immediate surroundings. My father and mother and brother. My aunts and uncles, cousins, distant cousins. My professional colleagues. My friends I’ve known through baseball, living in two parts of the state, high school friends. My friends I’ve gotten to know through the power and glory of music. My friends from the Bruce Springsteen, E Street Radio, concert experiences. Some of these I’ve never actually met in person, but some are ones I have gotten to know very well, spending time with them in person, often communicating with each other about music, but also about life and misfortunes. My list of those I can call friends that would show up tomorrow if I needed help knows no bounds. In fact, many of them have already helped me many times already in various forms and would do so again if asked, without judgement or concern for themselves.

As I’ve struggled through some hard times in the last few years from my own personal issues as well as those around me, it’s been the power of music and the love of friends and family that have helped steady me and guide me through. Kindness and support can come in many forms. Large gestures such as a free ticket to a concert, or small, meaningful gestures such a random phone call or email or regular text messages just asking “How are you doing, what’s going on in your world?” To the person sending them, it might not be much, but to me the recipient, they meant the world that people I know care enough to reach out and say in the end, in one form or another: I care about you and want you to be happy. My brother Sean passed away almost two years ago, and I don’t think he knew how much he was loved by those around him. It was obvious by the efforts of family and friends to attend his services and all the kind gestures and words, that he was truly loved and had impacted the lives of so many. A woman we did not know came to his visitation and told my father that through Sean’s work in the probation department, he had saved her life, literally by putting her on the right track in life, getting her the help she needed, and without him, she wouldn’t be here today. While Sean wasn’t given that while he was here, I’ve been fortunate enough to be rewarded with kindness, warmth and compassion thousands of times over.

They Belong To The By and By

I am not alone in struggles. As the late, great comedian and human being Robin Williams once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” Tragedies of every manner have struck many around me. Friends and family have suffered serious health issues themselves or their family members. Cancer, heart failure, leukemia, blood clots, breast cancer, diabetes, car accidents, etc etc. Too much heartache and sadness to count. And yet, we persist, striving to find a better way in life, a better way to behave towards and around those we love. We strive to learn from our past mistakes, avoid them in the future when possible and to live a full, happy life, taking in all the world has to offer. We carry the aches and pains, the slings and arrows, the tragedy with us as we live out each day, never forgetting those we lost along the way, but looking for a brighter future, looking for a land of hope and dreams. Leave the mistakes in the past, they can’t be solved, the past will solve itself.

With all these troubles, it’s very easy to fall into depression, guilt, regret. It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but in the big picture, I can say I live a full,blessed life already. While billions around the world struggle for the basic necessities of life such as clean water, food, shelter, clothing, I have all that I can ever need: a roof over my head, all the clean water I want, I can walk into 5 grocery stores within 5 miles of my home and buy anything I want or need at a moment’s notice, 24/7. I have two beautiful, healthy, smart, funny, and engaging kids, my Graham Ronald and Aurora Eva Rose. I have a father who is still here and healthy enough to be engaged in the lives of his kids and grand kids and entertain all those around him. I have a mother who, while she struggles with health issues of her own, still worries about her kids and tries to help anyone she can. I have a loving brother who shares many of the same passions as me along with my sweet sister in law. I have many aunts and uncles and distant family members who love me for who I am and who all enjoy being around each other as much as we can, sharing life’s experiences whether through a baseball game, a concert, a family reunion or often times, just sharing a meal together, discussing life, movies, music, sports. Often times, we talk around a lot of the things we want to say but can’t bring ourselves to say aloud. No matter the subject or the amount of words we might speak boil to this: I love you and care about you.

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Busch Stadium, St.Louis, Missouri. May 29, 2017. From left to right: Ruthie Marie Hilligoss, Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Michelle Teutken Hilligoss, Kevin Lee Hilligoss, Richrard “Big Dick” Eugene Hilligoss, Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss, Robert “Little Bobby Wee Wee” Lee Hilligoss, Graham Ronald Hilligoss, Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, Travis Joel Hilligoss, Alan Volkmann.

 

From Minutes to Memories

The picture above was taken at Busch Stadium in St.Louis, Memorial Day, 2017. The Cardinals lost to the Los Angles Dodgers on this day, mired in a dismal baseball season so far. The weather was extremely hot and humid as St.Louis summers will be. 80 degrees felt like 100 with the humidity and sun baking us in our seats like Pillsbury cookies. The Boss Man’s Born In The USA blasted from the PA as a video tribute to our service members rolled on the giant video screen. We were all there together, family and friends, enjoying the day and enjoying being alive, at least for one more day, hopefully many, many more. The picture captures us at one particular moment in time, and we’ll be able to look back on it later in life as how things were, but we carry each other in our hearts every moment of every day. As Mr. Mellencamp says in the song, “My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known, Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home.” It’s easy to get lost in life, but with a little help from our friends and family, we usually make our way through the woods and back home. Thank you.

Thank you roll call: Lew Trigg, David and Sarah Reed, hank Weaver, Tracy “Big Sky” Thomas, Deborah “What’s Up Doc” Hewitt, Shawn “my brother from another mother” Poole, Dawn Leinenberger, Jeanette “Queenie” Amadeo, Billy Planner, Jeff Calaway, Patrick Canny, Jen Roscher, Barb Greenwald, Sharon Hardin Eaton, Judy Lendsey, Ginger and Jo, Brittany, Karin Lefferson-Witt, Nick and Meg Piazza, Dave Buerstetta, Matt Moritz, Jarrie Lesure, Jennifer Conley, Jim Rotolo, Dave Marsh, Vincent Rockwell and everyone else at E Street Radio, Jane “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” Arnone and all of our friends from The Wild and Innocent FB page on Friday nights (many Friday nights this was the best two hours of my week). The Boys of Summer, all the boys in SYB and Titans whom I’ve had the privilege of coaching. And the kids of South Prairie whom I was given the gift of time to work with on a regular basis in their classrooms along with my kids. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologize, no harm intended.

Thank you to Bruce Springsteen for giving us your gift for the last 50 years. Your music has been a constant companion and source of inspiration for me and has helped create a community of fans like I’ve never seen. People, sometimes complete strangers, who genuinely love and support each other. Thank you to John Mellencamp, Jason Heath, Randy Newman, Miles Davis, Ella and Louis, Willie Nelson, James McMurtry, Josh Rouse, Steve Earle and so many others who have brought me happiness in dark times through the beauty of their art.

It may only be rock and roll but it feels an awful lot like love.

Ain’t Afraid To Live: Buy The Damn Concert Tickets

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By Ryan Hilligoss, May 20, 2017

Life Is Short, Even In It’s Longest Days

I’m sitting at my local coffee shop looking out the window at the passing clouds as the sun comes out after a rainy, cold morning which cancelled our baseball games for today. Nothing sadder than a baseball rain out. Your hopes are up for a day of baseball and all the joys that come with it, watching young kids give it their all on the field for a few hours. Well, there are much sadder things in life, I know, there are many, too many to count sometimes.

As I type,  I know my mother is 300 miles away, suffering from Parkinson’s disease while my father does the best he can to help her get through daily life. I just ended a phone call with her in which we had our normal conversation that we’ve had thousands of times. What are you doing? Not much you? What’s the weather there.? Rainy and cold here, how about there? What are you up today, how are the kids? What day are you coming home next weekend? Sunday. 30 seconds pass by. What day are you coming home next weekend? I’ll be home Sunday mom and the kids are coming with me. That’s good. Yes it is. It comes and goes each week, each day, each hour. Sometimes it’s OK, and others her memory come and goes. She gets lost a little in time, usually the days of the week and the season of the year. But the next minute she’s fine and talking about the latest news. Her sense of time, much like the clouds overhead, and life in general, is transient and ever moving, ever changing without any help from you or I.

The last few years have not been pleasant. My father in law passed away unexpectedly. My mother in law was in a nursing home for a few years before passing in December. My spouse has had many serious health issues. My father had to have emergency heart surgery to repair clogged arteries. I had a blood clot in my leg that was luckily found by my doctor in time, avoiding what could have been the end for me if I had waited much longer. And tragically, I lost my brother Sean nearly two years ago, passing away from diabetic ketoacidosis, leaving  behind two young daughters who won’t have much to remember about their dad as the years pass. With each event, what is important in life came into focus, only to be followed by the next thing and the next, to where you become too defeated, worn down from stress and hanging on the best you can, just doing the day to day stuff to get by the best you can.

I’m Not Afraid To Live

Sometimes happy accidents happen in life, usually for a good reason., when we least expect them. Recently, a new/old friend of mine, gave me some very helpful words in the form of lyrics from U2’s Kite, “I’m not afraid to die/I’m not afraid to live/And when I’m flat on my back/I hope to feel like I did.” The events I enumerated above are very personal, but not things I haven’t already shared with many. And I know what I have endured has not been mine alone, all of them effecting countless others in more direct and profound ways. My problems are not singular. All who walk the earth suffer similar losses, in ways small and large. Our tragedies are tempered by the knowledge that for the most part, we’ve lived a blessed life, something that billions around the world live without on a daily basis. A roof over my head, shoes on my feet, clean water, children, family and friends, good health, more food than I need, entertainment, earthly possessions and the ability walk into a store at any moment and get anything I want or need.

But I also know, based on genetics and family history, I’ve probably lived half my life. 40 years await me down the road and I plan to squeeze as much as I can out of the days remaining, to live deeply and suck the marrow from life as Henry David Thoreau wrote so long ago. I want to listen to as much good music as I can. I want to go to as many concerts as I can given limitations of money and time and geography. I want to travel as much as possible and maybe go overseas to see sites I’ve only seen in pictures and movies until now. I want to eat good food and drink as much Fireball as I can 🙂 I want to spend as much time as I can with my children, creating memories and as much love and support as I can for them. I want to take care of my family as much as they need and as much as I can. I want to dream big and live big. I want to leave the world a little bit better than I found it. And in the end, I want to be who I am, good or bad, while still being decent and having common courtesy and concern for those around me. I refuse to change the core of who I am or what I enjoy in life to meet someone else’s expectations or vision of who I could be with enough finesse and time. This is who I am, take it or leave it and if you leave it that’s Ok with me.

Good Companions For This Part of The Ride

What has kept me going , the essence that has sustained me this whole time has been my beautiful kids Graham and Rory, my family, of which I’m blessed to have a large extended amount, many close friends, baseball and music. Music has always been a large part of my life from an early age. I was fortunate to have parents who exposed me to the classic, good stuff of their times: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Jim Croce, Neil Diamond, The Everley Brothers, Shirley Reeves, Buddy Holly, and on and on. My brothers Kevin and Sean exposed me to newer or different sounds of rock, country, roots and the blues. My parents and brother took me to see concerts from an early age, Neil Diamond on many occasions, ZZ Top, and Bruce Springsteen to name a few. As I’ve grown older, I’ve branched off on my own, listening to a myriad amount of artists and styles and have traveled near and far to see live concerts. Springsteen, Mellencamp, John Prine, Buffet, The Old 97s, Chuck Berry, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, etc. Jazz, country, rock, the blues, I don’t care what style, race, color, creed, politics or style of underwear they wear, if they play good music which speaks to me, I’m in and experiencing life as boldly as I can. And because of that, I’v been blessed to collect a wide assortment of friends from around the country. The basic decency and kindness I’ve witnessed first hand is staggering. I’ve never felt more alive than being surrounded by friends and family listening to the same music and giving back to the artists what they give us: sweat, love, joys, fears, laughs and tears.

As we get older, it’s easy to get lost in life with kids, a profession, sports, events, and adult responsibilities. We grow disconnected from people and get sidetracked in our own difficulties. But with some love and concern and support of those around us, and a lot of music, we usually can find our way home again. What was that 4 guys sang long ago, we get by with a little help from our friends? I think I’ll buy the damn concert tickets and take my kids to see Paul McCartney this summer so they can say they saw a Beatle.  I think I’ll go see Jimmy Buffet and the sea of piracy and parrot heads that envelope the crowd. I think I’ll go see some great musicians, playing their hearts out and be one of the fans living life to the fullest. Hopefully, I’ll see some of my friends further on up the road. Hopefully we can climb on that train bound for glory. I’ve you don’t need no tickets, you just get on board.

“I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past”

-Springsteen, Land of Hope and Dreams

Dream Baby Dream: The Music of Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen

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Written by Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole (Expanded version of text used for broadcast on E Street Radio, Sirius/XM channel 20 Thursday April 21 at 5:00pm EST, Friday April 22 at 7:00am EST and Saturday April 23 at 6:00pm EST.)

 

“Roy made a little town in New Jersey feel as big as the sound of his records. I’ll always remember what he means to me and what he meant to me when I was young and afraid to love.” Bruce Springsteen

 

Roy Orbison’s Singing For The Lonely

This week we celebrate what would have been the 80th Birthday of the late, great Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison, also known as “the Big O.” Bruce Springsteen’s music has been influenced over the years by many of his musical heroes including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Eddie Floyd, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore and many others, but maybe none more than Roy Orbison. Roy has been described as “the most brilliant white male voice of the 50s and 60s “, the world’s only operatic rockabilly singer, The Caruso of Rock, and Elvis once said of his Sun Record label mate, “Roy Orbison is the best singer in the whole world.”  His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. During performances, he was known for standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.

Roy Orbison was born April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas and grew up mainly in the west Texas oil town of Wink. On Roy’s sixth birthday, his father gave him a guitar. He later recalled that, by the age of seven, “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” As a young boy, Roy was exposed to many musical artists and styles including orchestral arrangements, Tex-Mex, bolero, country western, and Cajun. The classic Jole Blon was one of the first songs he sang in public. Some of his favorite artists included Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Glen Miller, and Montavani. At the age of 8, Orbison had his own weekly radio show. While in high school, Orbison formed The Wink Westerners and played at school dances, radio programs and honky tonks. Roy once saw Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash perform, and Johnny was the one who told Roy to come to Sun Studios and see Sam Phillips about a recording contract, which Roy promptly did and recorded his one hit at Sun Records, “Ooby Dooby”.

Speaking of Cash, in the liner notes of his 1996 album, Unchained, Johnny writes on giving advice. “Don’t ask me for advice. Whenever someone does, I’m reminded of the worst advice I ever gave to anyone. Thank god Roy Orbison ignored it. Roy and I became friends from Day 1. When he came to Memphis from West Texas. I had met him in Odessa where he and the Three Kings did a show on local TV, He was a little discouraged by the lack of progress he was making and asked me what I thought he should do. I said, ‘Change your name and lower your voice. You sing too high and no one will ever remember Orbison.’”

After becoming disappointed with the recording advice of Sam Phillips and the limited publicity of Sun Records, Roy left Sun shortly after Elvis and Johnny Cash did and signed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose Music and sold one song to the Everly Brothers, “Claudette”. He then attempted to work with RCA but producer Chet Atkins and Orbison never got on the same page and Roy left with little to nothing to show for his efforts. Orbison then moved to Monument Records and under the production of Fred Foster, recorded his great masterpieces of “Uptown”, “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Crying”, “Running Scared” and many more. Frequent Orbison writing partner Joe Meleson said of their writing technique, “When we were writing, we’d fall asleep on the guitars. While writing “Only The Lonely”, we dozed off in my room. We’d stay up real late sometimes, trying to get the mood of the song and they feel of it, the right lyrics. Then we’d play it in the daytime to see if it held up. Our philosophy was, if it sounds good in the broad daylight, think what it’ll sound like when those people are lonely at night.”

Orbison’s recordings had great influence on other artists like Springsteen and on Elvis Presley. In 1960, Roy offered “Only The Lonely” to Elvis who turned it down, probably due to publishing rights issues which he frequently had due to the control of Colonel Parker and RCA’s publishing house. It is reported that when Elvis first heard Roy’s version on the radio, he was blown away and went out and bought boxes of the single and passed them out to friends and family. Elvis then went into the studio shortly thereafter and recorded his version of “O Sole Mio(It’s Now Or Never)” which contains a lot of Orbisonesque vocals inflections and lush orchestral strings in the background.

Bruce and Roy publicity

As the U.S. arena leg of Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 opens its final stand, we’ve found the perfect Throwback Thursday item: a River-era 1981 television appearance by Bruce Springsteen discussing the importance and impact of “The Big O’”s music. It’s a very interesting historical snippet, most likely marking the first time that Bruce ever appeared on television elaborating on the significance of one of his major musical influences. Much of what Springsteen touched upon in this ‘81 clip would be included and expanded in his 1987 speech inducting Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As befitting something associated with Roy Orbison, there’s also an aura of mystery around this clip. As of this writing, we still haven’t been able to determine its exact origin. Was this part of an awards-show’s Orbison-tribute segment? A television special on early rock-and-rollers or on Orbison himself? Or possibly even part of an episode of an ongoing series?  *Update: On 4/21/16 Robert Bader wrote in to Backstreets.com: “I can solve the mystery of the clip you have up today. Bruce shot this for a Roy Orbison pay-per-view concert broadcast. I think it was after the Rolling Stones’ December 1981 Hampton, Virginia pay-per-view, which was one of the first live concert PPV events, so my guess (without digging through the boxes of VHS tapes in my garage) would be that it was shot in 1981 and broadcast in early 1982. These PPV concerts were regular monthly things in those days. I recall watching the Stones event, and later the Who doing Tommy from Atlantic City, and lots of others. In between the mega-acts like the Who and the Stones they would have stuff like Teddy Pendergrass and Roy Orbison.”

 

 

So let’s get this Big O Birthday party started with one of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits, “Only The Lonely”, followed by Bruce Springsteen performing a beautiful acoustic version of “Thunder Road”, the Springsteen song that name-checks both Roy and “Only The Lonely”, taken from the February 26, 2014 Brisbane, New Zealand on the High Hopes tour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roy Orbison and Friends

“Thunder Road” was followed by “Dream Baby”, performed by Roy Orbison and Friends, featuring Bruce on harmony vocals and guitar, from A Black and White Night. The Black and White Night special was filmed for Cinemax television in September 1987 at the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Los Angeles and featured Bruce, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes and KD Lang on backing vocals and powered by the rhythm section of Elvis Presley’s TCB band with Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, Glen Hardin on piano and the world-class James Burton on lead guitar. After the concert, Bruce said, “When I was a kid, his music took me out of my little town. And you don’t always get a chance to sing harmony with Roy Orbison and play guitar next to James Burton. That’s a dream.” Roy was later interviewed about the show and had these kind words to say, “We had a rehearsal and Bruce had obviously taken the chord sheets home and practiced. As we went on stage Bruce said, ‘Should I be nervous?’ I said, ‘No, I’ll take care of that.’ It was terrific to look around and Bruce playing guitar and Elvis Costello doing his bit. I really loved every moment of it. The thing was to see these guys working so hard as musicians, as opposed to being front men. Bruce Springsteen is a solo type of singer. He’s a wonderful person to work with. I was expecting someone like him to be a little difficult, but he was great.” Springsteen has said that when talking to fans and other artists, he is asked more about the Black and White night more so than any other one performance he’s every been involved with.

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“That’s a dream” Roy Orbison and Friends: Black and White Night, l-r, James Burton, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello

 

No One Sings Like Roy Orbison

Over the years, Bruce has inducted many members into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and U2, but I think his favorite may have been in 1987 when he inducted Roy Orbison. On that night, Bruce said about his hero, ““I’d lay in bed at night with just the lights of my stereo on and I’d let Crying, Running Scared, Love Hurts, It’s Over and Only The Lonely fill up my room. Well, some rock and roll reinforces friendship and community, but for me, Roy’s ballads were always best when you were alone and in the dark. And I always remember laying in bed and right at the end of It’s Over, when he hits that note that sounds like the world is going to end. And lay there promising myself that I was never going to go outside again and never talk to another woman. Right about then my needle would slip back to the first cut and I would hear…dud dud dud duh. I carry his records with me when I go on tour today. In 75, we went into the studio to make Born To Run. I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan, that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now everybody knows, no one sings like Roy Orbison. So all I want to say is congratulations, thanks for the inspiration, and rrrrrllll mercy.”

In a Rolling Stone interview, Roy was asked what he thought about when he was inducted, “I looked around, looked up into this big room at huge pictures of all the guys who were coming in. And I remember seeing some pictures of guys who weren’t there and couldn’t be there because they were gone. And I got into the spirit of the thing. I was really cool until I had to stand on the side of the stage during Bruce’s speech. He said so many nice things, I didn’t know what in the world to say. But I took the speech from him. He had it written down, and I said, “Can I take this speech?”

 

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Bruce Springsteen inducts Roy Orbison, “the other man in black,” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leah

On Springsteen’s Devils and Dust studio album released in 2005, one track included was “Leah’, the title taken from the Orbison song of the same name. On the acoustic tour that followed, Springsteen often introduced the song with this, ´´Well, we all carry along with us, uh, the seeds of our destruction, it´s kind of the merry part of the human package, you know (chuckles) along with the seeds that allow us to, uh….if we´re fortunate and thoughtful, build things but, uh, that´s kind of a tug-of-war that can go on for a long time (chuckles) this is a song about a guy that just figures out how to come down on the right side of that equation…just barely….this song´s called ´Leah,´ I took the title from a Roy Orbison song….Roy Orbison´s song was about a pearl diver, I´ve been telling the folks that Roy was one of those guys….could write about, could sing about anything, he just had a voice that made everything sound believable, he had this song about the pearl diver, the pearl diver dives into the ocean to get the pearl for a girl (?) a pretty hokey bit of business but he made it so beautiful….and I got to meet him and I got to know him a little bit before he died and I went to his house one afternoon and, uh….(?) ´I got this new song about windsurfing´ ….´Windsurfing, oh´….I didn´t say that but that´s what I was thinking….and, uh, I was thinking ´You can sing about a lot of things, you could certainly sing about surfing….but windsurfing, that´s, that´s, that´s the no-go area, that´s….it can´t be done, that´s all there is to it, I don´t care who you are…..and, uh….you know, and so on his next record came out this, this beautiful song called ´Windsurfer´….and uh, I remember, it, it almost made me wanna windsurf (chuckles) but, uh….you gotta have faith….that´s what this is about too (chuckles) …´´

 

 

 

 

 

Crying/Lift Me Up

While the music of Roy Orbison was an important part of Bruce Springsteen’s life starting at an early age, the connection didn’t become close and personal until Bruce inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, followed closely by the filming of the Black and White Night special and then becoming personal friends with him after that. Prior to his 52nd birthday, Roy was interviewed and was asked who he would like to have sing “Happy Birthday” to him. “Bruce Springsteen”, he replied. We heard the live event at the top of the show but what most people don’t know is, later that same year, Roy flew to San Francisco on September 23, 1988 to wish Bruce a happy birthday while they were touring behind the Amnesty International event. Roy Orbison passed away on December 6, 1988 at the age of 52. Just a few weeks later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony of 1989 was held and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner dedicated the night to the memory of Roy Orbison. At the end of the show, during the jam section, Bruce sang a version of Roy’s hit, Crying.  Following are Springsteen’s cover of “Crying”, performed on the Tunnel of Love tour on May 16, 1988 at Madison Square Garden in New York City and Bruce’s beautiful recording of his song “Lift Me Up”, taken from the soundtrack to the movie Limbo and released on The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It was recorded in 1999 and has a very Roy Orbison-esque falsetto vocal and feel to the music.

 

 

 

 

It’s Over/Breakaway

Probably more than any other major music writer, rock critic Dave Marsh has spoken and written extensively about how many of Roy Orbison’s greatest records sound deeply influenced by the grand tradition of Mexican ballad singing. Dave once got to ask Roy Orbison himself about this influence, and Roy confirmed for Dave that the Mexican influence was a strong one indeed. Roy Orbison’s music helped to spread that Mexican influence to younger listeners and artists across the country and around the world like Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom performed with Roy on the Black and White Night television special. To demonstrate this influence is Roy’s version of “Yo Tia Amo Maria” followed by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa covering Jackson Browne’s Mexican-influenced song “Linda Paloma”, followed by Roy’s “It’s Over”.  Lastly, in this segment is Springsteen’s “Breakaway” taken from his Darkness On The Edge of Town era outtakes released as The Promise in 2010. The Orbison influence is unmistakable  from the vocals and phrasing, the structure of the song, the castanets and all the down to the drumbeat, taken directly from “It’s Over”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Dreams May Come In The Real World

Thanks for joining us on our Roy Orbison extravaganza as we celebrate Roy’s 80th birthday. After Roy passed away, Bruce was interviewed and had this to say:

“Roy’s music to me, was always very psychological ‘Running Scared,’ ‘Crying,’ ‘It’s Over.’ There was always that strange paradox. Almost always he dealt with some sort of devastating loss that seemed unbearable. And then he had that voice in its very beauty, for me, always resonated with hope.

On the one hand, I realize he died; on the other hand, I think I’ve carried around what he’s done inside of me for so long that in some ways I don’t feel the loss as great as maybe I thought I would. What he’s done has been so alive for me and so consistent in my life for such a long time. Every few year I’d go back and become re-infatuated with those records. I’ve had endless drives with buddies of mine where we would play the records and talk about them.

If you play his records, they don’t sound like oldies records. At the time they were recorded they were tremendously modern. In my earlier records, where I had more of an operatic construction in a lot of the music, it just came directly from the basic idea that a pop song did not have to be two verses, a chorus, a verse, a chorus. That was the Roy Orbison idea.

That sense of longing that he could convey. That endless longing for something. The music was so dark and beautiful. Look at those hits. Just the introductions. The way he would synthesize everything down in those introductions. The introduction to ‘It’s Over:’ ‘Your baby doesn’t love you anymore.’ When he sang that opening line, you knew all you had to know, I used to tease him. I said, ‘Man, if the record stopped right there, people would have gotten their money’s worth.’”

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Before Roy passed away in 1988, he was back on top with the album The Travelling Wilburys Volume I recorded with friends Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. His album Mystery Girl released in February 1989 reached the top 5 albums Billboard charts, contained songs written by many of his younger fans including Petty, Bono, Elvis Costello and others. In Ellis Amburn’s biography of Roy entitled Dark Star. Roy stated that he and Bruce worked on the lyrics of one song. However, he did not name the song and there is no credit to Springsteen on the album information so we would be very curious to know if there is a partial recording of an Orbison/Springsteen penned song out in the ether somewhere.

Unfortunately Roy Orbison passed just as his career was rebounding after floundering during the 70s and early 80s, and before he received the recognition he deserved from younger fans and critics. In an interview given to Rolling Stone months before he died, Roy was asked what he wanted his legacy to be and in his own humble manner, simply replied, “I just want to be remembered.” Well, 80 years after he was born and almost thirty years since he died, music fans all over the world still remember Roy Orbison, his beautiful voice, his songs and his dreams. And as long as music is played, people will always be listening to Pretty Woman, Crying, It’s Over, Love Hurts, and Only The Lonely. Thanks Roy for inspiring Bruce and giving us the gift that was your voice and songs and music.

We’d like to close out today’s show with a double-shot featuring one of Roy Orbison’s final recordings, “In The Real World,” followed by Bruce Springsteen’s solo-piano version of his own song entitled “Real World.” Interestingly, Bruce’s song also contains the Orbisonesque phrase “running scared” in its lyrics. There’s a much deeper connection, however, between these two songs than just the lyrical nod and their similarity in titles. Among rock-and-roll’s pioneers, Roy Orbison wrote and sang some of the most adult, psychological songs about love, loss, human relationships and fantasy versus reality. And both Roy’s “In The Real World” and Bruce’s “Real World” are among the best of their songs to continue and extend that tradition. As you’ll also hear, right up until the end, Roy still had that beautiful voice that he shared with anyone willing to listen. His music lives on and continues to have a lasting impact on so many of us here in the real world. Happy Birthday, Big O. Rest in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Nation of Hopeful Wanderers

“Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.”- Gustav Flaubert

 

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By Ryan Hilligoss, December 16, 2015

 

In light of the recent rhetoric on immigration, vitriol concerning Islam in general, and the looming election, I would like to address the rise of a dangerous, misguided line of thought now pervading our national discourse, or lack thereof. The recent hate filled spewing of Donald Trump reminded me of a speech a few years ago, given by the modern American poet, Bruce Springsteen, in accepting an award from the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award  in 2010 alongside Dikembe Mutumbo and others for their contributions to American life. The award honors Americans whose families came through the Port of New York and Ellis Island.

“With all the immigrant furor out there, it’s good to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants, of hopeful wanderers. And we cannot know who is coming across our borders today, whose story will add a significant page to the American story. Who will work hard, who will raise a family, whose new blood will strengthen the good fabric holding our nation together.”

“So I am proud to be here today as another hopeful wanderer, a son of Italy, of Ireland, and of Holland- and to wish God’s grace, safe passage, and good fortune to those who are crossing our borders today. And to give thanks to those who have come before, whose journey, courage and sacrifice made me an American.”

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Fine words spoken that I wholeheartedly agree with and believe we all should hold dear. As unless your family was here on this continent prior to European settlement, or unless you’re ancestors were brought here against their will, we are all a nation of hopeful wanders. My own family’s history, on the fraternal side, can be traced back to Germany from which the first Hilligoss crossed the Atlantic and entered the country through the Philadelphia immigration office. Further investigation reveals some of our descendants originally resided in France but were driven from their homes due to their involvement with the early Protestant Church. These early family members were part of the exodus resulting from the French Huguenots. I am sure many of you have similar stories in your backgrounds if you cared to look. Many of your families came to this land looking for a better life, religious or political freedom or simply, just a second chance.

What concerns me is the current level of resentment and blind hate leveled at many individuals or groups of immigrants, whether they be Middle Eastern, Latinos, Africans, Polish, or from any other country, religion or ethnicity. Especially gut wrenching is the recent spate of hatred towards Muslims centered around the San Bernardino shootings. It is not surprising that a great majority of the criticism comes from supporters of Donald Trump and the Tea Party. The ideology of the Tea Party brings to mind another xenophobic movement in our nation’s history:The Know Nothing Party.

 

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The Know-Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement during the 1840s and 1850s. It centered on popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and controlled by the pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Members were mostly average regarding education and wealth. The term Know Nothing came from the idea that if a member were asked about the activities or thoughts of the group, the member was supposed to reply, “I know nothing.” The movement peaked in the middle of the 1850’s when they won several elections in the northern states. However, the movement quickly disintegrated as the nation moved towards the civil war. How does this relate to modern America?

 

Many of our fellow citizens feel the country is being overrun with immigrants, whether legal or illegal, whom some believe are taking jobs from legal citizens, using our national or state funds for “free healthcare” or setting up some type of religious fundamental training camp to one day take over the country. To the Know Nothings, the enemy and the root of all their woes were Catholics and other immigrants. Then it was the Chinese. Then it was the Germans during WWI. Then the Japanese during WWII, and on and on down the list including, oh my, that Catholic with the secret cable direct to the Pope, John Kennedy. And now it is Hispanics and Muslims. Why is there always some bogeyman who some feel is responsible for their problems in life? It is dangerous thinking and antithesis to the ideals we as Americans hold dear.

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To tie this all together, back to Mr. Springsteen for a moment In 1978, after enduring a struggle for his own artistic freedom with his first manager, Bruce wrote a song called the Promised Land for the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Whether directly or indirectly, it shared the same title of a song written by one of his, and countless others, musical heroes, Chuck Berry, a man from a poor family living in a segregated St.Louis, Mo. Chuck’s version, written in 1964 and possibly influenced by Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, was about a poor southern boy dreaming of a better life in California and struggling to make his way across the country in search of that journey. In the later stage of his career, Elvis Presley, himself a man from a poor southern family, who also drove a truck for Crown Electric before setting the world on fire, recorded Chuck’s song and turned it into one of his last great rock recordings. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, in my mind, share the titles of the fathers of rock and roll, one of America’s greatest exports to the world in the 20th century and one of the great unifying forces in modern America life and one that greatly influenced the civil rights movement. Elvis’ first recordings took place in a small Memphis studio called Sun Records which, ironically enough, was situated at 706 Union Ave. We could use a little more unity in our communities, in our states, in our country and across the world today.

The sooner we can all recognize the need for understanding our common problems, discussing them in an intelligent and fair manner and attempting to find some common ground, the sooner we can start living up to the ideals our nation stands for. The ideals that caused so many to risk it all, to make that journey across the water so they could start their hopeful wandering. Oh, I believe in the Promised Land.

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