Story Of The Song: Promised Land, Chuck Berry (1964)

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The Independent Culture

Never mind Johnny B Goode, the real Chuck Berry hero is the "poor boy" who straddles a Greyhound out of Norfolk, Virginia with California on his mind. In around two minutes, Chuck drives his ever-resourceful alter-ego coast-to-coast through a dozen states, by bus, train and plane, roaming ever westward with barely a moment to take in a breath, let alone the view.

Like "Route 66" and Simon & Garfunkel's "America", "Promised Land" is rock'n'roll cartography, plotting a line through its musical heartland. Berry wrote it in a Midwest prison and it was recorded, on his release, at Chess studios in Chicago, in 1964. Producer Guy Stevens was there - in 1964 he was a journalist for Jazz Beat magazine. He noted that the session started at about 6pm on Thursday, 20 February. The first number was "Promised Land". Willie Dixon was on bass and Ellis Leake on piano with some un-named backup boys. Chuck kicked off with a killer chord and sang the lyrics from his own sheets. "The rest of the musicians soon fell in with him," reported Stevens.

Behind the glass sat the producer Phil Chess, his fingers around the knobs, a smile on his face. Berry's song tickled those present: "It turned out to be so amusing that the studio engineers and Phil Chess himself frequently grinned and laughed during the recording," says Stevens. "We then all piled into the control room to hear the playbacks. Chess seemed very pleased with 'Promised Land', and indicated it could well be Chuck's next single release." It was, and the record made the Top 20. Elvis Presley cut a version in 1973, but the best version is by Cajun star Johnnie Allen. He wrote to Berry about his cover, which has since appeared on more than 30 compilations, but was disappointed: "All I wanted was an autographed picture. But I never heard from him."

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