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

Robert Webb
Friday 03 October 2003 00:00
Comments

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."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in