Friday, August 14, 2009

“Dennis Knows Diddley”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Dennis Chandler is a figure of much local renown. Over his long musical career, he has connected with a hero’s roster of Rock musicians including B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Lonnie Mack. Today, he performs regularly with ‘The Stratophonics’ and continues to enjoy collecting desirable goodies like Lionel Trains and Gibson guitars.

Writing professionally is an avocation best suited for those who like to remain constantly in motion. There is little time to ponder the worth of yesterday’s projects. A new deadline always seems to be near.

Material for this column typically has a shelf life equal to the duration of one published newspaper issue. By next week, other ideas have taken over. Only a handful of topics is durable enough to inspire multiple wordsmithing efforts.

But among those subjects blessed with lasting importance is Cleveland’s ‘professor’ of Rock ‘n’ Roll music – Dennis Chandler.

I first met this gifted performer while on assignment, two years ago. It was an encounter made possible by chance. Our paths might never have crossed, were it not for the fact that I had been asked to cover one of his concerts. Yet a sort of magic took hold as I listened.

The ‘Edu-tainer’ did more than simply entertain those gathered at that summer event. He educated them, with a song-by-song analysis one would expect in the classroom.

It was a performance that I would never forget.

From that day forward, Chandler was always in my thoughts. At first, I penned columns about his mastery of the electric guitar and keyboards. Then, I tried to offer a closer look at the journey he made from military service to on-stage prominence. Finally, when Rock legend Bo Diddley passed away in June of 2008, I attempted to chronicle their long-standing friendship.

It was to be a two-part creation, at minimum. ‘Chapter One’ appeared in print shortly after the iconic figure had passed away. And then…

Life happened.

Other points of inspiration appeared as I wandered through the months that followed. One year later, the promising tale still remained unfinished.

However, the first anniversary of Bo’s death brought a renewed sense of focus to the task. I traded e-mail messages with Chandler, while hoping for a burst of inspiration. But unrelated features again crowded my desk. Once more, I feared being stalled before the journalistic voyage could begin.

Then, Chandler called on a Tuesday night. I recognized his voice immediately.

“It’s great to hear from you!” I exclaimed. “So much time has passed. And I never finished our retrospective of the late Mr. Ellas Bates…”

“Dennis knows Diddley!” he promised.

I fumbled for my reporter’s notebook as every stray thought vanished completely. With passion and authenticity, he began to conjure up the spirit of yesterday.

“In 1960, I was a piano player,” he reflected. “But I was sick of instruments that were out of tune. I wanted to play guitar, something much easier to keep in tune. So I would practice (the instrument) - but my roommate hated it. Finally, he said ‘I’ll show you a guy that can play guitar!’ We went to Spatz’s Show Bar in Hamilton, Ohio. That was where I first saw Bo Diddley.”

My skin tingled. I could only imagine the sense of wonder that must have been present as these talented men met for the first time.

“Bo was eccentric and outspoken. He played with only a drummer, Clifton James, and Jerome Green (Bring It To Jerome, on the first album) played maracas,” Chandler observed. “His setup was impressive. Two blonde Fender Showman amplifiers, with a Magnatone amp in the middle. You could literally ‘feel’ the sound. It vibrated your brain! The Magnatone stereo vibrato oscillated between the Fenders creating a spatial echo effect. People were up on the tables (before long). It was incredible.”

My eyes widened with awe. The story represented a musical epiphany of sorts.

“I asked Bo to show me his style,” Chandler said. “And at first, he said ‘I ain’t showing you nothing!’ He wondered if we were with the Internal Revenue Service, because my friend and I were the only white guys in the place. But then, he stood right in front of me (at the edge of the stage) like he was saying ‘Okay! You want to see what I’m doing?’”

I couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of my friend eagerly studying Bo’s performance. In a real sense, it was an audience with greatness.

I felt eager to hear more.

“Buddy Holly raised awareness of his work by doing a cover version of ‘Not Fade Away.’ And Bo was happy,” Chandler remembered. “But he hated ‘I Want Candy’ (a mid-60’s song by The Strangeloves that mimicked his style) and he was bitter about being ripped off (by the industry). His distinctive rhythm came from African traditions where the accent goes on beats ‘one’ and ‘three’ rather than ‘two’ and ‘four’ as in most popular music.”

I mused on the Diddley approach to guitar. His was a stylistic romp that retained vitality, even in the 21st Century.

“Bo made a personal connection with me (that lasted over forty years). He called when I was battling Leukemia,” Chandler said. “And he contacted Fred Gretsch in 1999 to get me a couple of his signature guitars that were finally issued by the company. One is number seven of production, and the other is twenty. Three through six were given out for promotional purposes. And the first two went to Bo himself. So I was very happy with the first one available to the public!”

I took a deep breath. “So this iconoclastic hero literally helped to shape your own career?”

“Yes (with three other stars of that era),” Chandler replied. “I call them The Four Cornerstones of Rock. Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. The difference with them (and the later stars of Rock ‘n’ Roll) was that they paid their dues, but it never got to their head. They were still willing to give back. There was never a barrier between them and us. They were ‘basic’ as people. They learned (everything) on the street. The music was passed along from one generation to the next.”

I paused, waiting for more. But we’d already been on the telephone for over an hour.
“So… that’s your music lesson for today,” he laughed.

My pen fell on the desk.

“Thank you!” I stammered.

“Let’s keep in touch,” he said. It was an invitation that made me feel grateful.
After our conversation had ended, I sat alone reading my notes. Each page dripped with scribbles of fresh ink. I had recorded everything that my mind could process.
But the time-warp adventure was over. My impromptu study at the Chandler ‘School of Rock’ had been completed for the day.

Now… it was time to work!

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