Jewish Telegraph, September 2006
ROCK star Chuck E Weiss says he has not felt strong enough to visit New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city last year.
But he wants to play his part in rebuilding the beleaguered city which has a special place in his heart.
Chuck — whose latest album 23rd & Stout has just been released by Cooking Vinyl — was recruited by Italian producer Fabian Jolivet for the Congo Street Project.
The album will be in aid of New Orleans musicians. Chuck, who is a drummer by trade, is joined by a host of other drummers including Cougar Estrada (Los Lobos), Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits band) and Michael Temple (who has played with Bo Diddley).
A number of New Orleans drummers will also feature along with big name singers.
“I know I have to go back to New Orleans at some point, but I’m just not strong enough at the moment,” Chuck said.
“People from New Orleans are much stronger than me. One friend, who is a film-maker from the city, is spending all his time helping people fix their houses.
“Another friend is helping reunite animals with their rightful owners.
“My way of helping is through music.”
Chuck, who now lives in Hollywood, was born in Denver, Colorado.
He told me in 1999: “We must have been the only Jewish family for 50 miles. The first time I got on the Hebrew school bus, there were grown adults throwing rocks at us. There was a lot of antisemitism in that area. This was a Jew-hating area.”
That interview was to promote his aptly-named album Extremely Cool. In 2002, he released Old Souls and Wolf Tickets.
His latest album, 23rd & Stout, is named after a street in Denver.
“It used to be a pretty dangerous area to go,” Weiss said.
“This guy told me his name was Pork Chop and gave me this whole pitch saying that if I gave him the 50 cents then I could go down to 23rd & Stout with $5,000 in my pocket, fall down drunk in the gutter and wake up the next morning on a nice clean leopardskin pillowcase with that same $5,000 in my pocket — just as long as I said that Pork Chop had sent me.
“He was a vaudevillian type of character. It was a totally creative spiel, such a beautiful arrangement of words, great turnaround. It stuck with me my whole life.”
Night-owl Chuck — speaking to me at 2.30am on Wednesday — goes to bed around 5am. He spends his nights either with friends, in coffee houses or feeding stray animals.
His music defies pigeonholing. One track could be a blues number, another a jazz affair and the next a rock song. But they do have some things in common — a very strong New Orleans feel and Chuck’s gravel voice
“I like to do whatever idiom makes me feel comfortable. I never think, ‘does this idiom follow the last one’,” he said.
“I let my songs go off in their own direction. If I’m writing on my own, the songs take a more standard role but when I’m writing with the guys in the band I like to experiment.”
However, he does describe his sound as “discom-bop-ulated jive”.
Some people who have never heard of Chuck break into Chuck Es in Love when they hear his name, not realising the Rickie Lee Jones song was written about him.
Tom Waits, his old musical partner, has also written songs about Chuck.
“Obviously I’m flattered by the songs,” he said. “I’ve written songs with both of them.
“In Los Angeles I’m not known as someone a song was written about, but people need a reference so I will be known in some places as the guy in Chuck Es in Love.”
When he was first going solo, Chuck got a regular Monday night gig at a Hollywood dive called the Central. He played there for 11 years before the place hit hard times.
Chuck called his close friend, actor Johnny Depp, and the pair saved the joint, renaming it The Viper Room.
Unfortunately, the club was catapulted into the headlines when actor River Phoenix died on the pavement outside The Viper Room in 1993.
“I bailed out after that happened,” Chuck said. “A lot of journalists, necrophiliacs, wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to participate in such necrophilia, so I didn’t comment.
“I almost gave an interview to a Los Angeles paper about it, but changed my mind.”
He says about his involvement in The Viper Room: “I always wanted to sing like a black man and do business like a Jew. Instead I sing like a Jew and do business like a black man. I got things a little mixed up there.”
Chuck was hit by the music bug when his father, Leo ‘PG’ Weiss, turned on the radio to listen to his beloved old-school boogie woogie music.
“I just went nuts when I heard it for the first time when I was a kid,” Chuck recalled. “I just loved it.”
A rubbish collector in his neighbourhood gave the young Weiss a bunch of old 78rpm records. Then his dad got in to the salvage business and brought home several damaged crates that were also full of old records. Chuck listened to them religiously and became an avid record collector. By the age of 10 he had started playing the drums.
Growing up, Chuck hung around the nearby blues clubs.
When Lightnin’ Hopkins showed up at a local nightclub without a backing band, Weiss volunteered to play drums with him.
“His timing was really odd. He would suddenly stop in the middle of the 13th bar or whatever. I was a record collector so I’d heard all his songs and I knew where the stops were because I’d memorised them,” he added. “That’s why I think I got the gig.”
The pair played more dates together and became good friends.
“He was a real sweet guy. A great storyteller, man. He’d drink a lot of gin. And in those days I was pretty lit up myself.”
Chuck released his first solo album, The Other Side of Town, in 1981, but it was a further 18 years until his second release, Extremely Cool.
23rd & Stout features a number of songs inspired by true stories and events.
Half Off At The Rebop Shop was “inspired by a commercial for Jiffy Popcorn which I saw as a kid,” he revealed.
Also included are covers of Ike Turner’s Goodbye, So Long and Primrose Lane by George ‘Red’ Callender.