It’s my love of poetry. A lyric is poetry with a melody—a message with a melody. And phrasing is all mathematics. If it’s eight beats to two bars, then you can sing 18 syllables. It’s always best to sing 15, though, so you can grab a breath now and then. In fact—you won’t believe it—but my biggest influence was my mathematics teacher. Music is so much mathematics that it’s pathetic.
Chuck Berry, interview with Guitar Player, February 1971.
At Bowie’s June 1971 BBC session, Bowie’s old schoolmate Geoffrey Alexander took the lead on a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown.” Bowie kept the song in his set for a few months until he replaced it with Berry’s more raucous “Around and Around” (Bowie liked the latter so much he nearly put it on Ziggy Stardust). Berry was much in vogue in the early ’70s—Marc Bolan threw in a line from “Little Queenie” on his just-released smash “Get It On,” and Berry would even get a #1 hit in 1972 with the worst song he ever recorded.
“Almost Grown,” which Berry recorded in February 1959 (Chess 1722; it hit #32), is middle-class respectability: the singer’s got a job and a car, he’s doing okay in school, and by the last verse he’s married and settled down. It reflects Berry’s awareness that his audience was changing—his listeners were graduating high school, getting drafted and/or married and having children, and so Berry tells them it’s all right. But there’s a slyness to “Almost Grown”: Berry sings his high-school narrative over the sort of dirty jump blues that a decade before had been confined to roadhouses and nightclubs (just listen to the way he leers “Got my eye on a little gurrrrl”), and beneath the claims of responsibility is the sense that what really matters to the kid is getting access to the pleasures of adulthood—sex and (relative) freedom.
When compared to his other ’50s hits, “Almost Grown” is one of Berry’s lesser singles (Berry’s pianist Johnnie Johnson said the formula was wearing thin by this point). But it’s still a joy of a track, its biggest hook the backing vocals by The Moonglows and Etta James.
The Bowie/Spiders/Alexander performance is as exuberant as it is sloppy (Woody Woodmansey on drums particularly seems lost). Bowie and Alexander get the vocals down all right, but the Spiders are no match for Berry’s original lineup of Johnson, Willie Dixon and Fred Below. Mainly worth a listen to hear Mick Ronson going to town on some Berry riffs.
Recorded 3 June 1971. Alexander, who later went under the name Warren Peace, would continue to work with Bowie, co-writing “Rock and Roll With Me” and singing on most of Bowie’s mid-’70s records.