The Origin of the Beatles’ “I Got to Find My Baby”

With the super-abundance of information about the Beatles out there, it’s always a surprise, and for the most part a pleasure, to come across a bit of interest that hasn’t often been previously reported. No, we’re not talking anything on the order of the real reason Pete Best got fired, or a recording of a previously unknown Lennon-McCartney original. We are talking about of the roots of one of the songs the Beatles covered in their early days.

The Beatles' June 1, 1963 performance of "I Got to Find My Baby" was issued about three decades later on Live at the BBC.

The Beatles’ June 1, 1963 performance of “I Got to Find My Baby” was issued about three decades later on Live at the BBC.

“I Got to Find My Baby” is one of the most obscure songs of which a good-quality recording by the Beatles exists. Like some of the other “most little known” songs they did, they performed it on the BBC, taping it on June 1, 1963 (the track eventually making it onto the Beatles’ Live at the BBC compilation). It’s pretty clear this jovial, bluesy number with a John Lennon harmonica solo – one of the bluesiest items they ever did, in fact – was learned from Chuck Berry, John introducing it as “Chuck Berry’s ‘I Got to Find My Baby’” on the broadcast. The Beatles even did it a second time on the BBC on June 24, a performance that’s now available as a download on iTunes’ Bootleg Recordings 1963.

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Berry did indeed put out a version of “I Got to Find My Baby” as the A-side of a flop single in August 1960. Live at the BBC credits Berry as the songwriter. But he certainly wasn’t the first person to record it.

Muddying these blues waters more, blues harmonica great Little Walter recorded “I Got to Find My Baby” as a single on May 22, 1954. It’s not exactly the same as Berry’s “I Got to Find My Baby,” but in many parts, it is exactly the same. Quite a few years ago, I seem to remember even reading it stated that Little Walter did the original of the song performed by the Beatles as “I Got to Find My Baby.” The only compilation on which I have Little Walter’s version, Confessin’ the Blues, credits Willie Dixon—who wrote many blues classics, especially for artists on Chess Records—as the songwriter.

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It turns out, however, that the roots of the tune go yet deeper. For in the early 1940s, Doctor Clayton put out a record, “Gotta Find My Baby,” that is in all respects the same song as the one Berry put on his 1960 single. The arrangement’s much different, of course—the chief instrument is piano, and there are no electric guitars or drums. It’s an easygoing early urban piano blues. But the tune, and most of the lyrics, are the same.

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One important difference: a verse that goes as follows was not used in Berry’s version:

When my head starts aching

I grab my hat and coat

‘Cause cocaine and reefer

Can’t reach my case no more

That last line might not seem to make much sense, but that’s how it sounds. The line with cocaine and reefer, however, is definitely in Clayton’s version. And Chuck Berry, for all his boundary-pushing, was not about to sing about cocaine and reefer, especially not in 1960, when he was appealing a jail sentence for violating the Mann Act.

It seems unlikely to me that the Beatles would have even known about Clayton’s version. They were huge Chuck Berry fans; they weren’t prewar blues collectors. Which makes it less likely still that they had any notion they were performing a song that, in its original incarnation, made more blatant references to drugs than almost any song they or almost any other leading rock group performed in the 1960s.

As a final footnote, the song “Gotta Find My Baby” also lived on through the late 1960s, in the repertoire of a band that fed two members into Led Zeppelin. In 1968, the Band of Joy, featuring a pre-Led Zep Robert Plant and John Bonham, did the song on an unreleased tape that’s circulated. Check it out in the usual places we can’t name.

The Band of Joy, including Robert Plant and John Bonham.

The Band of Joy, including Robert Plant and John Bonham.

Sweeney Ridge Trail in Pacifica

Considering it’s just south of San Francisco, Pacifica doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as some other communities neighboring the big city, like Berkeley, Oakland, and much of Marin County. A few weeks ago I went to a birthday party at the southern tip of Pacifica, however, and on the way down, I took the opportunity to do a hike I’d heard about but never done.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

The first challenge in walking Sweeney Ridge Trail is getting there in the first place. Since it’s right off the road the runs by the ocean, Highway 1, you’d think that wouldn’t be such a big deal. You can’t turn right into the entrance if you’re heading south on 1 from San Francisco, though, and even after you make a U-turn and retrace your steps, the steep short road toward the trail is so sharp and short that you’ll easily miss it if you don’t know exactly where to turn. Look for the Shelldance Orchid Nursery sign when you’re going south – it’s actually much easier to see from the ocean side of the highway – and steel yourself for turning sharply and immediately when you see the sign after doing the U-turn, though that sign’s almost hidden from sight when you’re driving north.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

After you drive up the steep, narrow, short hill and park behind the nursery, the next challenge is getting up the steep path. Hikers in reasonable shape should not have a problem, but many casual weekend walkers might cower at the sight of the path veering upward as soon as you set foot on the trail:

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And it’s not as if you scamper up that bit and then level out, or take a leisurely wind up to the peaks. Seems like it keeps on going up and up, usually at a fairly-to-quite-steep grade, for a good half hour or so:

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By keeping on the trail as it veers right and starts to near the 1,000-foot-elevation mark, you come across a most unexpected, and not entirely welcome, landmark:

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This is one of the abandoned buildings from the Nike Missile base, one of about a dozen scattered throughout the Bay Area (there was also one on Angel Island, near Marin County and Alcatraz). It’s quite jarring, this ugly reminder of the cold war right in the middle of a hike otherwise dominated by rolling hills on almost every side:

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Nike buildings aside, are there views, of both the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the San Francisco Bay to the east? Sure, but they’re not the most unspoiled ones:

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail's east

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail’s east

That's the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail

That’s the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail.

You’re really not that far from civilization here, and even Highway 1 is often visible from the trails:

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As another reminder of man’s intrusion onto this natural space, albeit almost two centuries before the missiles briefly planted themselves here, there’s this monument to the spot where European explorers first discovered the San Francisco Bay:

The inscription on this monument reads: "From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969"

The inscription on this monument reads: “From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969″

Yet there are spots where the highway, the housing, and even the airport are hidden, and you can revel in the ocean view:

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You can take walks of quite varying lengths from the trailhead, though going about five miles or so roundtrip (about a mile past the Nike missile site, and then back), as I did, makes for a pretty full to two to three hours. For more information, check http://www.everytrail.com/guide/sweeney-ridge-golden-gate-np-conservancy or http://www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/sweeney-ridge.html.

Ai Weiwei Exhibit on Alcatraz Island

Like most San Franciscans, I’ve hardly ever been to one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, Alcatraz Island. Before last week, I’d visited twice—which is one or two more times than many local residents I know. There’s a good reason for anyone to go this spring, however, since it’s now hosting a one-of-a-kind exhibit of work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

Ai Weiwei is not only an acclaimed modern artist, but also a noted human rights activist. Currently he’s not allowed to travel outside of China, and could not visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition, which opened on September 27 of last year (and runs until April 26). Alcatraz makes for an especially apt venue for his artwork and installations, as like the prisoners who famously inhabited the island for much of the twentieth century, he is unable to freely travel, and his interaction with the outside world is restricted.

The trip to the exhibit begins, as it does for all visitors to Alcatraz, at San Francisco’s heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf. As has long been noted, the beauty of the island’s setting in the San Francisco Bay is a sharp contrast to the notorious prison (for many years open to tours) it once housed:

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman's Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman’s Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

Even in their current semi-ruinous state, some of the buildings left from the days when the prison was in operation make for a jarring juxtaposition against a small island that, on its own, is a quite pretty oasis:

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

You can’t see it too well in a picture taken at twilight, but some structures on the island still boast hand-painted slogans from the brief period in which Native Americans occupied the island in the early 1970s. This water tower is emblazoned with the red-painted slogan “Peace and Freedom: Home of the Free Indian”:

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Those features can be viewed on any trip to Alcatraz. What makes the ones you can do now unique, however, is the opportunity to view Ai Weiwei’s art in this environment. The first stop on that tour is the New Industries Building, which features colorful kites such as these:

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Look closely at some of them, however, which are emblazoned with quotes such as these reflecting current affairs and human rights situations/violations:

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That aspect of Ai Weiwei’s work is far more pronounced in the room behind the kites, which uses LEGO bricks to build portraits of almost 200 people from around the world “who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations,” as the guide pamphlet states:

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor "convicted of defamation and threatening national security."

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor “convicted of defamation and threatening national security.”

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

In the cellhouse, a block of cells now contain sound installations playing the music, poetry, and speeches of figures from around the globe who (again quoting the guide pamphlet) “have been detained for the expression of their beliefs.” Some of the more famous voices represented are those of Afrobeat giant Fela, Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara, Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also represented are Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, who were prosecuted for playing avant-garde free-form rock in the 1970s and 1980s:

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A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

I wrote a chapter on the Plastic People in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, which you can read here. When I wrote this back in the late 1990s, I never thought they’d be featuring in a major art exhibition on Alcatraz. But life sometimes has more imagination than we do.

In the cellhouse’s hospital, some tubs, sinks, and the like are now filled with porcelain bouquets:

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In the cellhouse’s dining hall, you can write postcards to prisoners of conscience around the world (including some from the United States). Binders on the tables have paragraph-long synopses of their situations. As an illustration, here is the profile of the one I selected to write a card to, Irom Sharmila Chanu in India:

“Charged with an attempt to commit suicide. Chanu is a political and civil rights activist. She began a hunger strike in 2000 to protest the killing of 10 civilians who were allegedly shot by Indian paramilitary forces. Since then she has been arrested, released, and re-arrested every year. Currently she is held in a hospital security ward, where she is force-fed. This is the 14th year of her fast.”

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei’s communication with the world, incidentally, is largely build around Twitter messages. Take a look at the dragon kite again, and notice that the eyes are twitter birds:

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Tickets for the Ai Weiwei exhibit are available through Alcatraz Cruises, but you should book now if you’re interested. I don’t know how much space is left, but when I reserved tickets in early December, there weren’t any available until February. More information about the exhibit is at AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.org; the main forum for ongoing conversation about the exhibit is #AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.