“He could play the guitar just like ringing a bell.”
Chuck Berry did not invent the 12-bar blues but the way he played it is the nearest thing there is to the foundation stone of rock’n’roll. It is the primer for rock guitar players everywhere, the first lesson in the first class on the first morning in the first school, and while those who took it further than him wound up playing a more supercharged version of it in arenas, Berry stayed true to the first principles he laid down, even if it did become a chore towards the end and, for his audiences, less and less engaging as the years rolled by.
As if this wasn’t enough, however, Chuck Berry was also rock’n’roll’s first poet laureate. More than Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Buddy Holly, he painted in his songs a lyrical portrait of young America for those of us with the misfortune to live elsewhere. Berry’s America was the promised land, a country of glitzy cars and endless highways, of girls in tight dresses and lipstick, of driving along with no particular place to go, and where they never stopped rocking till the moon went down. The combination of his eloquent, witty lyrics and the incessant drive of his signature guitar style was irresistible to British and American teenagers as the black and white fifties morphed into the colourful, swinging sixties, and it will remain so for an eternity.
The timing of his arrival meant that Chuck Berry’s influence on the next generation of rock performers was incalculable. Most of them were cadging the money to buy their first guitars when ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ rose to number 16 in the British charts in 1958. In the UK that generational charge was led by The Beatles and the Stones, and in America by Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys. All four are immensely indebted to Berry, and aren’t afraid to say so.
“If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” said John Lennon, while Keith Richards went even further, telling the audience at Berry’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986: “I stole every lick of mine from Chuck Berry.” Told of Berry’s death at the age of 90, Keith’s band mate Mick Jagger, not known for his benevolence towards others in the same trade as himself, said: “I want to thank him for the inspirational music he gave us. He lit up our teenage dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved on us forever.”
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The son of church-going, upwardly-mobile parents, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born – according to him – in St Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926, the fourth child in a family of six. Failing to distinguish himself at school, at 18 he was imprisoned for three years for armed robbery, the first of four jail sentences he would serve for assorted crimes, and before opting for a career in music worked on a car assembly plant, as a janitor and in a beauty salon. He got his first guitar as a teenager and sought inspiration not just from blues musicians like Tampa Red, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s Timpani Five but from the smooth phrasing of Nat ‘King’ Cole and the swing jazz of guitarist Charlie Christian. More important was his introduction to boogie-woogie piano player Johnny Johnson whose trio he joined in 1952, bringing to the group a cool, detached vocal style and an approach to the guitar that mixed country licks with the increasingly popular hillbilly and blues styles. He was also starting to write his own songs.
In Chicago in 1955 Berry met Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard and Philip Chess whose independent label Chess Records specialised in urban blues. Leonard proposed that Berry record a revision of ‘Ida Red’, a traditional country fiddle tune, that was re-titled ‘Maybelline’ with lyrics about an auto race between a Cadillac – a Coupe de Ville, the details were crucial to the package – and a V8 Ford, all set to a toe-tapping rock’n’roll beat captured in the studio by Berry on guitar, Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Jasper Thomas on drums and Jerome Green from Bo Diddley’s band on maracas. It sold a million copies and the Chuck Berry Combo was on its way.
After a couple of minor hits the following year with ‘Thirty Days’ and ‘No Money Down’, Berry hit a rich seam of inventiveness during his third Chess session when ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ were recorded. Subsequent Berry releases on Chess are a roll call of rock’n’roll classics: ‘School Days’ and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (1957); ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (1958); ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Back In The USA’ and ‘Let It Rock’ (1959); ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ (1960); ‘I’m Talking About You’ (1961); and ‘Nadine’, ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘The Promised Land’ (1964), the gap between ’61 and ’64 explained by his second penal detention, this time for ‘transporting an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes’.
Those fans who left the dance floor for a moment could consider the lyrics to these songs, how cleverly they rhymed and how perfectly they dove-tailed with the music, each metre a lesson in precision synchronicity. Berry was adept at using place names, girls’ names, makes of cars and even household appliances. He told little stories in vignettes and brought fine observational detail to verses that invariably climaxed with the song’s title or a repeated phrase that lifted the spirit. “In Berry’s cities, real people struggled and fretted and gave vent to ironic perceptions,” wrote Michael Gray in an obituary published in the Guardian newspaper. “His songs release the power of romance, flying with relish through a part of the American dream.”
It was all the more remarkable, then, that Berry was the wrong side of 30 when he was writing and singing songs about teenage romance, and that he was an African American whose music transcended racial boundaries without relying on the outrageous and rather camp style of performance characterised by Little Richard. With his trademark red Gibson ES335, his slicked back hair and carefully trimmed moustache, Berry was ultra cool; like trumpeter Miles Davis, actor Sydney Poitier and boxer Muhammad Ali the personification of insouciant black power long before the term was coined.
In tandem with the hits that rolled off the production line like new cars at an assembly plant, Berry developed his stagecraft, the duck walking, the wide-legged stance and the wise cracking, and a personality summed up in the lyrics to ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, for whom ‘a whole lotta good women [are] sheddin’ tears’. He was sharp suited, elegant and flash, all qualities unlikely to endear him to the white establishment in an era when racism was rife below the Mason-Dixon line, and the jail terms (another, evidently, was for trying to date a white woman) were not the only reason why Berry cultivated a side to his personality best described as disagreeable. Music industry practice in the fifties dictated the sharing of writing credits – and thus the publishing revenues – with DJs who played records on the air, and while Berry accepted this at the time, albeit under duress, he came to realise that as his songs became covered by the big selling British groups of the sixties he was losing a fortune in royalties. Then there was the fact that his biggest hit ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, his only number one (in 1972) on either side of the Atlantic, was by common consent the worst record he ever made. A novelty song with smutty overtones that melodically resembled ‘Little Brown Jug’, in the UK it displeased morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse who tried unsuccessfully to get it banned, an action that doubtless assisted its passage to the top. A travesty of his best work, it sold bucket-loads so why should he worry? In truth, Berry’s chart statistics always belied the influence and quality of his records. He didn’t even compose ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ anyway, so the issue of royalties never arose, though it is a strange and slightly troubling paradox that this superbly gifted songwriter did not write his biggest hit.
Thus was conferred upon Chuck Berry a reputation as ‘difficult’ that in the fullness of time and through his own transgressions would morph into ‘unsavoury’. It was no secret that he dealt exclusively in cash, and that if the cash was not forthcoming neither was the show. Many stories are told of promoters dashing to his hotel with wads of notes to secure his services, and only after the money was handed over would Berry leave his hotel and drive to the concert hall, usually in a Mercedes Benz hired at the long suffering promoter’s expense. Similarly, if he was engaged for one hour, then on the sixty minute mark precisely Berry would leave the stage, not to return for an encore unless further funds were proffered which they invariably were if the promoter wanted to avoid a crowd disturbance that might result in costly damage to fixtures and fittings. Berry rarely spoke to the bands hired to back him up, let alone provide them with a set list or thank them for their services. Such ruthless inflexibility all added to the Berry legend, as did his truculence in interviews. He preferred to be addressed as Charles. “I will excuse you,” was his standard reply to a question that he felt was in any way disrespectful. When he came to London in 1987 to promote his autobiography it was reported that he wouldn’t leave his hotel bed to be interviewed unless the PR girl from his book publishing company joined him there.
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Despite the enormous influence he exerted upon it, the beat boom of the sixties was as unkind to Chuck Berry as it was to his contemporaries from the first wave of rock’n’roll. While many fell by the wayside, Elvis to insubstantial films and then Las Vegas, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to fatal accidents, Jerry Lee Lewis to infamy and Little Richard to religion, Berry battled on. Re-recordings of old material on labels other than Chess failed to match the sparkle of the originals, however, and attempts to update his image in tandem with the new order, like the Live At The Fillmore album recorded with the Steve Miller Band, proved less than satisfactory. Back at Chess in 1969, ‘Tulane’, a terrific rocker in his trademark style, and a brace of respectable albums ought to have re-established his reputation, but the reality was that like those same contemporaries he was a ‘singles’ artist unable to prosper in the ‘albums’ world of contemporary ‘adult’ rock, and his future would forever rely on his past. With his friend Bo Diddley, he became a fixture on the revival circuit, always welcome in the UK where Teddy Boys from the fifties, their quiffs and sideburns greying now but still sporting Edwardian coats, bootlace ties and crepe-soled shoes, could be relied upon to jive with their wives in the aisles and cheer him to the rafters as he duck-walked across the stage, reliving memories of how Johnny B. Goode sat beneath the tree by the railroad track and played guitar just like ringing a bell.
Never work-shy, for much of the rest of his life Berry maintained a concert schedule of up to 100 shows a year, travelling solo, his red Gibson guitar his only companion, a white naval officer’s peaked cap hiding his receding hairline. In 1979, the same year he was jailed yet again, this time for tax evasion, he played at the White House for President Jimmy Carter, and for his 60th birthday in 1987 he was the subject of a documentary movie entitled Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll for which he was backed by a band put through their paces by Keith Richards and featuring guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt among others. He settled in Ladue, Missouri, a few miles west of St Louis, and one Wednesday each month performed at a restaurant in the city. He bought a restaurant of his own in nearby Wentzville that became known as Berry Park, but brought ignominy on himself again when it emerged that a video camera had been installed in the ladies’ bathroom. A search of the premises uncovered illegal drugs as well as footage from the camera. Subsequent legal proceedings reportedly cost him over $1 million in lawyers’ fees, a suspended jail sentence and what was left of his tattered reputation. Another lawsuit in 2000, brought by his old piano player Johnny Johnson, claimed joint authorship of over 50 songs but was dismissed when the judge decided too much time had elapsed since they were written. Many thought Johnson’s claim was valid.
Berry certainly knew how to make enemies and Keith Richards, for one, had good reason to loathe the man as much as he loved his music. Berry drove Richards to distraction by switching keys without warning during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll but, since the Stones recorded six of his songs and modelled plenty of their own on his style, maybe Berry felt he was entitled to play fast and loose with a Rolling Stone. If you include tracks on their BBC sessions recordings, The Beatles recorded eight Berry songs and unlike the Stones managed to better a Berry original with a version of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on their 1964 album Beatles For Sale. John Lennon, a great admirer, sang that particular track brilliantly, powering his group through its verses in one of greatest interpretations of Chuck Berry music ever recorded, as fine a tribute as you’ll find anywhere. Lennon shared a stage with his hero at the Toronto Rock And Roll Revival festival in 1969. What, if anything, passed between them is not recorded.
But covers by The Beatles and Stones are the tip of the iceberg of course. Put simply, everybody covered Chuck Berry. Right now some band somewhere in the world is plugging in, tuning up and opening a night’s set with Chuck Berry music: ‘I’m gonna write a little letter…’, ‘Deep down Louisiana…’, ‘Long distance information…’, ‘Riding along in my automobile…’ or any of a dozen more. And someone somewhere is listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, rocking again ‘in Boston, in Pittsburgh PA, deep in the heart of Texas, ’round the Frisco Bay, all over St Louis and down in New Orleans’, names on a map in a dull geography class until Chuck Berry transformed them into that mythical American paradise for us all those years ago.
Many years before he was born to run Bruce Springsteen found himself in one of those bands hired to back up Chuck Berry and had the temerity to ask the great man what music they were going to play. “Chuck Berry music,” he replied scornfully. What he really meant was that if you don’t know how to play Chuck Berry music you have no business hanging an electric guitar around your shoulders.