Remembering Chuck Berry

Remembering Chuck Berry
20 Mar
Not in Hall of Fame


This was a day that I dreaded to see, even though I knew it was inevitable.

Standing in the checkout line at Trader Joe's, I looked at the BBC News website on my phone to see what was happening in the world. The inevitable had happened.

"How you doin' today?" the young woman asked as she pulled in my cart.

"I was doing pretty well until I just found out that Chuck Berry had died." Even as I said it, I knew I sounded like an old guy—that was probably a name her grandparents knew.

"Yeah," she began uncertainly. "We've had a lot of deaths lately."

Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017, at the age of 90. He certainly lived a long life, a colorful life, and as the Architect of Rock and Roll, an indispensable life.

Yet exemplifying the resilience that marked his life, Berry announced on his 90th birthday last October 18 that he would be releasing his first album of new material in 38 years. Chuck, slated to be released on Dualtone Records sometime this year, is dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Thelmetta, and features his son Chuck, Jr., and daughter Ingrid on guitar and harmonica, respectively.

In case you've just arrived from Alpha Centauri and need to get up to speed, Charles Edward Anderson Berry is one of the Founding Fathers of rock and roll music, which is a lot like saying Albert Einstein was one of the leading scientists of the 20th century. It is not a case of first among equals—it is very much a case of Berry being in a class by himself. Well, I'm sure he wouldn't mind the company of a nubile co-ed or three in that classroom, but we'll get to that by and by.

Amidst the swirling streams of various musical forms—primarily blues, rhythm and blues, and country and western—that were beginning to cohere into rock and roll by the mid-1950s, singer and guitarist Chuck Berry assimilated them all into a distinctive sound while adding attitude and showmanship cribbed assiduously from jump-blues star Louis Jordan and flashy blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and, most importantly, his astute observations on love and lust and the carefree mood of a prosperous post-World War Two America that inflamed the imaginations of countless teenagers not only in the United States but around the world.

Chuck Berry on Stage

Chuck Berry derived his dynamic onstage showmanship in part from blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.

Ironically, Berry was nearing 30 and already a married man with two young daughters when he recorded "Maybellene" for the Chicago-based blues label Chess in May 1955; significantly, "Maybellene" was an adaptation of the country song "Ida Red," last popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys nearly 20 years previously, with Berry fusing sex and automobiles into an evocative metaphor atop his fast, ringing guitar rooted in the blues playing of Walker and Chess Records superstar Muddy Waters. "Maybellene" topped the Billboard Rhythm and Blues singles charts and reached Number Five on Billboard's Hot 100 singles charts as Berry helped to buoy Chess's flagging fortunes, and from then on Chuck was in business.

Yet even at that point Berry was a study in contrasts. Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry developed an early interest in music, and given St. Louis's cosmopolitan location at America's crossroads, he grew to appreciate a variety of musical forms—Nat "King" Cole was an abiding influence as a singer, for instance—and he was already playing guitar by his teens. However, in 1944 he was convicted of armed robbery and spent three years in a reformatory before being released on his 21st birthday. He didn't let being incarcerated stop his musical interests, though, as he formed a singing group while serving his time—and serving time would become a leitmotif for Berry throughout his life.

A year after his release, Berry married Thelmetta, and a year after that Ingrid was born. To support his family, Berry worked various jobs, including a janitor and auto worker before attending cosmetology school to become a hairdresser, while playing in a number of local St. Louis bands to supplement his income. By 1953, he began playing in pianist Johnnie Johnson's band, which marked the start of a long association with this crucial collaborator, as he perfected his fusion of R&B and country and western with a combination of Cole's vocal style and Waters's guitar influence before he cut "Maybellene" two years later.

All of which was merely capsule description when I read about it in my teens, in the first book I ever bought about rock music, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, which has survived numerous moves, mishaps, and maulings to remain sitting, battered but unbowed, on my bookshelf today.

That book was my first education on rock music; I read it so religiously that indeed I referred to it as my rock bible. And having read so many times the entry on Chuck Berry, which began, "One of the enduring legends of rock 'n' roll, and its single most influential figure," I knew it was only a matter of time before I explored his music. Many years later, my discovery of Chuck Berry's music remains a milestone in not only my musical education, but in my life.

I must have been about 19 or so when I bought my first Chuck Berry album. It was the Chess anthology Golden Decade, a two-LP set first released in 1967 although my later pressing had been "altered electronically for stereo," an artificial process that added crappy fake stereo to the original mono recordings. At that time, I was hardly an audiophile—besides I was listening to what the songs were saying, not to how they were presented.

And what songs. From the moment the needle dropped on the opening track, "Maybellene," I had the sense that I was getting to the core of how rock and roll started. The next track, "Deep Feeling," was an instrumental that seemed middling and in retrospect is the album's only dud; tellingly, "Deep Feeling" is the only track from Golden Decade not included on the 1988 three-CD boxed set The Chess Box.

But any sense of disappointment or apprehension was wiped off the map by the next song. From the opening burst of brash, staccato guitar notes that introduced it, "Johnny B. Goode" leaped off the turntable to grab me by the balls. Holy shit—this was the essence of rock and roll! I'd discovered the Holy Grail! Granted, the next song, the wistful ballad "Wee Wee Hours," was a deliberate chill-out that took me a few years to appreciate.

But then we were back to rock and roll with "Nadine," which swung so hard it almost hurt, but from the first listen I was enamored by the lyrics, which was the coolest story I'd ever heard (or so it seemed). It was then that I realized what a great storyteller Chuck Berry was; "Nadine" became the first of his songs I learned by heart—indeed, by now I was "campaign shoutin' like a Southern diplomat" when it came to digging Chuck Berry. That "deep feeling" continued into "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and more magical lyrics right from the start: "Arrested on charges of unemployment/He was sittin' in the witness stand/The judge's wife told the district attorney/'You better free that brown-eyed man/'You want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.'" It wasn't too long before I adopted that as my theme song because—all right, I'm a man, and I do have brown eyes, but I'll leave the handsome part to the judgment of the observer.

I was hooked. And I hadn't even flipped over the first record yet.


The "textbook" for my education on Chuck Berry: Golden Decade (Chess Records, 1967). Crappy fake stereo be damned.

Needless to say, that flip side and the second record contained gem after gem—the wellspring of rock and roll, Chuck Berry division: "Roll over Beethoven," "No Particular Place to Go," "Memphis," "School Days," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "You Can't Catch Me," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Rock and Roll Music," "Back in the U.S.A.," and so many others.

In truth, I had heard a number of Berry's songs previously through cover versions—the Beatles' renditions of "Roll over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music," for instance, or the Rolling Stones' live cover of "Carol" from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

Perhaps the first one to really grab me was the Yardbirds' live version of "Too Much Monkey Business," from the Five Live Yardbirds album that remains the primary example of Eric Clapton's brief stint with the band that would go on to become Led Zeppelin, although that set has been repackaged so many times, by so many different labels, that I first listened to it on a budget reissue by Springboard Records that promoted the record by putting Clapton's name in the title and putting a 1970s-era photo of the guitarist on the cover. I liked the Yardbirds' sloppy frenzy as they barreled through "Monkey Business" to lead off the set even if Keith Relf's mush-mouthed delivery obscured the lyrics, and it wasn't until I heard Berry's original that I came to appreciate their articulate wit.

Indeed. Of all Chuck Berry's gifts, the greatest may be his lyric writing, which is no small statement considering that by synthesizing disparate musical elements into a distinctive and immediately recognizable sound, he created a musical template that has been endlessly repeated—just listen to the Rolling Stones, who in turn inspired countless bands. And by establishing the electric guitar as the dominant instrumental expression in rock and roll, Berry gave the musical form its singular signature—or as Bob Seger once sang, "All of Chuck's children are out there playing his licks."

And although this may be the bias of a writer, I feel that in the words to his songs, Chuck Berry literally gave voice to what may be called, albeit tritely, the rock and roll sensibility. That sensibility appealed primarily to teenagers, who had relatively few responsibilities, a fair degree of freedom, and the raging hormones and inflated sense of melodrama inherent in post-pubescence. Certainly "School Days," "Anthony Boy," and "Oh Baby Doll" spoke directly to the high school experience, as did "Almost Grown," "Time Was," and "You Never Can Tell," while "Too Pooped to Pop" poked fun at the older generation struggling to stay young by trying the latest dances but inevitably ending up having "gone astray."

Yet "Almost Grown," "Time Was," and "You Can Never Tell," which kicked off with its "teenage wedding," all may start in teenhood but they soon progress into more adult territory, mirroring Berry's own experiences of becoming a young family man. Recorded in 1956 but released in 1957, "Too Much Monkey Business"—now that I could hear what all was going on here—delivers a saga in a shade under three minutes: After making it through school and serving a stint in the army, Chuck's put-upon protagonist gets hitched to a blonde who wants him to "settle down [and] write a book," which means bills piling up and slick salesmen trying to sell him even more while he toils away at a gas station—and even the pay phone takes his dime as he contemplates suing the operator for "tellin' me a tale." Whew! Progressive-rock bands used to take up a double album to convey that much pipe. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Yes.)

Berry's genius for evocative economy reaches its epitome in "Bye Bye Johnny" (1960), the brilliant sequel to his already-epochal "Johnny B. Goode" from two years previously, which furthers the tale of the little country boy who could "play the guitar like he was ringin' a bell" in just over two minutes:

She drew out all her money at the Southern Trust
And put her little boy aboard a Greyhound bus
Leavin' Louisiana for the golden west
Down came the tears from her happiness
Her own little son named Johnny B. Goode
Was going to make some motion pictures in Hollywood

She remembered taking money earned from gathering crop
And buying Johnny's guitar at a broker shop
As long as he would play it by the railroad side
And wouldn't get in trouble he was satisfied
But never thought that there'd ever come a day like this
When she would have to give her son a goodbye kiss

She finally got the letter she was dreaming of
Johnny wrote and told her he had fell in love
As soon as he was married he would bring her back
And build a mansion for 'em by the railroad track
So every time they heard the locomotive roar
They'd be a-standin', a-wavin' in the kitchen door

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Last modified on Wednesday, 20 December 2017 19:52
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