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Thursday, April 14, 2005
Artist Overview: Chuck Berry
Rock 'n' roll begins with Chuck Berry.
His only real competition would be Elvis Presley. Berry's legacy, in terms of inventing the style that informed the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and their contemporaries and that of their progeny; in terms of his songwriting legacy, his invention of rock guitar, his marriage of juke joint blues and rockabilly, is even greater than the King's himself. He is the most indispensible rock 'n' roll artist of them all.
Rock 'n' roll begins with Chuck Berry.
Berry was born October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, MO. He began playing in high school, winning a talent contest and impressing those who watched him play his four-string tenor guitar. His musical tastes were firmly blues, which flourished in the days of his youth in East St. Louis. When he graduated to a six-string guitar he began sitting in at blues joints all over town. He developed a knack for pleasing the audiences by throwing in tunes from a variety of sources beyond the blues; the biggest crowd pleasers were the white hillbilly tunes popular in white west St. Louis; a black man playing redneck music in a black blues joint was a novelty, one he began to develop his showmanship with. His inimitable performing style, with the duck walk on down, began to develop from youthful lampoons of white performers which drew yuks; he then honed it into the image that endures today. He also started rewriting lyrics to old standards, and began playing them in the 4/4 signature beat that is at the heart of rock music.
He began working with pianist Johnnie Johnson's combo, and quickly became their charismatic focal point; by 1954, they had been re-dubbed the Chuck Berry Trio and had become the number one attraction in East St. Louis. His chief rivals for attention were the similarly crowd pleasing, but ultimately much less vital, Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm. Berry would work with Johnson extensively many times throughout his career.
Berry's recording career began at Chicago blues label Chess records in 1955 after Leonard Chess listened to a homemade demo tape. The blues Berry played didn't impress him, but a version of a hillbilly western tune, "Ida Red" did. The song was retitled "Maybelline" and was released in the summer of 1955. It was a sensation, topping the Black charts, and reaching the top-30 on the pop charts. Elvis Presley, not yet a national star himself, added it to his shows, bringing it to white audiences. This crossover appeal was historic for a black performer; it was also the very invention of rock 'n' roll itself. It was too rough and rugged to be covered by a safe white performer of the day; as was the custom. Berry had a signature sound right out of the starting gate, one that was fully embraced by white teenagers around the country.
An early champion of Berry's was influential New York disc jockey Alan Freed, who received half a writer's credit for his efforts. This was a well spent piece of payola, however, since Freed became the first white concert promoter to feature Berry in his new "Rock 'n' Roll" showcase stageshows. He also got Berry into Hollywood teen movies Rock! Rock! Rock!, Go, Johnny, Go!, and Mister Rock'n'Roll, greatly raising Berry's profile.
Berry managed sixteen hits over the next 4 years, each one a classic since re-written a thousand times by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Foghat. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" "Roll Over Beethoven" "Too Much Monkey Business" in 1956, "Rock & Roll Music" and "School Days" in 1957, "Carol" "Johnny B. Goode" "Sweet Little Rock and Roll" "Sweet Little Sixteen" (his biggest hit from his classic period, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts, and his third #1 on the Black charts) in 1958, among them.
His star continued to rise to unprecedented heights for a black musician in the late 1950's. He made frequent TV appearences and played in racially mixed package tours, plus he had his movie appearences. He became rich; and invested in real estate and nightclubs around St. Louis, he drove a ostentatious Cadillac, he dressed in expensive, flashy clothes. All this in what was still a racially segregated South; he drew the attentions of elements who did not want to see a black man weild such influence.
He was finally stopped in an unsavoury frame-up for violation of the Mann Act: transporting a minor across state lines. Berry had hired a hatcheck girl for a racially integrated nightclub, Club Bandstand, he had opened in St. Louis in 1958. It turned out the girl was underaged and was working as a prostitute at a nearby hotel. He was sent to prison for two years.
This had the effect of killing his career, and leaving Berry broke and without a future. Yet, while he languished in prison, a bunch of young musicians in England had discovered his records, and began covering him to excess. When the Beatles and Rolling Stones arrived in America in 1964, they were veritable human Chuck Berry jukeboxes. The Beach Boys' hit "Surfin USA" was a re-worked Berry tune.
This windfall reinvigorated his career, and replenished his royalty check account. Now hailed as a hero by the biggest and most influential musicians on the planet at the time, he resumed his hitmaker status in 1964, scoring with "Nadine", "No Particular Place To Go", and "You Never Can Tell" He toured England to wildly enthusiastic crowds. While his stint in jail had robbed him of his exuberance to a degree, his showmanship and songwriting abilities were still intact. At least, for a while.
By 1965, rock 'n' roll had begun its transformation into rock, and tastes were becoming more sophisticated. The basic joys of Berry's music began to look passe, after his second wind. Berry, having regained the spotlight against all odds, was reluctant to let it go again. As times changed, he kept up, remaining a showman even as his records became half-hearted affairs. He found a sympathetic audience among the West Coast hippies, becoming a fixture at the Fillmore and festival scene. He left Chess for Mercury records, but his material for them was weak; his star was again fading when he returned to Chess and released a knock-off live recording of a vulgar singalong "My Ding-A-Ling", which ironically became his only #1 Billboard hit of his career, going gold.
Once again he went through a period of rediscovery; this time playing every invitation he got, from TV to festivals to oldies reviews, anything. However, by the mid-70's he was again on the outs; his records, which were often lame attempts at sounding "contemporary" failed to chart, even on the Black charts. He was as out of touch with rock as a man could be at this point, having nothing in common with any of the major 70's trends, from prog-rock to punk. But he kept playing shows, paying the bills.
Unfortunately for Berry, he didn't pay his income tax; in 1979 he returned to prison on income tax evasion charges shortly after what would prove to be his very last album ever, the actually not-bad Rock It, featuring long-time collaborator Johnnie Johnson.
Following his release, Berry was a shadow of his former self. He still played shows, but started getting the reputation of being erratic, sloppy, unfocused, and often tardy. He was a charter inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, but no longer showed any interest in recording again. He published a rather tawdry autobiography in 1987, and was given a 60th birthday salute by Keith Richards which became the successful rockumentary, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, which gave him a last moment in the spotlight. But his private exploits had become fodder for groupie tell-alls, and his image was tarnished.
It's a sad fade for a man who meant so much to so many for so long; Berry's musical legacy, however, is tarnished not a whit. While it's hard to look at footage of the younger Berry (who was already 30 by the time he broke) and not feel a pang of regret for how his life turned out, it is also hard not to be riveted by the master showman, and the earth altering notes he played, even 50 years later. Long after Berry is gone, and Keith Richards, and all of us, people will still point to Chuck Berry and say, "That's where rock 'n' roll begins"
Pianist, and fellow Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Johnnie Johnson, for whom "Johnny B. Goode" is named, passed away Wednesday, April 13, 2005 at the age of 80.
Listen to Chuck Berry: Memphis (1959) A slightly modified version of this article appears at Blogcritics.org
A slightly modified version of this article appears at Blogcritics.org