Rock 'n' Roll Begins with Chuck Berry
RE: The Great Twenty-Eight, Chuck Berry, Music from Mca, Release date: 25 October, 1990 -
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.
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 at 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 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. - http://blogcritics.org/archives