Who Was Chuck Berry?

Mar 23, 2017

March 18, 2017 will be remembered as the day Chuck Berry, the flash-point of rock ‘n roll history, passed away at age 90.

He is being tagged the Father and pioneer of rock.  That is partially true.  But precisely what did Berry bring to pop music and popular culture which previously did not exist?

The concept of self-contained singer-songwriter-performer did not start with Lennon & McCartney.  Chuck Berry, at times referred to as the “Black Elvis”, got there first.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry burst on the scene in May 1955 with his self-penned “Maybelline”, an infectious foot-stomper about a hot car and faithless girlfriend, during an era dominated by Elvis Presley, when singers did not write their own songs, produce the recordings, or take the solo breaks.  But Chuck Berry did it all. 

He combined the brassy guitar pyrotechnics of T-Bone Walker, the diction, wit and articulate lyrical style of Louis Jordan, with the stage excitement of the ‘40s R&B showmen.  His solos were usually performed while doing the splits or “duck-walking” across the stage.

Like Elvis, the young Berry soaked in the color-blind beauty of country music, blues, hillbilly, jump-blues and gospel, combining all of it into an energetic soundtrack to teenage culture.

He was a Poet Laureate conveying song-stories of "School Days", the rock success of “Johnny B Goode”, cruising with “No Particular Place to Go”, celebrating the pubescent female music fan of “Sweet Little Sixteen”, the autobiographical “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, estranged young father in “Memphis”, venturing into a Caribean accent for “Havana Moon”, or New Orleans French spoken by the young newlyweds in “Never Can Tell”. 

Berry’s guitar intro fanfares modernized the horns of the big band era and New Orleans marching bands into rock ‘n roll, making them his trademark alongside double-string lead bends and locomotive rhythms. 

Homage has been paid repeatedly to Chuck’s style, the Beatles and Stones recording his songs, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” paying royalties to Berry.  Carl Wilson got away with ripping a Berry intro on “Fun Fun Fun”.

The elusive simplicity of Berry’s guitar intros caused many a bar band to assume they were easy to play or worse, all the same.  But each was distinct as a snowflake, to this day a challenge for imitators to get it right.

Skunk Baxter termed the ‘50s the era of the “Three-Chord Guys”, yet Berry’s co-writing piano player Johnnie Johnson steered him into unusual keys like D-flat and A-flat, and his signing to Chess Records saw great Chicago bluesmen such as Willie Dixon play on his early recording dates.  It was Johnnie Johnson who gave Berry his first break by hiring twenty-five year-old Chuck to front his band, together recording the first session at Chess Records in Chicago, with "Maybelline" a quick Berry lyric sung over Johnson's arrangement of Bob Wills' instrumental "Ida Red".  Johnson sued Berry in 1980 for numerous songwriting credits, but a lapsed statute of limitations rendered the action unsuccessful.  A consolation was Johnson's induction to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 at the urging of Keith Richards and others.

The legend of Chuck Berry has been both enhanced and sullied; his belligerence toward the doting Richards in his film dedicated to Chuck, “Hail Hail Rock ‘n Roll”, had a darker turn off-camera when Berry punched Richards in the face.  The charges laid against Berry in 1959 under the Mann Act for driving an underage girl across a State line, the income tax audits, jail time and Berry’s nonchalant view of sexual freedom were not helped by his loose attitude toward his own shows, where he too often used local pickup bands.  While proving every musician on the continent knew Chuck’s songs, his shows were too often less than rehearsed.   Berry didn't care; he knew his charisma, wild showmanship and stockpile of unbeatable hits would eclipse any pickup band.  He was correct.

Vancouver was unique with its backing musicians however, as local Berry disciples Tom and Jack Lavin, Doc Fingers and Lindsay Mitchell arranged to backup Berry on his dates more than once.  They encouraged Chuck to venture far deeper into his catalogue than the radio hits - the players were ready for the nuanced arrangements of the album cuts. 

As a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old fan, I once sneaked backstage to knock on Chuck’s dressingroom door.  When he opened, looking over my head, offering his left pinky finger to my outstretched hand, a boy’s adoration was dashed.  Ten years later Prism was on the bill at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium with Chuck and Mott the Hoople.  As Berry pulled up from the airport with rental car and Gibson 355 guitar case, we heard his discussion with the promoter in the adjacent dressingroom. 

Chuck’s stubborn insistence of increased pay or no show didn’t work that day – there were enough acts on the bill to carry the event, and his stardom may have started to wear thin in 1980.  The promoter sent Chuck back to the airport as a no-show. 

But if the man was flawed, his art remains vital – the brilliance of Chuck Berry is still heard in the grooves and seen in film footage.  He kept performing to the end, at a monthly house-gig at the Blueberry Hill Club in hometown St Louis, playing 209 shows since 1996 --- with his own steady band.  His output endures past the grave;  on his 90th birthday last October 18 Chuck announced completion of a brand-new studio album, all-new self-penned songs for release in 2017.  Recorded with his band plus children Charles Jr and Ingrid on guitar and harmonica, fresh posthumous Chuck Berry music is forthcoming:  http://chuckberry.com/chuck-new-album-coming-in-2017/

Berry took the performance-art of rock ‘n roll forward, single-handedly.  We must thank him for his rootsy anthems of youth culture, melding together blues, country & R&B into a one-man rock ‘n roll show.

It’s often said we’re standing on the achievements of those who have gone before us.  This holds true in democratic institutions, literature, art and….music.  God bless Chuck Berry; may his turbulent soul find rest.