So I’m guessing you’re wondering why am I writing about the death of Chuck Berry when to the best of our knowledge there’s no evidence he was ever a drummer – Fred Below played with him. Well the simple truth is, he changed music, simplified it, and made it so that any drummer, of any ability, could have a bash at it.
I never actually met him, nor did I play with him; however I stood next to him at ‘The Concert for the Hall of Fame’ at The Municipal Stadium in Cleveland when they opened the place. Everybody and his dog were on the gig that day: Springsteen, Dylan, Lou Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Little Richard and many other Rock Royals. Chuck Berry out-dressed them all wearing what can only be described as a white ‘Zoot Suit’ with baggy pants and black lapels. With a yellow shirt he looked the epitome of a ‘first generation’ rock and roller.
Truth is, if he didn’t start the revolution I’d like to know who did – he certainly popularised it and passed it on to us. We all know “God Gave Rock And Roll To Us” but without being sacrilegious, I’m hazarding a guess he gave it to Chuck Berry first. When we were all playing in what can only be described as ‘covers bands’ in the late fifties, everybody played his songs. I’ll put this question to the drumming community – who has never played “Johnny B Goode”?
I was going to write a short piece about him, but once I got going decided he deserved more.
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry was born on October 18, 1926, not to any struggling, share cropping family but to into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri. He’s frequently described on the internet as one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll but I refute that, he was the pioneer of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. My generation enthusiastically and inexpertly played his songs then and many of us still do, although hopefully slightly more capably these days. In the three years beginning in 1955 he produced “Maybelline”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Rock And Roll Music”, and “Johnny B. Goode”.
Our first real sighting of him was in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” which was a film about the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, when Chuck appeared played “Sweet Little 16” with a slightly bemused ’Papa’ Jo Jones on drums. Papa Jo wasn’t the only one bemused because the mainly jazz aficionados in the audience seemed to have no idea what to make of him.
As far as we ‘Baby Boomer’ Brits were concerned, what Chuck was doing was light years away from what we were used to with what they called ‘light’ music being played (unsurprisingly) on the BBC’s ‘Light Programme’.
Berry developed Rhythm and Blues into the major components that ultimately made rock and roll distinctive and irresistible. His lyrics focused not on the corny young-love side of teen life but about ‘alternative’ relationships and cars. He developed a music style that included guitar solos and showmanship and, without a shadow of a doubt, Berry was a major influence on subsequent ‘rock’ music which eventually followed.
I was thinking that everybody knows about the indiscretions in his chequered career, so wasn’t going to include them. Then I changed my mind and decided you should see what made him tick.
While still a high school student in 1944 he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to a institution, where he stayed till 1947. On release he worked at an automobile assembly plant whereupon by early 1953 he was turned on by the guitar riffs and showmanship of the blues musician T-Bone Walker. Chuck Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His break came when he met Muddy Waters in Chicago who suggested he contact Leonard Chess at Chess Records. The rest is history because he recorded “Maybellene” and sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart.
By the end of the 1950s, Berry was a well-established star with hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He even had his own nightclub in St Louis, Berry”s Club Bandstand. But in January 1962, disaster struck again when he was sentenced to three years in prison for offences under the Mann Act— he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines. He unsuccessfully protested his innocence and after his release in 1963, it was back to work when he had several more hits, including “No Particular Place to Go”, “You Never Can Tell” and “Nadine”.
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were just two of the successful groups who played his songs, but when they arrived, these guys brought change with them and Chuck’s popularity began to wane. He still gigged and played the hits but there were new kids on the block with long hair and funny accents who were considerably more in demand. Chuck became more of a nostalgic performer playing with pick-up bands of dubious quality with whom he seldom rehearsed, The sensible adage was if you didn’t know the great man’s music you shouldn’t be on the stage with him! Because he’d been ripped-off so much in his career he insisted on being paid in cash just before he went on stage and more cash had to be handed-over if the audience wanted an encore. This sounds eminently sensible but unfortunately lead, in 1979, to a four-month jail sentence and community service for tax evasion!
Fittingly Chuck Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986; he was cited at the time for having “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound, but a rock and roll stance.”
Naturally he’s included in several of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Greatest Of All Time” lists; he was ranked fifth on its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. And The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll includes three of his songs : “Johnny B. Goode”, “Maybellene”, and “Rock and Roll Music”. I was flabbergasted to discover that “Johnny B. Goode” is included on the ‘Voyager Golden Record’ which was sent deep into space in a probe with Voyager 1 and was designed to show any aliens who discovered it in space what we were all about on Planet Earth. The other music depicted was by the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky. The inclusion of Johnny B. Goode was controversial because it was adolescent music. In its defence it was argued that there were a great many adolescents on earth.
As I said earlier, I never played with him but I’ve been expecting the call since the 1950’s and I knew all the songs perfectly (except for “My Ding-A-Ling” of course!). Here’s another question – what is the most requested song at weddings once the alcohol takes hold? Clue it’s a guy’s name with a ”B” in the middle and it’s written by Chuck Berry.
I rest my case. With those credentials alone Chuck Berry can’t ever be forgotten.
I’m guessing even as I write this there are scriptwriters sitting by the pool in Oakwood apartments on Barham Boulevard in LA working feverishly on a blockbusting Hollywood film of the Chuck Berry story. I hope they get it right.
Chuck Berry died on March 19th, 2017. RIP