With all due respect to newly minted Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, who turned 90 yesterday—and has announced a new album, CHUCK, his first in 38 years—is the true poet laureate of rock and roll.
Setting aside the not-so-small fact that Berry's guitar style launched a million garage bands—with everyone from The Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band included—it was Berry's lyrics that raised the bar from "moon in June" love songs to songs full of wry word play, with a point of view and an acerbic wit to boot.
I first encountered Berry in February of 1972, when he appeared on the American afternoon talk show The Mike Douglas Show, alongside that week's co-hosts John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I was already a devotee of Lennon and The Beatles as well as Berry's contemporaries Elvis Presley and Little Richard, but beyond a few singles, I'd never seen the man himself in action and didn't know much about him.
"If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. Right!" Lennon began, introducing the man who'd created his job. "In the 1950s, a whole generation worshipped his music and when you see him perform today past and present all come together and the message is: 'Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll.' Right on!"
Lennon and Berry then launched into a duet of the Berry chestnut "Memphis, Tennessee," and the joy of the moment is clear on Lennon's face. After a brief interview, the pair returned to the stage for Berry's classic, "Johnny B Goode."
As I sat and watched with my grandfather, then in his 70s, who screwed up his face at what he heard, I knew I'd found another messiah. That disdain he felt toward Berry was all I needed. In that moment, I became a fan.
The performances were fiery, if a bit ramshackle, but it wasn't Lennon's, or his able backing band Elephant's Memory's, fault.
"Chuck was grumbling from the minute he got there," Adam Ippolito, Elephant's Memory's keyboardist, recalls of the day. "He kept complaining that he hadn't gotten his fair share of royalties from the songs of his that The Beatles had covered. It had nothing to do with John, really, but he wouldn't let up. Then, when it came time to play 'Johnny B. Goode', he changed the key from F, which was what he'd suggested earlier, to E, which totally changes the way you play it on guitar and really threw John, especially when Chuck told him to take the solo. Needless to say it was a train wreck, but obviously Chuck's way of getting back at John because he was angry that he never got his royalties. On the broadcast the guitars were mixed out."
But that, in a nutshell, is Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry and Keith Richards
Keith Richards may claim to be a rebel and an outlaw, but Berry has always been the real deal. As his fantastic 1987 memoir Chuck Berry: The Autobiography illustrates, as a black man playing to audiences of ever-increasing numbers of white teenagers in the 1950s, Berry was a marked man. Add to that his sticky fingers and a penchant for young, white girls, and he was practically Public Enemy #1 next to the likes of the relatively wholesome Presley—or even the jailbait-loving Jerry Lee Lewis, for that matter.
As a result, Berry served time in the early 1960s, and he never again reached the heights of his string of remarkable early singles for the Chess label, which included some of the bedrocks of modern popular music, like "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music," "No Particular Place To Go," and "You Never Can Tell."
By the late 1960s, he was already an oldies act, and he did himself no favours over the years by demanding a paper bag full of cash from promoters (reportedly USD10,000) before appearing, often out of tune and barely engaged, for his typically contracted 30 minutes with a pickup band of local musicians, whom he'd never met before joining them onstage.
In fact, I've never met anyone who has crossed paths with Berry who had a good experience. Even uber fan Keith Richards, the musical director for director Taylor Hackford's 1987 film about Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll, felt Berry's unrepentant wrath.
But there's no denying Berry's contribution to popular music. His signature guitar work laid the foundation that practically every band that came after him followed as a blueprint. And his lyrics, far more than any of his contemporaries, even perhaps the best songwriter of the era Buddy Holly, were the stuff that inspired Lennon and Dylan and everyone who followed their lead to push the boundaries of the pop music format to its breaking point almost a decade later.
The examples of Berry's poetry and wordplay are endless, but it was his song "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" that captured my ears as a young kid in the 1970s, and it's as good an example as any: "Flying across the desert in a TWA / I saw a woman walking across the sand / She been a-walkin' thirty miles en route to Bombay / To get a brown eyed handsome man."
For 1956 that was remarkable stuff. As was his superb, proto-rap "Too Much Monkey Business," from 1957: "Blonde haired good looks, tryin' to get me hooked / Want me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book! / Too much monkey business, too much monkey business / Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!"
These were social commentary when even artists of the era like Johnny Cash had little to say beyond what was expected and what had come before. And, of course, Berry was writing all his own material when that was unheard of. No, Chuck Berry broke the mold, and showed the way forward to the next generation of musicians and, especially, songwriters.
Berry's new album comes as a bit of surprise to fans, considering the long hiatus between new material. But it's his string of remarkable, groundbreaking work from the late 1950s, the songs that almost single-handedly invented rock and roll music as we know it today, that we should celebrate today, on his 90th birthday, while he's still here, and while we can tell him how much he means to all of us, and how much we owe him for all he's given us.
From: Esquire US