Chuck Berry, Gentleman Genius

Originally posted in 2010

Today is the birthday of the great songwriter/ guitarist/ showman Chuck Berry, born 1926. I was shocked — shocked — to learn that not only is he still with us, he is still gigging. I found a clip of him on Youtube playing B.B. King’s nightclub here in New York last New year’s Eve! I knew he was still alive, but surprised to hear he’s still playing. As long ago as the mid 1980s (nearly 30 years ago) I was reading in the newspaper that he was arthritic, that he could no longer play his distinctive leads but only his (equally distinctive) patented double-stop rhythm patterns, a sort of truncation of the entertainer he had been. Yet, here he is at age 86, still singing and playing in front of audiences.

Influenced by the great blues guitarist T. Bone Walker, St. Louis native Berry got his start playing with Johnie Johnson, until Muddy Waters hooked up him up with Leonard Chess of Chess Records in 1955. His first hit “Maybelline” not only put him on the map (he charted hit singles for the next ten years) but helped launch rock and roll. To oversimplify, rock and roll is the red-haired stepchild of country and western and the blues. Elvis Presley had cross-bred the two from one direction….Berry from the other. Berry dug country music and liked to blow the minds of his black audiences by introducing it into his blues sets. “Maybelline”, in fact, was an adaptation of a country song called “Ida Red”. Of course, he jacked up the energy more than a little–that was the new element.

I won’t insult you by listing his long catalog of popular songs…but I do want to point out his many virtues. First his showmanship, so well suited for vaudeville’s second life the tv variety show…his slick appearance with the shiny suits and pencil thin mustache, and above all his flashy moves while he played, especially the so-called duck walk, where he kicks one leg in the air and hops around stage (he’s doing it in the photo above).

He also REMAINS one of the greatest lyricists ever to come out of rock and roll, with a subtlety, cleverness and wit to match his Whitmanesque heart, his ongoing celebration of the highways and byways of the American landscape.

I don’t think anyone would ever accuse of him being a great crafter of melodies (although he has created some nice ones), but he was an extremely innovative musician. I read in an interview that he actually did have some formal musical training back in St. Louis, and the origin of both his unique rhythmic style and those wild dense cords was an attempt to copy the sound of big bands. He didn’t have a horn section like Bill Haley and the Comets, but he could approximate the effect on his guitar. A good example of this is that memorable opening chord to “No Particular Place to Go”:

Those of us too young to have been there for initial run of popularity tend to think erroneously that Berry was over by the end of the fifties, but his career actually went strong an amazingly long time…he had hits through the mid 60s at least. That means he was on the charts right alongside The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, who were also covering and adapting his songs. He was holding his own there for awhile. (One of the last of these tunes was 1964’s “You Never Can Tell” a.k.a “C’est La Vie”, which Quentin Tarantino used to memorable effect in Pulp Fiction.)

Long about 1966 those younger acts were no longer doing Berry covers though; they were heading off in surprising new directions. Berry was a creative guy and he was capable of reinvention, but this was around the time he started to run out of gas and repeat himself.  It seems to me “My Mustang Ford” (1966), for example is roughly where he exceeds my personal tolerance for songs about driving your car down the road…and to a tune and musicianship almost identical to several previous hits.

After this he became a hard-working nostalgia act, although he did have a major new hit in my own day, his only #1 single “My Ding-a-Ling” (1972), a novelty hit rather unlike his patented style, and one which I and my fellow 7 years olds were forbidden to sing, I can assure you. Cruelly, it was apparently impossible for seven year olds not to sing that song. And, in retrospect, that’s who SHOULD be singing it!

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