In Memoriam of Chuck Berry

When I listened to Johnny B. Goode for the first time, I instantly realized Chuck Berry sounded differently than any other guitarist I had ever heard.

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When I saw a push message in my smartphone yesterday about the death of Chuck Berry, I was in disbelief at first. Sure, I knew the man turned 90 last October, so he wasn’t exactly a teenager any longer. But I also recalled Berry used that happy occasion to announce his first new record in 38 years slated for release sometime this year. I suspect it will become a big seller and would be a cruel irony that happened to many other music artists after they passed away.

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. To begin with, there was simply no guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” Berry’s style may sound crude at times, but try playing his licks, and you quickly realize it’s much more sophisticated than you might think – I found out myself! Admittedly, I was always much more an acoustic guy, and the electric guitar certainly did not come naturally to me.

In addition to being an innovative guitarist who created his own signature sound, Berry was an incredible showman. Perhaps the move for which he is best remembered is the “duckwalk” he popularized in the 1950’s – a whooping 30 years before another walk made music history: Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in 1983.While the origins of the duckwalk reportedly go back to 1930’s performance by T-Bone Walker, one of Berry’s influences, it was Berry who brought the move on the map and who is typically credited as its inventor.

And then there are of course all the iconic classic rock & roll tunes Berry wrote: Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, School Day, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Carol, Little Queenie – and the list goes on! Remarkably, none of these amazing songs topped the mainstream U.S. charts. Sweet Little Sixteen came closest, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958; it did hit no. 1 on the R&B Best Sellers chart the same year. Berry’s only no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was My Ding-a-Ling in 1972. While I read he always stood by the tune, I think it’s fair to say an important reason why the song became so successful was the ill-fated refusal from many radio stations to play it because of its lyrics.

Many of Berry’s tunes were covered by other artists. In fact, the very first single from The Rolling Stones in 1963, Come On, is a Berry tune he had first released in 1961. The Beatles were also big fans of Berry and did excellent covers of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music – in fact, I have to say I prefer the latter to the original version! Yet another great example of a Berry cover is the Yardbirds’ Too Much Monkey Business on their 1964 debut live album Five Live Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar – nothing “slowhand” about this absolute killer version!

Reportedly, Berry was not an easy person to deal with offstage. He had certain rules that could not be broken. He always demanded payment in advance of any performance and a specific guitar amplifier. He also insisted on a limousine for his shows, which he would drive himself. Instead of relying on a standing set of touring musicians, he asked concert promoters to hire local backup bands for him. Together with not providing set lists in advance to gigs, it’s not surprising this sometimes impacted the quality of his live shows. But I also read other accounts suggesting Berry was a very kind-hearted man who was simply reluctant to trust people he didn’t know well, since he felt life had betrayed him in the past.

Not surprisingly, when an influential artist like Chuck Berry passes away, social media lights up with present or past sentiments expressed by other great rock guitarists. I’d like to share some of them. For Rolling Stone’s December 2010 feature 100 Greatest Artists, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry wrote, “I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top – and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair in the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.”

For a rock music fan, it’s easy to understand Perry’s reaction. Released in July 1959, Berry’s third studio album included some of his greatest gems, such as Carol, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Little Queenie and Roll Over Beethoven – all on one album and all written by him!

Bruce Springsteen, who set the stage on fire playing Johnny B. Goode with Berry and the E Street Band during a 1995 concert for the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s museum, tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Keith Richards wrote on Facebook, “One of my big lights has gone out.” The post was accompanied by a photo showing Richards standing on stage next to Berry with the following caption: “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does…It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” More specifically, that moment came for Richards when as a teenager he saw Berry perform Sweet Little Sixteen at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which was captured in the film documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, as he told Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the most beautiful take came from the E Street Band’s Little Steven on the Facebook page of his excellent radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage: 

“Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry was the King of Rock and Roll. Period. Richard brought the Passion, Elvis the Heartbreak, Bo the Beat, Jerry Lee the Abandon, Buddy let the Everyman in, Chuck brought the Storytelling. The words that Bob Dylan would evolve into an Artform. He led the teenage takeover of Pop Music that the Beatles and Stones would complete. He invented Rock guitar and made it look like fun. He gave the previously ignored age group between adolescence and adulthood an identity, a mythology, a chance to see themselves. He gave them Respect. And those teenagers would return that respect to Rock and Roll for the next 60 years and counting.

– Little Steven, March 18 2017”

I have nothing to add, except offering a clip of Berry’s amazing performance of Too Much Monkey Business, which features a very cool solo by Keith Richards, of course played Chuck Berry style! It’s taken from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 music documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, shot to celebrate Berry’s 60’s birthday. In addition to Richards, other artists performing with Berry included Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon and Joey Spampinato.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

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