Chuck Berry Helped Create Rock and Roll

Rock and roll set a whole generation free and on fire during the 1960’s.  I have written before about how much influence the blues had on British and American rock and roll.   We also need to appreciate where rock and roll came from.  One of the leading innovators – Chuck Berry – is still alive and deserves our deep respect and appreciation.  He taught us all how to have fun and enjoy life.  He helped young people shake off their shackles and get happy.  He sang about cars, girls and wild music.  He was also one of the most gifted guitar players.  He directly influenced all the best sixties bands – Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Animals and countless others who covered his songs.  He is likely the most studied and admired musician we have known.

John Lennon said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”  He helped us break sexual taboos and rebel against authority.  Chuck Berry will soon celebrate his 85th birthday.  He has had an amazing and creative life that have made us all much happier.   Read what follows to learn about the many honors Chuck has received along with his impacts on music and society.  There is also news about his health following an incident in Chicago last January.   Learn to appreciate how his songwriting and guitar picking were truly innovative and important.  Go to I-tunes or wherever to get the real deal and support this great artist.  Let’s all praise rock and roll’s leading light for almost a century.

John Lennon Looking up to Chuck Berry

Rolling Stone’s “Best 100 Guitarists of All Time” –  Chuck Berry = Number 6

There would be no rock & roll guitar without Chuck Berry. His signature lick — a staccato, double-string screech descended from Chicago blues with a strong country inflection — is the music’s defining twang. He introduced it in his 1955 Chess Records debut, “Maybellene,” and used it to dynamic effect in nearly two dozen classic hits in the next ten years, including the best songs about playing rock & roll: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Born in San Jose, California, in 1926, Berry learned to play guitar as a teenager but did time in reform school for attempted robbery and moonlighted as a beautician in St. Louis before “Maybellene” made him a star. Berry’s career was sidelined by a two-year jail stint in the early 1960s; his only Number One single was the mildly pornographic singalong “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. But Berry was the first giant of rock & roll guitar. Nothing else matters.

Rolling Stone’s “Best Artists of All Time” – Chuck Berry = Number 5 (Tribute by Joe Perry)

Like a lot of guitarists of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was so blown away by the way those bands were playing these hardcore rock & roll songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Around and Around.” I’d looked at the labels, under the song titles. I’d seen the name “Chuck Berry.” But I was fortunate enough, again like a lot of guys from my generation, to have a friend who had an older brother, who had the original records: “If you like the Stones, wait until you hear this!” 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 on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.

It’s not so much what he played — it’s what he didn’t play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you’re ready for the next verse.

As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what’s going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.

He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “School Days” — how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words “rock & roll” in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands — everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it’s also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff. …

The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It’s not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural. …

The way he phrases things, that double-note stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound — that’s what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It’s a little bit of technique, but it’s mostly phrasing.  And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it’s punk rock. It’s the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.

People will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.  I’ve had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I’ve never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, “It’s Chuck Berry over there.” Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.

Chuck Berry Schools Keith Richards

Rolling Stone’s Greatest Singers of All Time – Chuck Berry = 41

Key Tracks “Johnny B. Goode,” “Promised Land” “No Particular Place to Go”

Influenced The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen

“You’re great, you sing country and rock & roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ mother once told him. “But Chuck is the king.” Chuck Berry approached the great rock & roll divide from the opposite side of Elvis Presley, synthesizing the singing styles of blues and country musicians. “When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter,” said Berry. The result was that every rock singer of the Sixties — from Liverpool, London, L.A. or Long Island — sang with a mid-American accent, trying to sound like St. Louis’ own Chuck Berry. His mischievous, lilting voice, slaloming through his tricky banks of syllables, erased the distinction between white and black and made it simply rock. “If you tried to give rock & roll another name,” said John Lennon, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’

Biography from History of Rock

Certainly the single most important black artist in rock and roll, Chuck Berry is arguably the most important figure, regardless of race, in rock history. The archetypal rock and roller, Chuck Berry melded blues, country, and a witty, defiant teen outlook into songs that influenced vitally every rock musician in his wake.  Berry achieved a number of firsts:

  • The first guitarist singer to reach charts.
  • The first rock and roller to write words that were relevant and entertaining to his young white audience without alienating his core black audience.
  • First songwriter/performer in 1955.

He achieved all of this with a driving rock and roll rhythm that was, if not brand new certainly unique enough to be instantly recognizable. For those reasons he more than any other artist, is responsible for the direction of popular music.  When performing his material Berry made sure to enunciate clearly, singing outside the standard blues realm, and he improvised lyrics that caused to audience to pay closer attention.

Chuck Berry was born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother, Martha, was a schoolteacher; his father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of the nearby Antioch Baptist Church. The third of six children, he grew up in The Ville, an area just north of downtown St. Louis which was one of the few areas in the city where Blacks could own property.   Consequently, during the 1920’s and 30’s, The Ville became synonymous with Black prosperity.

Chuck sang in his St. Louis church’s Baptist choir at age six. He learned to play the guitar while attending Sumner High School, the first Black high school west of the Mississippi.  Local jazz guitarist Ira Harris was an early teacher, Berry learned the rudiments of the instrument on a four-string tenor guitar.  By 1950, however, he had changed over to a six-string electric

At Sumner, Berry got his first taste of stardom, singing Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” in the All Men’s Review in 1941; it was a song he was later to record on the 1960 album Rockin’ at the Hops. But music was not his only focus at that time. When not working with his father, Berry began to cultivate a lifelong interest in photography through his uncle Harry Davis.

Before graduating from high school Berry had a number of run ins with the law.  In 1944, on a joy ride to Kansas City, Berry and two friends were arrested and found guilty of armed robbery; each was sentenced to 10 years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson, Missouri. While there Berry joined a gospel group and boxed briefly before being released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

A year later, Berry married Themetta Suggs and began a  series of jobs: between 1948 and 1955, Berry worked as a janitor at the Fisher Body auto assembly plant, trained to be a hairdresser at the Poro School, freelanced as a photographer, assisted his father as a carpenter, and began his career as a musician. During this time he was playing the guitar and developing a reputation around St. Louis.

In 1952 Chuck Berry began to play professionally at different clubs in St. Louis. On New Year’s Eve Berry joined the Sir John Trio. The leader of the group was Johnnie Johnson and the third person was the drummer Ebby Hardy. The Sir John Trio became the house band at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis and would be the start of Berry’s  long association with Johnson whose piano boogie riffs would have a great influence on his guitar playing.

The most popular music in the area among whites was hillbilly. The band played mostly blues and ballads, but Berry”s joking “hillbilly” songs were the real pleasers and it wasn’t long before a white crowd got word of a black hillbilly and began coming to his shows.  While attending a nightclub in Chicago in 1955, Berry met his idol Muddy Waters and asked Waters where he might be able to cut a record. Waters directed him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records

Muddy Waters Hanging with Chuck Berry

In May, 1955, with an introduction from Waters, Berry went to Chicago to audition for Leonard Chess in hopes of landing a recording contract.  Berry thought his blues material would be of most interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was the hillbilly “Ida Red” that got Chess’ attention. Chess, a great blues label, in recent years had seen its market shrink and was looking to move beyond the rhythm and blues market and Chess thought Berry might be that artist that could do it. So on May 21, 1955 Berry recorded, “Ida Red” renamed “Maybellene,” the name taken from a line of cosmetics, with Johnny Johnson, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley’s band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and blue legend Willie Dixon on the bass. Johnson’s piano playing, the heavy drums and maracas and Berry’s lead style gave Maybellene the hard rhythm and blues feel that balanced the country elements. Maybellene reached the pop charts and #1 on the rhythm and blues charts.

To help get airplay Chess gave a copy of the record to the influential disc jockey Alan Freed.. In return Freed and his associate Russ Fratto were given two-thirds of the writing credits, something that Berry was unaware of until the song was released and published. Freed aired the single for two hours on WINS in New York. The song went on to sell over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard’s R & B chart and #5 on the Hot 100.

Information from the Official Chuck Berry Site

Chuck Berry’s music has transcended generations. He earns respect to this day because he is truly an entertainer. Berry, also known as “The Father of Rock & Roll”, gained success by watching the audience’s reaction and playing accordingly, putting his listeners’ amusement above all else. For this reason, tunes like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Memphis” have become anthems to an integrated American youth and popular culture. Berry is a musical icon who established rock and roll as a musical form and brought the worlds of black and white together in song.

Born in St. Louis on October 18, 1926 Berry had many influences on his life that shaped his musical style. He emulated the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing blues songs from bands like Muddy Waters. For his first stage performance, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” It was at his high school’s student musical performance, when the blues was well-liked but not considered appropriate for such an event. He got a thunderous applause for his daring choice, and from then on, Berry had to be onstage.

Berry took up the guitar after that, inspired by his partner in the school production. He found that if he learned rhythm changes and blues chords, he could play most of the popular songs on the radio at the time. His friend, Ira Harris, showed him techniques on the guitar that would become the foundation of Berry’s original sound. Then in 1952, he began playing guitar and singing in a club band whose song list ranged from blues to ballads to calypso to country. Berry was becoming an accomplished showman, incorporating gestures and facial expressions to go with the lyrics.

It was in 1953 that Chuck Berry joined the Sir John’s Trio (eventually renamed the Chuck Berry Combo), which played the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. Country-western music was big at the time, so Berry decided to use some of the riffs and create his own unique hillbilly sound. The black audience thought he was crazy at first, but couldn’t resist trying to dance along with it. Since country was popular with white people, they began to come to the shows, and the audience was at some points almost 40 percent white. Berry’s stage show antics were getting attention, but the other band members did their parts as well. In his own words: “I would slur my strings to make a passage that Johnnie (Johnson) could not produce with piano keys but the answer would be so close that he would get a tremendous ovation. His answer would sound similar to some that Jerry Lee Lewis’s fingers later began to flay.”

High and Happy Days for Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters

Later in 1955, Berry went on a road trip to Chicago, where he chanced upon a club where his idol, Muddy Waters, was performing. He arrived late and only heard the last song, but when it was over he got the attention of Waters and asked him who to see about making a record. Waters replied, “Yeah, Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage.” Berry went there on Monday and discovered it was a blues label where greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley recorded. He didn’t have any tapes to show, but Chess was willing to listen if he brought some back from St. Louis. So Berry went home and recorded some originals, including the would-be “Maybellene,” then called “Ida May,” and drove back to Chicago later that week to audition. Much to Berry’s surprise, it was that hillbilly number that caught Chess’ attention. Berry was signed to Chess Records and in the summer of 1955, “Maybellene” reached #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B Charts. Through Chuck Berry, Chess Records moved from the R&B genre into the mainstream and Berry himself was on his way to stardom.

Berry continued his success with such hits as “Brown-Eyed Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Memphis,” “Roll Over, Beethoven!” and “Johnny B. Goode.” “Johnny B. Goode” is Berry’s masterpiece, as it brought together all the elements of Berry’s unique musical sound. It cemented his place in rock history and led to fame in the 1950s. His popularity garnered him television and movie appearances and he toured frequently.  Berry’s incredible success is due to his ability to articulate the concerns and attitudes of his audience in his music. At the height of his success, Berry was a 30-year-old black man singing to a mostly white, teenage audience. Dubbed the “Eternal Teenager,” Chuck Berry’s knowledge of the pop market made it possible for him to break color barriers and play to an integrated audience.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Berry’s music was the inspiration for such groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Berry had a number of comeback recordings and in 1972 had the first and only #1 Pop Chart hit of his career with “My Ding-A-Ling. 1986 fittingly saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the very first inductee in history. As a tribute to his pervasiveness in the realm of rock, a clip of “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen played in the Voyager I spacecraft, proving Chuck Berry and his rock legacy are truly out of this world.

Chuck Berry Biography from Rolling Stone

Chuck Berry melded the blues, country, and a witty, defiant teen outlook into songs that have influenced virtually every rock musician in his wake. In his best work — about 40 songs recorded mostly in the mid- to late 1950s — Berry matched some of the most resonant and witty lyrics in pop to music with a blues bottom and a country top, trademarking the results with his signature double-string guitar lick. Presenting Berry the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2000, President Bill Clinton hailed him as “one of the 20th Century’s most influential musicians.”

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926, in a middle-class black neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, he learned to play guitar as a teenager and performed publicly for the first time at Summer High School covering Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” From 1944 to 1947 Berry was in reform school for attempted robbery; upon release he worked on the assembly line at a General Motors Fisher body plant and studied hairdressing and cosmetology at night school. In 1952 he formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnnie Johnson, his keyboardist on and off for the next three decades. By 1955 the trio had become a top St. Louis-area club band, and Berry was supplementing his salary as a beautician with regular gigs. …

Late in 1959 Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act: He had brought a 14-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache waitress and prostitute from Texas to check hats in his St. Louis nightclub, and after he fired her she complained to the police. Following a blatantly racist first trial, he was found guilty at a second. Berry spent two years in federal prison in Indiana, leaving him embittered.

By the time he was released in 1964, the British Invasion was underway, replete with Berry’s songs on early albums by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He recorded a few more classics — including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” — although it has been speculated that they were written before his jail term. Since then he has written and recorded only sporadically, although he had a million-seller with the novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” (Number One, 1972), and his last album of new material, 1979’s Rockit was a creditable effort. He also appeared in a 1979 film, American Hot Wax. Through it all, Berry continued to perform concerts internationally, often with pickup bands.

In January 1986 Berry was among the first round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year he published the at-times sexually and scatalogically explicit Chuck Berry: The Autobiography and was the subject of a documentary/tribute film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, for which his best-known disciple, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, organized a backing band.

Problems with the law and the Internal Revenue Service have plagued him through the years. Shortly before a June 1979 performance for Jimmy Carter at the White House, the IRS charged Berry with income tax evasion, and he served a 100-day prison term that year. In 1988 in New York City, he paid a $250 fine to settle a $5 million lawsuit from a woman he allegedly punched in the mouth. In 1990 police raided his home at Berry Park, the Wentzville, Missouri, recording compound he opened in the late Fifties and had turned into an amusement complex by the Eighties. …

Berry has continued to tour the world, sometimes with fellow classic rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, and moved to Ladue, Missouri, near St. Louis, where he performs regularly at the Blueberry Hill bar and restaurant.

Rock through the Ages: Chuck Berry 1926-

If any one individual can be credited as the premier figure of rock and roll, it’s Chuck Berry. His music, lyrics, and free spirit made an indelible impression on millions of young people, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He celebrated the birth of rock and roll in 1955. Each year, more and more people become aware of his enormous influence. Rock ‘n’ roll was the beginning, however tentative, of a mass state of mind, if not a way of life. No one fully grasped what was happening, but Chuck Berry seemed to have an idea. Of all the musicians, Chuck Berry was the one who best recognized these new American kids, and he loved and encouraged them. With an extraordinary leap of empathy, Chuck Berry knew and expressed their feelings, and they understood themselves through him. His songs were hymns to a generation. Chuck Berry matched some of the most resonant and witty lyrics in pop to music with a blues bottom and a country top, trade marking the results with his signature double-string guitar lick.

In the mid-fifties, Chuck Berry went on to have a string of top ten hits, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Carol.” Berry was also a popular live performer. He was known for his “duck walk,” which he created as a child “scooting forward” under a table to chase a ball. Within a years’ time, Chuck Berry had gone from a local St. Louis blues picker making 15 dollars a night to an overnight sensation commanding over a hundred times that, arriving at the dawn of a new strain of popular music called rock & roll. Berry was a mainstay on the mid-’50s concert circuit. Things went smoothly until 1961, when Berry was found guilty of transporting a teenage girl across a state line for immoral purposes. Following a blatantly racist first trial that was disallowed, he was found guilty at a second. Chuck Berry spent two years in federal prison in Indiana, leaving him embittered.

By the time Chuck Berry was released from jail, groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were recording versions of Berry classics and introducing his music to new audiences. Rather than being resigned to the has-been circuit, Berry found himself in the midst of a worldwide beat boom with his music as the centerpiece. In the 1970s Berry toured on the basis of his earlier successes. Chuck Berry was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. Among the many bandleaders performing a backup role with Chuck Berry were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting his career.

Chuck Berry at Hail Rock + Roll concert

Berry did not even give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar intro. Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show. Nevertheless, Springsteen backed Berry again when he appeared at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Chuck Berry altered his live act to include a passel of slow blues and quickly became a fixture on the festival and hippie ballroom circuit. After a disastrous stint with Mercury Records, Chuck Berry returned to Chess in the early ’70s and scored his last hit with a live version of the salacious nursery rhyme, “My Ding a Ling,” yielding Berry his first official gold record. A live recording of “Reelin’ And Rockin'” was also issued as a follow-up single that same year and would prove to be Berry’s final top-40 hit in both the U.S. and the UK.

By the end of the 70’s, Chuck Berry was as in demand as ever, working every oldies revival show, TV special, and festival that was thrown his way. Berry had hit pay dirt, but this only led to another run-in with the law. Problems with the law and the Internal Revenue Service have plagued him through the years. Shortly before a June 1979 performance for Jimmy Carter at the White House, the IRS charged Berry with income tax evasion, and he served a 100-day prison term in 1979. In 1988 in New York City, he paid a $250 fine to settle a $5 million lawsuit from a woman he allegedly punched in the mouth. In 1990 police raided his home and, finding 62 grams of marijuana and videotapes of women — one of whom was apparently a minor — using the restroom in a Berry Park restaurant, filed felony drug and child-abuse charges against Berry.

In order to have the child-abuse charges dropped, Berry agreed to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. Berry was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, placed on two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. In January 1986 Berry was among the first round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year Chuck Berry published the at-times sexually explicit Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.

That same year Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, of a celebration concert for Berry’s sixtieth birthday. Keith Richards was the musical leader. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Berry on stage and film. Two of the highlights in the film was a testy exchange between Richards and Berry on how to set an amplifier for a guitar, and his needling of Richards on his playing of the intro to Berry’s “Oh, Carol” during a rehearsal.

When not on the road, Berry lives in Wentzville, Missouri, where he owns the amusement complex Berry Park. For all of his off-stage exploits and seemingly ongoing troubles with the law, Chuck Berry remains the epitome of rock & roll, and his music will endure long after his private escapades have faded from memory. Because when it comes down to his music, perhaps John Lennon said it best, “If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”

Chuck Berry recovering at home from exhaustion after Chicago show By Kevin McKeough – January 02, 2011

Chuck Berry was at his home near St. Louis and in good health Sunday after falling ill from exhaustion during a concert the previous night in Chicago, his rep said in a statement.  About an hour into a rapidly-deteriorating concert at the Congress Theater Saturday night, Chuck Berry slumped over an accompanist’s keyboard before being helped offstage.

The 84-year-old rock and roll legend and a backing band of three Chicago musicians attempted to resume the show for a packed house about 15 minutes later, but Berry almost immediately was taken off again to be checked by paramedics who had been called to the scene.

After being examined, Berry returned one last time to thank the fans who had waited in hopes for the show to continue, but he left the stage — using a bit of his signature “duck walk” — without playing again. Shortly afterward, he walked out of the theatre’s stage door on his own into an awaiting limousine. Berry signed a release saying he was OK, and he was not taken to a hospital, according to Fire Department spokesman Joe Roccasalva.

“All I know is he felt faint, he felt weak, and I was told to call 911,” said Michael Petryshyn, the concert’s promoter, backstage after Berry’s departure.  Berry had been active in recent days: He had performed two shows in New York City the night before. Although Berry performs regularly in his hometown of St. Louis, he infrequently gives concerts elsewhere.A message left with Berry’s management Sunday was not returned.

Chuck Berry Performing Live – July 17, 2007

The show had started promisingly. Taking the stage in a red sequined shirt, black slacks and a white sailor hat, Berry began with “Roll Over Beethoven,” one of his many 1950s hits, which formed the foundation for guitar-based rock and roll.

Although Berry played this and following songs – “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “School Days” — at slower tempos than the original recordings, he filled them with his classic guitar riffs and sang them with weathered authority. Drummer Steve Gillis and bassist Bill Stephens kept the songs swinging steadily, and Vijay Tellis-Nayak added jubilant boogie piano.

Things then quickly began going off the rails. Berry played snippets of blues songs and an unsteady version of “Memphis Tennessee,” before taking an extended pause to try to retune his guitar, complaining that it was out of key with the piano. He made several unsuccessful attempts at “Let It Rock,” in part seated at the piano, and performed disjointed bits of “Carol” and “Johnny B. Goode.”

Berry revived to lead the crowd in a sing-along of “My Ding-a-Ling” and acknowledged things weren’t going well, telling the crowd he’d try to do better at entertaining them. It was not to be. After a version of “Reelin’ and Rockin'” they found the band gamely following his inconsistent tempo, Berry made his way to the piano, where the show came to an end completely at odds with the joy in his music.

“Obviously, something was off,” said Petryshyn, the promoter. “Fifteen minutes into the set it went from fine to something wasn’t right. He was starting songs mid-song, playing 15 seconds of a song. I’m sorry to see his health be in that shape,” Tellis-Nayak said. “He obviously loves performing. The music is still there. It’s hard to see his health deteriorating. He may be working harder than he should.”

FOOD PREFERENCES:

  • Enjoys beef and seafood, peaches, home fries, candied yams, chili, grape soda, orange juice, Snickers bars and Dutch apple pie.
  • Despises liver, okra, gumbo, celery, carrots, cooked onions, grapefruit, salami and liquor.

HOBBIES:

  • Playing music, softball, twenty questions, chess, croquet, highway driving


QUOTES ABOUT CHUCK BERRY

“Berry’s On Top is probably my favorite record of all time; it defines rock and roll. A lot of people have done Chuck Berry songs, but to get that feel is really hard. It’s the rock and roll thing–the push-pull and the rhythm of it.” – Joe Perry

“All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” – Bob Seger

“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder

“My mama said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.'” –  Jerry Lee Lewis

“To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme. He plays that lovely double-string stuff, which I got down a long time ago, but I’m still getting the hang of. Later I realized why he played that way–because of the sheer physical size of the guy. I mean, he makes one of those big Gibsons look like a ukulele!” – Keith Richards

Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger

“Of all the early breakthrough rock and roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers.” – Cub Koda

“While Elvis was a country boy who sang “black” to some degree; Chuck Berry provided the mirror image where country music was filtered through an R&B sensibility.” – Clive Anderson

“Well, Chuck Berry is the first singer-songwriter I know of.” – Roy Orbison

“You are most certainly the inspiration for all of today’s rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Your music is timeless.” – Smokey Robinson

“Chuck Berry is a musical scientist who discovered a cure for the blues.” – Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

“The epitome of what it is to be a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, songwriter and singer.” – Joan Jett

John Lennon, Chuck Berry, and Yoko Ono

Track analysis for “School Days” by Chuck Berry

Of all the early rockers, Chuck Berry was by far the most significant. He was really the first artist to exhibit many of the traits that would come to define the form.  First, he featured his own electric guitar prominently in his music. He used the instrument to give his material a propulsive, driving rhythm underneath his vocals, and then used equally rhythmic lead parts to echo and accent his vocals. This presaged the overall importance of guitars and guitarists in the idiom.

Next, he exhibited the highest degree of musical integrity. Not only did he play guitar on all of his recordings, he wrote and sang all of his own material. The result is the most satisfying and consistent recorded canon of any of the early rockers. Others, like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, frequently relied on outside sources to supply their songs. The results were often uneven, with some of the best performances seeming to happen despite the supplied material, and not because of it.

Much like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry developed a unique songwriting style that prominently featured his own talents on guitar. Diddley developed a “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm that proved repetitive and inflexible over the long haul. Berry’s style, on the other hand, while still unmistakable, proved to be much more flexible, ultimately being used for dozens of songs, many of which have proven to be enduring rock classics.

As good as Berry’s music was, however, his lyrics proved just as ground-breaking. Sterling Morrison, member of the group Velvet Underground, said: “I liked Chuck Berry as a guitar player. But I liked him better as a lyricist. There was a lot more depth there, and the rhythm of his lyrics was fabulous.” (Fricke 1995) While the lyrics of other early rock songs continued pop traditions of endless variations on obvious romantic themes, or at best simply reflected current popular culture, Berry’s words transcended and commented on the youth culture he was addressing, usually in a comic way.

“Memphis,” for example, starts as a traditional country song, sung by a man trying to connect with a girl he is missing. It is only in the last two lines of the song that he finally reveals that the girl he is trying to contact is his six year old daughter. Other songs dealt with the frustrations of being at the mercy of adults, as with “Too Much Monkey Business.” Berry often wrote about cars, and their role in youthful relationships, as in “Maybellene” and “No Particular Place to Go.”

Berry was one of the first, as well, to write about the music that he and others were creating. “Rock’n Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” were two of his classics on this theme. He was also one of the first to observe the ability of the music to liberate those who played it from their humble beginnings, as in his triumphant “Johnny B. Goode.”

This combination of great music and words resulted in Chuck Berry easily becoming the rock songwriter who has most frequently had his songs covered by other rockers. Artists as divergent as Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys all recorded Chuck Berry tunes, to name just a few.

School Days

Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You study’ em hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

Ring ring goes the bell
The cook in the lunchroom’s ready to sell
You’re lucky if you can find a seat
You’re fortunate if you have time to eat
Back in the classroom open you books
Gee but the teacher don’t know
How mean she looks

Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat

Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and ’round the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in

*Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot

With the one you love you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been
Wantin’ to dance
Feelin’ the music from head to toe
‘Round and ’round and ’round you go

(*Repeat)

Hail, hail rock’n’roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock’n’roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock’n’roll
The feelin’ is there body and soul

Why Chuck Berry’s at the Top of His Class by ROBERT HILBURN, July 29, 2000

One way to illustrate Chuck Berry’s importance in the birth of rock is to point out that he was one of the 10 musicians chosen for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first induction class.  Another way is to note that his songs have been recorded by more than three dozen of the other members of the Hall of Fame–from Elvis Presley and the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie. …

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis in 1926, Berry absorbed all sorts of influences as a youngster, including country, blues and gospel.  Working with pianist Johnnie Johnson during his days at Chess Records in Chicago, Berry came up with all sorts of infectious rhythm foundations for his music–patterns that would forever be echoed in the works of such bands as the Rolling Stones.

But Berry’s art was in his storytelling. More than any of the other early giants of rock, Berry wrote lyrics that went far beyond the usual topics of teen celebration and rebellion.  He wrote about life around him with an eye for detail that you’d expect from a premier short story writer. He added a playful edge by frequently coining words to give the stories an extra sense of color or personality.  For those who want to look beyond Berry’s Top 20 hits, here are some inviting starting points.

  • “Thirty Days.” This was the follow-up single to “Maybellene,” the country-flavored tune that first put Berry on the pop charts in 1955. This record had such a country music underpinning that Nashville legend Ernest Tubb would later have a Top 10 country hit with it. Though Berry’s version didn’t make the pop charts, it did reach No. 2 on the R&B charts–and it stands as one of his most appealing works.  It’s a tale of romantic turmoil, with the singer going to a Gypsy woman and a judge to get his baby back. It’s tempting to think Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got the inspiration for one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest hits from a line in this song–the one where Berry sings, “If I don’t get no satisfaction.”
  • “You Can’t Catch Me.” On the surface, this is simply a salute to the joys of a fast car. But there’s an underlying statement of youthful independence that would be echoed later in such “adult” rock tunes as Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Whether the guy in the song is speaking to a potential girlfriend or a rival motorist, the message is clear. Berry warns that he can’t be tamed: ” ’cause if you get too close, you know I’m gone like a c-o-o-l breeze.”
  • “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” In his 1987 book, “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography,” Berry explains that he got the idea for this tune, one of his most engaging, while on tour. “What I didn’t see, at least in the areas I was booked in, was too many blue eyes,” Berry wrote. “The auditoriums were predominantly filled with Hispanics and ‘us.’ But then I did see some unbelievable harmony among the mix, which got the idea of the song started.”
  • “Roll Over Beethoven.” This was adopted by teens in the ’50s as a battle cry against adult musical tastes, but Berry wrote it, he says in his autobiography, as a slap at his sister because she monopolized the family piano with her classical music lessons.
  • “Back in the U.S.A.” This tale of returning home after an overseas tour only reached No. 37 on the pop charts in 1959, but Linda Ronstadt’s 1978 version cracked the Top 20. The song also inspired the Beatles’ playful “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

  • “Almost Grown.” This is one of Berry’s most ambitious songs, one that can be seen either as a wry, rollicking reflection on the impatience of youth or a celebration of approaching adulthood.
  • “Come On.” The opening lines tell it all, “Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted. / All day long I’m walking ’cause I couldn’t get my car started. / Laid off from my job and I can’t afford to check it. / I wish somebody would come along and run into it and wreck it.” The Stones liked the song enough to record it as their first single in England.
  • “Dear Dad.” One of Berry’s funniest songs is about a teenager who is begging his father for a new car. The one he has is so bad that the only time he can pass a truck is going downhill.
  • “Bye Bye Johnny.” There are lots of interpretations of this song. Some feel it is a reflection on Elvis Presley’s move to Hollywood and the movies, while others see it, probably more correctly, as sort of a companion piece to “Johnny B. Goode” that describes a mother’s sacrifices and dreams for her son.
  • “Memphis, Tennessee.” This 1958 song was a break from Berry’s teen anthems, and it didn’t become a hit until 1963 when Lonnie Mack did an instrumental version of it, followed in 1964 by another hit, this time by singer Johnny Rivers. Berry initially makes you think he’s trying to locate a girlfriend by phone, but it turns out to be a sweet tale of a father trying to contact his daughter. The song is among Berry’s most-recorded songs. Among the 100-plus interpreters: Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

LYRICS FROM MY FAVORITE CHUCK BERRY SONGS –
IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, WITH NO RANKING!

Almost Grown

Yeah ‘n’ I’m doin’ all right in school.
They ain’t said I broke no rule.
I ain’t never been in Dutch.
I don’t browse around too much
Don’t bother me leave me alone
Anyway I’m almost grown

I don’t run around with no mob.
Got myself a little job
I’m gonna buy me a little car,
Drive my girl in the park
Don’t bother me leave me alone
Anyway I’m almost grown.

Got my eye on a little girl.
Ah, she’s really out this world.
Yeah, and I take her to a dance,
We steady talk about romance.

You know I’m still livin’ in town.
But I done married and settled down.
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all

Back in the USA

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today,
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from overseas to the USA

New-York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St-Lou.

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, til’ I got back to the USA

Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping the records like in the USA

Well, I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA.
Yes. I’m so glad I’m livin’ ’in the USA.
Anything you want, we got it right here in the USA

Carol

Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day

Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin’ little joint where we can jump and shout
It’s not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma’am
Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed

Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day

And if you wanna hear some music like the boys are playin’
Hold tight, pat your foot, don’t let ’em carry it away
Don’t let the heat overcome you when they play so loud
Oh, don’t the music intrigue you when they get a crowd
You can’t dance, I know you wish you could
I got my eyes on you baby, ’cause you dance so good.

Down the Road a Piece

Now if you wanna hear some boogie like I’m gonna play
It’s just an old piano and a knockout bass
The drummer man’s a cat they call Kickin’ McCoy
You know, remember that rubber-legged boy?
Mama’s cookin’ chicken fried and bacon grease
Come on along boys it’s just down the road apiece

Well, there’s a place you really get your kicks
It’s open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

There’s a place you really get your kicks
It’s open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

No Particular Place To Go

Ridin’ along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
My curiosity runnin’ wild
Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go.

Ridin’ along in my automobile
I was anxious to tell her the way I feel,
So I told her softly and sincere,
And she leaned and whispered in my ear
Cuddlin’ more and drivin’ slow,
With no particular place to go.

No particular place to go,
So we parked way out on the Kokomo
The night was young and the moon was gold
So we both decided to take a stroll
Can you imagine the way I felt?
I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt!

Ridin’ along in my calaboose
Still tryin’ to get her belt aloose
All the way home I held a grudge,
For the safety belt that
wouldn’t budge
Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go

Promised Land

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia,
California on my mind.
Straddled that Greyhound, rode him past Raleigh,
On across Caroline.

Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill,
And we never was a minute late.
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rollin’ ‘cross the Georgia state.

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way ‘cross Alabam,
And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.

Straight off, I bought me a through train ticket,
Ridin cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town.
There people there who care a little ’bout me
And they won’t let the poor boy down.

Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit,
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land.

Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State;
The pilot told me in thirteen minutes
He would sit us at the terminal gate.

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines, cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia,
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line.

Chuck Berry Rocking on September 15, 2007

Sweet Little Sixteen

They’re really rockin’ in Boston, in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas and round the ‘Frisco Bay
All over St.Louis and down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen

Sweet Little Sixteen, She’s just got to have
About half a million framed autographs
Her wallet’s filled with pictures, She gets them one by one
Becomes so excited, Watch her, look at her run.

“Oh Mommy, Mommy Please may I go
It’s such a sight to see somebody steal the show”
“Oh Daddy, Daddy I beg of you
Whisper to Mommy It’s alright with you”

‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand in Philadelphia, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas and round the ‘Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis, way down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen

Sweet Little Sixteen, She’s got the grown – up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick, She’s sportin’ high – heel shoes
Oh but tomorrow morning she’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen and back in class again

Too Much Monkey Business

Runnin’ to-and-fro – hard workin’ at the mill.
Never failed in the mail yet, come a rotten bill!
Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek.
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week, ahh!
Too much monkey business. too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Blonde haired, good lookin’ tryin’ to get me hooked.
Want me to marry, settle down, get a home, write a book!
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Same thing every day – gettin’ up, goin’ to school.
No need for me complainin’ – my objection’s overruled, ahh!
Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Pay phone – something wrong – dime gone – will mail
Ought to sue the operator for telling me a tale – ahh!
Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Been to Yokohama – been fightin’ in the war.
Army bunk – Army chow – Army clothes – Army car, aah!
Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Workin’ in the fillin’ station – too many tasks.
Wipe the windows – check the tires – check the oil – dollar gas!
Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
Don’t want your botheration, get away, leave me!

Chuck Berry and John Lennon Jammin’ on “Johnny Be Good” in 1972

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