Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2017 May-Jun Contents 16 Rhythms
while elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage
idol, Chuck Berry was its first important writer, performer
and instrumentalist whose immediately identifiable guitar
style and powers of observation have remained touchstones
for succeeding generations of artists.
Berry was well past his teens when he wrote mid-1950s songs
that related directly to his teenage audience, not as one of them,
but rather as a shrewd and accurate observer.
Growing up in St Louis, Missouri in the 1940s, Berry’s first
exposure to music was the family radio and the sounds of Fats
Waller, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Gene Autrey, gospel
music and boogie woogie.
He displayed no active interest in music until his teens when
his brother Harry persuaded him to join a gospel group. In 1941
he was asked to sing at a high school concert accompanied by
a fellow student who played guitar. He sang Jay McShann’s
‘Confessin’ the Blues’, an unlikely choice for a 15-year-old. The
tumultuous reception he received from the younger members
of the audience inspired in him a desire to learn guitar so he
could accompany himself.
It also gave him an insight into the technique of handling an
Practicing feverishly on a loaned guitar, he learned enough
chords so that he could accompany his own singing. By 1950
he’d acquired an electric guitar borrowing both guitar riffs and
showmanship from the blues musician T-Bone Walker.
As 1952 drew to a close, he was hired by bandleader Johnny
Johnson as a vocalist/guitarist, starting a long-term
collaboration with the pianist. The material they performed at
this time was a mixture of Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and
Berry’s conscious efforts to enunciate his vocals when
performing country songs undoubtedly benefitted his later
recordings with Chess Records. Repeating the same songs
night after night with Johnson’s band was becoming a chore so
he began writing his own material.
A meeting with Muddy Waters in Chicago in 1955 would
change the course of Berry’s life and rock and roll music for all
time. The blues legend suggested he approach Leonard Chess
and Chess Records in the hope of getting a recording deal. A
meeting was arranged with Leonard Chess who asked Berry if
he had tapes of any of his songs.
One he played was a traditional country song, ‘Ida Red’ (an
uptempo fiddle tune popularised by Bob Wills & The Texas
Playboys that Berry had renamed ‘Ida May’), and a blues song
he wrote, ‘Wee Wee Hours’ inspired by Big Joe Turner’s ‘Wee
To Berry’s surprise, Chess showed little interest in the
blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial
possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man.”
Insisting that Berry change the title to ‘Maybellene’, and that
he rewrite the lyrics around what teenagers wanted – hot rods
and young love – Chess, as producer, also envisaged a bigger
beat for the song adding a bass (Willie Dixon) and maracas
player (Bo Diddley sideman Jerome Green) to Berry’s guitar,
Johnson’s piano and Jasper Thomas’s drums.
Leonard Chess’s fine-tuning of Berry’s song resulted in one of
the pioneering rock and roll singles.
More than 60 years after its release, ‘Maybellene’ still sounds
vibrant and audacious. A hard-swinging amalgam of country
and blues, Berry articulates every word with precise diction.
Released in July 1955, 'Maybellene' was a major hit on the US
rock/pop and R&B charts
From 1955 to 1958, Berry created classic after classic. Many of
these are to be found on his third album Chuck Berry Is on Top,
released in 1959.
With the exception of one track, steel guitar workout ‘Blues
For Hawaiians’, all selections had previously been released on
singles as were most rock and roll albums of the ‘50s and early
The song lineup is exemplary. On only his second single
‘Roll Over Beethoven’ (covered by The Beatles in 1963), Berry
already displays his arrogance, asserting that Beethoven and
Tchaikovsky’s music is supposed to step aside for his ‘rhythm
The partly autobiographical ‘Johnny B.Goode’ has an opening
guitar riff that may be the most famous in rock and roll history.
‘Carol’, ‘Around and Around’, ‘Little Queenie’, all covered by
The Rolling Stones; ‘Sweet Little Rock & Roller’ (covered by Rod
Stewart), ‘Almost Grown’ (covered by David Bowie); and ‘Jo Jo
Gunne’ (that inspired the name of the 1970s Los Angeles band)
serve as a mini-greatest-hits package.
Throughout the 1950s Berry also had hits with less teenage-
oriented material. The lyrics of ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ deal with
a family breakup and a man trying to contact his six-year-old
daughter who were separated because “her mom did not agree.”
‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ is to do with black pride,
‘Promised Land’, full of racial undertones, tells of a journey
from Norfolk, Virginia, to the "promised land’, Los Angeles,
Berry’s extraordinary run of intelligently conceived, musically
inventive rock and roll hits came to an end in 1961 with the
release of ‘Nadine’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘You Never
Because of the 1960s British invasion bands, notably The
Beatles and The Rolling Stones who released cover versions
of his songs, interest in Chuck Berry’s music was sustained
throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond.
He continued to perform well into his 80s, making a surprising
announcement on his 90th birthday, October 18, 2016, that he
was planning to release his first studio album in almost 40
Five months later, on March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry, having
influenced every rock musician who came after him, died at his
home near Wentzville, Missouri. He was 90.
Comprised of ten new recordings mostly written by Berry, with
guest appearances from Tom Morello and Gary Clark Jr, Chuck
will be released on June 16.
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