Chuck Berry's Birthday

Oct 20, 2015

It’s often said we’re all standing on the achievements of those who have gone before us.  This holds true in everything from the architects of our democratic institutions, through literature, art and….music. 

October marks Chuck Berry’s birthday, 89 years on the 18th, and so a nod to his achievements seems in order.

Berry burst on the scene in May 1955 with his self-penned “Maybelline”, an infectious foot-stomper about a hot car and faithless girlfriend, during an era dominated by Elvis Presley, when singers did not write their own songs, produce the recordings, or take the solo breaks.  But Chuck Berry did it all. 

The self-contained singer-songwriter-performer did not start with the Beatles’ Lennon & McCartney.  Berry, at times referred to as the “Black Elvis”, got there first.

Chuck combined the brassy guitar pyrotechnics of T-Bone Walker, the diction, wit and articulate lyrical style of Louis Jordan, with the stage excitement of the ‘40s R&B showmen.  His solos were usually performed while doing the splits or “duck-walking” across the stage.

Like Elvis, the young Berry soaked in the color-blind beauty of country music, blues, hillbilly, jump-blues and gospel, combining all of it into an energetic soundtrack to teenage culture.

He was a Poet Laureate conveying song-stories of the success of “Johnny B Goode”, with “No Particular Place to Go”, the exhuberant female music fan of “Sweet Little Sixteen”, the autobiographical “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, estranged young father in “Memphis”, venturing into a Caribean accent for “Havana Moon”, or New Orleans French spoken by the newlyweds in “Never Can Tell”. 

Berry’s guitar intro fanfares modernized the horns of the big band era and New Orleans marching bands into rock ‘n roll, making them his trademark alongside double-string lead bends and locomotive rhythms. 

Homage has been paid repeatedly to Chuck’s style, via the Beatles and Stones covering his songs, or the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” paying royalties to Berry.  Carl Wilson got away with the intro to “Fun Fun Fun” however.

The elusive simplicity of Berry’s guitar intros caused many a bar band to assume they were easy to play or worse, all the same.  But each was distinct as a snowflake, to this day a challenge for imitators to get it right.

Skunk Baxter termed the ‘50s the era of the “Three-Chord Guys”, yet Berry’s co-writing piano player Johnny Johnson steered him into unusual keys like D-flat and A-flat, and his signing to Chess Records saw great Chicago bluesmen such as Willie Dixon play on his early recording dates.   

The legend of the man has been both enhanced and sullied; his belligerence toward a doting Keith Richards in his film dedicated to Chuck, “Hail Hail Rock ‘n Roll”, had a darker turn off-camera when Berry punched Richards in the face.  The charges laid against Berry in 1959 under the Mann Act for driving with a girl across a State line, the income tax audits, and Berry’s nonchalant attitudes toward sexual freedom were not helped by his loose attitude toward his own shows. 

The increased use of local pickup bands at each tour stop was at once a nod that every musician on the continent knew Chuck’s hit songs, but sealed the fate that the shows would be less than tight, rehearsed affairs. 

Vancouver was an exception, as locals Tom and Jack Lavin, Doc Fingers and Lindsay Mitchell arranged to backup Berry on his dates.  They encouraged Chuck to venture far deeper into his catalogue than the radio hits - the players would be ready for the nuanced arrangements of the album cuts.  But Berry couldn’t be bothered to dig deeper into his own repertoire.

As a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old fan, I once sneaked backstage to knock on Chuck’s dressingroom door.  When he opened, looking over my head, offering his left pinky finger to my outstretched hand, a boy’s adoration was dashed.  Ten years later Prism was on the bill at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium with Chuck and Mott the Hoople.  As Berry pulled up from the airport with his rental car and Gibson 355 guitar case, we heard his discussion with the promoter in the adjacent dressingroom. 

Chuck’s stubborn insistence of increased pay or no show didn’t work that day – there were enough acts on the bill to carry the event, and his stardom may have started to wear thin by 1980.  The promoter sent Chuck back to the airport as a no-show. 

But if the man is flawed, his art remains vital – the brilliance of Chuck Berry is still heard in the grooves and seen in film footage.  He took the performance-art of rock ‘n roll forward, single-handedly.  And perhaps most astoundingly, he’s still alive!



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