Chuck Berry’s in the house

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Quite a few folks share the sentiment expressed in this tweet below, but I’m not gonna fuss about titles. I simply know what my ears tell me. I never owned an Elvis Presley record, and I never will.  

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri. The official Chuck Berry website offers this bio:

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.”

In 1955, Berry auditioned for and was signed by Leonard Chess to Chess Records. His first song with Chess was “Maybellene,” which would reach #5 on the pop charts and soar to #1 on the R&B charts.

Here’s that first Chess Records hit:

Berry almost immediately had a big follow-up hit with “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956. I love this live performance of it from a Universal Studios television show in Waterloo Belgium, taped on Feb 6, 1965.

I always grin when he introduces the tune by saying that “This is a song about a man who had a lot to do with music.”

Lyrics

Well I’m-a write a little letter
I’m gonna mail it to my local D.J.
Yeah and it’s a jumpin’ little record
I want my jockey to play

Roll over Beethoven
I gotta hear it again today

You know my temperature’s risin’
The jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse
My heart beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keep-a singing the blues

Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

I got the rockin’ pneumonia
I need a shot of rhythm and blues
I caught the rollin’ arthritis
Sittin’ down at a rhythm revue

Roll over Beethoven
They rockin’ in two by two

Berry was very handsome, and although he was Black, was a hit with white teenage audiences.

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Michael Gallant-Gardner discusses that popularity, and the emergence of the teenager as a distinct audience, in “Chuck Berry and Teenage Culture in the 1950s.”

Teenagers were a new species at the beginning of the 1950’s. Before then, adolescents in America had traditionally gone to work to support their family or to start their own family as soon as they were old enough. However, the years of post-war prosperity and the expansion of suburbia provided teenagers (who were too young to remember the scarcities of the Depression and the war effort) with plenty of leisure time. At the same time, advances in technology made vinyl 45’s cheap and easily accessible to both artists and listeners. White teenagers bought up pop hits coming off the Billboard 100, although many who were listening to black radio stations preferred rhythm and blues tunes which were always played by black performers. In fact rhythm and blues was pretty much used as a synonym for black music. Chuck Berry was one of the first  black musicians to do well with a white audience. Because of his middle class background, his energetic performing style, and his youth-associated lyrics, Chuck Berry broke through the race barrier and became one of the first “rock stars.”

Berry became a representative of the teenage generation, even though he recorded his first single at the age of 29. His experience growing up, though he was almost 15 years older than many of his fans, was similar enough to the suburban experience that he could easily identify with the restless attitude of white middle class teens. Berry was “a city kid from St. Louis . . . not rooted in the rural past as were the country blues artists at Chess.” (DeWitt, 140) The joys of fast cars, young love, and a rockin’ beat that Berry prized as a teenager did not diminish with his age.          

Berry grew up around East St. Louis. Like other middle class families of the 1950’s, the Berrys were upwardly mobile, moving from rented apartments to owned homes as the family grew. His father worked long enough hours that Chuck did not need to help provide for the family. The savings he made from jobs helping his dad with carpentry and bagging groceries all went to a down payment on a car. Berry purchased a ’34 V-8 Ford from a fellow churchgoer, and he quickly discovered that automobiles would be a life long love. The car enabled him to travel in style to the USO dances where he could satisfy his other teenage cravings with plenty of records to spin and girls to dance with.

Gallant-Gardner notes that while Berry’s career almost came to an end before it got started—he was arrested for auto theft at age 17 and didn’t get out of prison until he was 21—he persisted.

If you have never seen this clip from the 1987 concert documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,  you are in for a treat. It’s a conversation between a former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson, and Berry, as the latter goes through his scrapbook. As he turns the pages, you get a glimpse into Berry’s early years and the development of both his family life and his growing fame.

Berry talks about poetry and his father, who was a deacon in the church and didn’t want him to play music. Check out the early photos of Berry playing sax in his school band, and pictures of him with the love of his life, his wife Themetta Suggs, as well as his first (and last!) manager—who cheated him—and his days playing in Alan Freed shows.

Notably, Robertson seems a bit taken aback by Berry’s assertion that he never, ever did any drugs.

Berry was not only in the first group of musicians enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he also has a special place at the Smithsonian.

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Any tribute to Berry wouldn’t be complete without one of his beloved cars.

Berry is also immortalized with an eight-foot statue in his St. Louis hometown, where he lived until his death.

UNIVERSITY CITY, MO - MARCH 19:  Flowers and candles are seen below the statue of singer and musician Chuck Berry in University City, Missouri, on March 19, 2017. The rock 'n' roll pioneer died on Saturday at the age of 90 at his home in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Fans left flowers and more at the monument after Berry’s death in 2017

Award-winning British filmmaker Jon Brewer’s 2018 documentary, The Original King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is a must-see for Berry fans. Steve Ramm reviewed the film for Black Grooves.

Back in 1987, while the legendary rock and roll icon Chuck Berry was still alive and performing, the documentary Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll was released in celebration of the musician’s 60th birthday, but the primary focus was on two 1986 concerts. Director Jon Brewer (also responsible for great documentaries on B.B. King and Nat King Cole) uses some of that footage for this wonderful new 97-minute film, The Original King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, including clips with Berry’s contemporaries, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. This is the first feature-length documentary on the life and music of Berry, taking us on a journey from his early years right up to the present day.

The film utilizes colorized black and white re-creations to depict early episodes in Berry’s life; you can see samples of that approach in the trailer.

This episode of the Factual America podcast, released in November 2020, is a very long, wide-ranging, and absorbing conversation about Berry, as well as the making Jon Brewer’s documentary. Brewer emphasizes is that there are actually two people captured in his lens: Chuck Berry, the stage and on-the-road persona, and Charles Edward Anderson Berry, the family man, grandpa, and canny, wealthy, real estate developer.

Okay, enough talk. There are so many live performances from Chuck Berry that are available online, so it was hard to pick just one—but I did! Here are 80 minutes of Berry, live at the BBC Theatre in London, in 1972.

Find the setlist here.

I’ve got lots more Berry for you—including duets with other greats, and legends like Jimi Hendrix paying tribute to him. Join me in the comments, and be sure to post your faves as well.

Roll over, Beethoven, Chuck Berry lives on!



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