Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Roll Over Beethoven: Chuck Berry Passes On

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry died on March 18 2017 at the age of 90.

Chuck Berry was born on October 18 1926 in St. Louis. He grew up in The Ville, a historic and largely middle-class neighbourhood in the north of the city. He took an interest in music while still young, and gave his first public performance when he was about 15 and still in high school. He served time at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at  the Algoa Correctional Centre near Jefferson City for a series of car thefts and armed robbery. He was released after three years on his 21st birthday.

After marrying  Themetta "Toddy" Suggs in 1948, Chuck Berry trained as a hair stylist at the Poro College of Cosmetology in St. Louis. He worked for a time as a beautician. By the early Fifties he was playing with various bands in St. Louis. It was in 1953 that he joined pianist Johnnie Johnson's Sir John Trio. Chuck Berry not only added vocals to the group, but also incorporated country songs into their repertoire of ballads and blues. He even reworked Western Swing musician Bob Willis's version of "Ida Red' for the group. Chuck Berry and the Sir John Trio proved very popular at St. Louis's Cosmopolitan Club, playing to audiences that included people of European American as well as African American descent.

It was in May 1955 that Chuck Berry travelled to Chicago. It was there that he asked the legendary Muddy Waters about recording. Muddy Waters directed him to Leonard Chess and his label Chess Records. Chuck Berry thought Mr. Chess would be most interested in his various blues songs, but instead he was drawn to Chuck Berry's version of the traditional country tune "Ida Red". It was then on May 21 1955 that Chuck Berry recorded a variant of "Ida Red" under the title of "Maybellene". Johnnie Johnson played piano on the track, while Willie Dixon played bass. "Maybellene" proved to be a hit, reaching number one on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and number five on the Billboard singles chart.

Chuck Berry's next two singles, "Thirty Days (To Come Back Home)" and "No Money Down", reached the top ten of the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. His fourth single, "Roll Over Beethoven", not only reached number 2 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart, but peaked at number 28 on the Billboard singles chart. It has since become a rock music standard, covered by bands ranging from The Beatles to the Electric Light Orchestra. His next crossover hit, "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)", would do even better on the charts. It reached no. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 3 on the Billboard singles chart.

It was with "Rock and Roll Music" that Chuck Berry released a string of singles that were hits on both the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and the Billboard singles chart.  "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode" would prove to be huge hits. "Sweet Little Sixteen" reached no. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and number 2 on the Billboard singles chart. "Johnny B. Goode" reached no. 2 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 8 on the Billboard singles chart.

Unfortunately "Johnny B. Goode" would be his last huge hit for some time. While the songs Chuck Berry released in the latter part of 1958 and the early part of 1959 did well on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart, they performed poorly on the Billboard Hot 100. A scandal involving a 14 year old waitress eventually resulted in his arrest for violating the Mann Act after several trials, and he spent one and  a half years in prison from February 1962 to October 1963. Perhaps because of the scandal, many of his songs from late 1959 to 1961 did not even chart.

It would be 1964 that would see a comeback for Chuck Berry. His single "Nadine" peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. His single "No Particular Place to Go" performed even better, peaking at no. 10 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. His single "You Never Can Tell" peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Chuck Berry's other singles released in 1964 also did relatively well.

Unfortunately Chuck Berry's comeback would be short lived. While he continued to do well playing concerts, he had no more hits for the remainder of the Sixties. In fact, it would not be until 1972 that he would have another hit. "My Ding-a-Ling" became his only record to reach no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was followed by "Reelin' and Rockin'", which peaked at no. 27 on the chart and was his very last hit.

Chuck Berry released several albums throughout his career. His first album, After School Session, was released in 1957. He continued to release albums throughout the Sixties and the Seventies. His album Rock It, released in 1979, would be his final album until his last album Chuck, is released later this year.

On May 31 1961 Chuck Berry opened his own amusement park, Berryland, outside St. Louis. It would close later that year. In the 1980s Chuck Berry bought the restaurant The Southern Air in Wentzville, Missouri. The restaurant would close not long after controversy erupted following claims that Chuck Berry had installed a camera in the women's restroom. Chuck Berry elected to settle a class action suit consisting of 59 women, although his guilt in the case was never proven in a court of law.

Chuck Berry continued to tour throughout the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. From 1996 to 2014 he performed one Wednesday a month at Blueberry Hill,  a restaurant in University City, Missouri.

Regardless of whatever Chuck Berry might or might not have done in his personal life, there can be no doubt that he had a huge impact on rock music. In fact, a strong argument can be made that Chuck Berry was one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll. Growing up in St. Louis where he was exposed to the blues, rhythm and blues, country, and Western music, he blended them together to create a whole new sound. The roots of Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll can be traced back to such diverse artists as Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole, T-Bone Walker, Bob Willis, and Bill Monroe.

Beyond blending various music genre into rock 'n' roll, it is because of Chuck Berry that the guitar would become the primary instrument of rock music. Guitars solos were a central feature of Chuck Berry's songs and would continue to be characteristic of rock music forever afterwards. What is more, Chuck Berry utilised a clearer electric guitar sound than earlier rock 'n' roll artists. He often utilised electronic effects in his songs.

Chuck Berry would even shape the subject matter of rock 'n' roll for years to come. Mr. Berry's songs were directed towards teenagers, with references to school, dances, fast cars, good times, and, of course, rock 'n' roll. What is more, his songs were always done with a sly sense of humour, so that one did not have to be a teenager to appreciate them. Indeed, many of his songs were essentially stories. Chuck Berry not only provided much of the subject matter of early rock 'n' roll, but he also introduced a new level of showmanship to the fledgeling genre as well. With his swagger and trademark duck walk, Chuck Berry influenced rock performances for decades to come.

In the end it would be difficult to find an artist who influenced rock music more than Chuck Berry. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an artist or band that did not feel Chuck Berry's impact. Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others were influenced by Chuck Berry. His influence can be seen in entire subgenres of rock music, from power pop to punk. While Elvis Presley might have been rock 'n' roll's first superstar, arguably it would be the Brown Eyed Handsome Man who would have the bigger influence on rock music. Ultimately, rock music might simply not have been possible without Chuck Berry.

1 comment:

Hal Horn said...

Just simply the best, and most influential rock musician of all time IMO. I can't imagine the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or AC/DC without him. R.I.P.