All Hail The Rock And Roll Architect: Chuck Berry

Humble student
Joined: 06/12/05
Posts: 1,579
Humble student
Joined: 06/12/05
Posts: 1,579
05/12/2010 7:17 pm

It's one of those arguments that has no real answer; who was the true originator of rock and roll? Some favor Elvis Presley for amping up blues songs and presenting them to a ready and willing record buying audience. Others might tell you that it was Jackie Breston singing Ike Turners "Rocket 88" with its driving rhythm and thinly veiled sexual innuendos that was the seed that grew into rock. Still others give the nod to Big Momma Thornton's "Hound Dog" or Bill Haley and the Comets "Rock Around The Clock". And yet almost everyone who has entertained this question has had to acknowledge Chuck Berry as one of rock and rolls true architects. With his trademark 'riff', stage strutting duck walk and genius for tapping into teenaged angst and hormone fueled desires lyrically. Berry essentially epitomized the early days of rock and set the stage for what it was to become well into the future.

Chuck Berry was born on October 18, 1926 and was raised on the North Side of the highly segregated city of St. Louis, Missouri. Like so many blues and rhythm and blues players of the twenties and thirties, Berry's earliest musical influence was through the church and gospel music as well as music classes that he attended during high school. His first foray into the guitar was under the instruction of local jazz guitarist, Ira Harris, who taught him the rudiments of the instrument on a four-string tenor guitar. By 1950, he had switched to the six string electric. But Berry's education was interrupted when he was sentenced to three years in a reformatory for armed robbery while still a high school student.

When he was released from the reform school and returned to St. Louis, Berry married, took a job working at General Motor Fisher Body assembly plant while preparing for a career as a hairdresser and beautician by taking classes in night school. But the allure of music was never far off and in 1952, he had formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnnie Johnson and began playing weekend gigs in and around the St. Louis area.

By 1955, the trio had become a top local draw and Berry was supplementing his income as a hairdresser with regular shows.

Berry decided to head to Chicago in search of a professional music career in 1955. Shortly after his arrival, Berry walked into a club where one of his idols, Muddy Waters, was playing. After the show, Berry approached Waters and asked him where he should go to cut a record. Waters directed him to Chess Records, the giant blues label in Chicago where Waters and a host of other enormous national blues acts were stabled. When Berry and Leonard Chess met, Berry had no tapes to give to the promoter. Chess told Berry that he would be glad to give him a listen and instructed him to go on home and bring him something back. Berry returned to St. Louis, recorded a handful of tracks, including the then titled "Ida May" (which later became "Maybelline") and later that week drove back to Chicago with the tapes.

Chess loved "Ida May / Maybelline" and signed Berry to the label. In a stroke of somewhat shady marketing genius, Leonard Chess gave a copy of the single to Alan Freed of WINS in New York (Freed is often credited with coining the phrase rock and roll and was instrumental to its development as a legitimate musical genre) to get airplay. Chess made a deal with Freed by giving the DJ a twenty-five percent writing credit on the single in exchange for airing the disc. (Berry was unaware of the deal when it was made and it was not resolved 1986. By the time Berry and his lawyers re-worked the deal, the single had sold well in excess of 1million copies). By summer of 1955, "Maybelline" hit #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B charts. It was a fortuitous moment for both Berry and Chess Records. It launched Berry's career and allowed Chess Records to move from the niche blues/rhythm and blues genre into a more mainstream area of music production.

In the late 50's through the early 60's, Chuck Berry had an incredible string of successes with songs like "Brown Eyed Man", "Too Much Monkey Business", "Memphis", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven" but it was "Johnny B. Goode" that is considered his masterpiece. "Johnny B. Goode" was the near-perfect song for the time, combining a danceable rhythm, a stinging blues/almost rockabilly guitar riff and lyrics that were accessible and identifiable to both youthful black and white audiences alike.

It was a boom time for Berry. His music had become an essential part of the burgeoning soundtrack of rock and roll and he had found himself a main stay of the club scene. Berry was even found himself in films like Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957) and Go, Johnny, Go (1959).

But along with his enormous success, Berry had his share of troubles. In 1959, Chuck Berry was charged with violating The Mann Act. Apparently he had brought a 14 year old Apache prostitute with him from Texas to St. Louis to work as a hat check girl at his St. Louis club. After he fired her, she complained to authorities. His first trial, a blatantly racist affair, ended in a mistrial but he was convicted on the second go around and he was sentenced to two years in Federal prison in Indiana. Berry emerged from prison in 1964 an angry and embittered man.

When Berry re-entered the music business he was up against the British Invasion that was underway at the time. Oddly enough, Chuck Berry found himself competing with bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones whose albums had their own versions of some of his own songs. But Berry kept pace by recording a few more classics like "Nadine", "No Particular Place To Go" and "You Never Can Tell".

In 1964, Berry toured Britain and opened Berry Park near Wentsville, Missouri, a site that would figure prominently later in Berry's life.

In 1966, Chuck left Chess Records and signed with the Mercury label in an effort to change the direction of his career. It was a calculated move that failed to provide the results he was looking for and the discs he cut (the forgettable Live At The Filmore Auditorium and Concerto in B. Goode) failed to produce the anticipated results. By 1969, Berry went back to Chess. At Chess Berry recorded Back Home Again (1969) and San Francisco Dues (1970) both which charted nationally. However his biggest hit came in 1972 when he released the single "My Ding-A-Ling", a risqué number loaded with thinly veiled sexual references that Berry had been playing to huge responses in adult clubs throughout his career. (He had originally recorded the song while at Mercury under the title "My Tambourine"). The single sold more than a million copies and reached the top of the U.S. charts on October 21, 1972.

By the middle of the Seventies, Berry's career had slowed to the point where he fell from headlining to touring with 'oldies' retrospectives on the rock and roll revival circuit with other acts like Bill Haley and the Comets, Chubby Checker and Bo Diddley. Again Berry caught film credits appearing in 1973's Let the Good Times Roll and in 1978's American Hot Wax, where he and legendary D.J. Alan Freed played themselves. But along with his revival in the 70s, Berry could seem to stay ahead of trouble. In 1979, a few days before he was to play at the White House for then President Jimmy Carter, the IRS charged him with income tax evasion. A short time later, Berry found himself serving a 100 day sentence in federal prison.

Although he continued to tour and make several guest appearances in various concerts, Berry's career had ground to a near halt by the mid-eighties. However Berry was never far from the collective rock and roll consciousness, cited by many as a primary influence, including guitarists as far ranging as Dickey Betts, Keith Richards, Ted Nugent and Angus Young. His sphere of influence was noted when he was one of the very first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1987, a documentary of his life, Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll was released and is considered by many as one of the most brutally honest looks at contemporary music ever made.

However, as has been a common theme in Berry's career, trouble again reared its ugly head in 1990. At 60 years old, Berry was sued by some 60 different women who claimed that he had filmed them while they were using the facilities at a restaurant at his theme park in Wentzville, MO. Berry has steadfastly denied the allegations but did pay over a $1 million dollars to settle the claims. In that same year police raided his home and he was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana as well as possession of a variety of 'homemade' pornography.

But like a cat, Berry's career seems to have had nine lives. Two years later, Berry played at President Clinton's inaugural celebration and in 2000 and he was honored as well with a Kennedy Center tribute. However in perhaps his greatest tribute, "Johnny B. Goode" was included in The Sounds Of The Earth, an auditory record (gold plated naturally) that was stowed aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 as they were dispatched on their journey beyond our solar system. The idea behind The Sounds Of The Earth is that if other intelligent beings in the universe were to come across the craft, their indoctrination into rock and roll would be by what many considered to be one of the purest of the original rock and roll records as recorded by the main architect of rock and roll himself, 'The Eternal Teenager', Chuck Berry.
[FONT=Tahoma]"All I can do is be me ... whoever that is". Bob Dylan [/FONT]
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