Sunday, March 19, 2017

We Come To Praise Chuck, Not To Bury Him

The rock and/or roll music legend yer actual Chuck Berry has died, dear blog reader. A statement of the musicians' website stated: 'We are deeply saddened to announce that Chuck Berry - beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather - passed away at his home today at the age of ninety. Though his health had deteriorated recently, he spent his last days at home surrounded by the love of his family and friends. The Berry family asks that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.'
Chuck Berry's trademark four-bar guitar introductions and smart, sassy, quickfire lyrics reflected the rebelliousness and excitement of American youth in the 1950s. He was one of that exclusive group of artists who took rhythm and blues from its black delta roots and 'crossed over' to make it part of most black and white teenagers' lifestyle. Chuck Berry was, in short, the Shakespeare of R&B, writing brilliant two minute pop songs with short-story lyrics full of witty innuendo and wordplay. He was also a great showman, his 'duck-walk' being one of the most imitated moves in rock and/or roll. Whilst Elvis Presley was rock's first superstar and teenage heartthrob, Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who appeared to understand exactly what the kids wanted, perhaps before they even knew themselves.
He influenced generations of succeeding rock stars, most notably The Be-Atles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. Yet he faced racism, major financial difficulties through mismanagement and had frequent brushes with the law throughout his life.
       Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born the fourth child of six in a Middle-Class family in St Louis, Missouri, in October 1926. As a teenager he began playing concerts in his local high school but his education was curtailed after he was convicted of armed robbery and spent three years in a reformatory for young offenders. On his release from The Joint he made a living as a hairdresser, playing in a trio in the evenings with Ebby Harding on drums and Johnnie Johnson on piano. Johnson would remain with Berry throughout his career.
Chuck was influenced by blues heroes such as Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, as well as white country and western music, though his singing style owed much to the clarity of the crooner Nat King Cole. 'My music is simple stuff,' he once said. 'Anyone can sit down, look at a set of symbols and produce sounds the music represents.' From the Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker, Berry picked up a technique of bending two strings at once that he would rough up and turn into a rock 'n' roll talisman, 'the Chuck Berry lick', which would, in turn, be emulated by Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Hilton Valentine, Dave Davies, Pete Townshend, Carl Wilson and countless others. Chuck also recognised the popularity of country music and added a touch of hillbilly twang to his guitar lines. Berry's hybrid music, along with his charisma and showmanship, drew white as well as black listeners to the Cosmopolitan Club in St Louis. In 1955, Berry ventured to Chicago and asked one of his idols, Muddy Waters, about making records. Waters directed him to the label he recorded for, Chess Records, where Leonard Chess heard potential in Berry's songs. His recording career began in 1955 with 'Maybellene', one of rock and roll's first nationwide hits. In the next few years, he scored with a succession of twenty-four carat classics, all aimed at an adolescent audience. These included (deep breath): 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'You Can't Catch Me', 'School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell)', 'Rock & Roll Music', 'Almost Grown', 'Reelin' & Rockin'', 'Run, Rudolph , Run', 'Little Queenie', 'Memphis, Tennessee', 'Let It Rock', 'Sweet Little Sixteen', 'Carol', 'Around & Around', 'I'm Talking About You', 'I Got To Find My Baby', 'Come On', his signature tune 'Johnny B Goode' and its sequel 'Bye, Bye Johnny'. Every single one a much-covered twenty four carat gem. He wrote about school, he said, because everybody goes to school. He wrote about cars - the brilliant 'Jaguar & Thunderbird', for example - because most teenagers lust after the freedom offered to them by acquiring a car. And he wrote about love because, ultimately, that was something pretty much everyone experiences at some stage in their lives. He spun surreal tall tales that Bob Dylan and John Lennon would learn from in the likes of 'Thirty Days' and 'Jo Jo Gunne'. (Dylan's first hit, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' was, both musically and conceptually, a cunning variant on 'Too Much Monkey Business'.) In 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', from 1956, Chuck offered a barely-veiled song of racial pride. His pithiness and humour rarely failed him. His music transcended the colour bar that plagued many contemporary black artists as affluent white teenagers in Eisenhower's America reached out for something new. 'I play the songs they want to hear,' he said. 'That makes them feel they're getting what they came for.' He appeared in several rock and roll movies including Rock, Rock, Rock and Mister Rock and Roll, both from 1957, Go Johnny Go from 1959 and Jazz On A Summer's Day in 1960. He also appeared in the celebrated all-star 1964 concert film The TAMI Show, along with James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys and The Supremes. But, this was only after he had suffered from a twenty month interruption to his career. In 1962 he was charged under the 1910 Mann Act with 'transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.' The girl in question was a fourteen-year-old prostitute from Texas whom, Berry claimed, he had brought to Missouri to work as a hat-check girl at his St Louis nightclub. After he subsequently fired her, she complained to the police. In court the judge's summing-up was blatantly racist and the trial was eventually declared null and void after Berry had been sentenced to five years hard stir in The Big House. Nevertheless, his eventual conviction at a second trial - and the resulting two-year jail sentence - left him embittered for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, his release from prison - in late 1963 - coincided with The Beat Group explosion in Britain and its subsequent invasion of the USA. With Chuck's material being widely covered by bands like The Be-Atles (who recorded 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Rock & Roll Music' on LP and many of his other songs on their BBC radio series Pop Goes The Be-Atles) and The Rolling Stones (who covered dozens of his songs across their career), his work was discovered by a new generation. The Animals, The Kinks and The Hollies were among many others to cover Chuck's songs whilst, back in the US, Brian Wilson re-wrote 'Sweet Little Sixteen' as 'Surfin' USA' to give The Beach Boys their first major hit (under pressure from Berry's publisher, Murray Wilson gave up the rights to the song to prevent his son from being sued). 'If you tried to give rock and roll another name,' John Lennon famously said, 'you might call it Chuck Berry.'
One of the records that the teenage Mick Jagger was carrying at Dartford Station on that day in 1961 when he became reacquainted for the first time in several years with Keith Richards and the pair decided to form a rock and/or roll band, make millions of quid and grow old disgracefully was Chuck Berry's Rockin' At The Hops. 'Chuck Berry lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams,' Sir Mick said on hearing of Berry's death.
Out of jail and being name-checked by just about every new band that mattered, Chuck scored a few more classic hits in the mid-1960s with 'No Particular Place To Go', 'Promised Land', 'Nadine' and 'You Never Can Tell'. In May 1964, he had made a hugely successful tour of the UK on a bill with The Animals, Chris Farlowe and Jerry Lee Lewis during which, according to Eric Burdon, Lewis's constant sick racist taunts towards Chuck on the tour bus became a major issue for all concerned. When Chuck returned for another tour, in January 1965, his behaviour was erratic and moody and his touring style of using unrehearsed local backing bands and a strict non-negotiable contract was beginning to earn him a reputation as a difficult, though seldom unexciting, performer.
He also played at large events in North America, such as the Schaefer Music Festival, in New York City's Central Park in July 1969 and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in October of the same year, notable for the debut performance by The Plastic Ono Band. While he toured steadily through the 1960s, headlining or sharing bills with bands that grew up on his songs, Chuck's recording career stalled after he moved from Chess to Mercury Records in 1966. He remade some of his old hits - sadly, without the fire of the originals - and tried to reach a new audience, recording Live At The Fillmore Auditorium on which he was backed by The Steve Miller Band. When he returned to Chess in 1970, he recorded some great new songs, like 'Tulane' and 'Have Mercy Judge' which flashed with his old wit but failed to reach the charts.
Then, something very surprising happened. His biggest ever hit came in Britain with the atypical 1972 novelty record, 'My Ding-A-Ling', replete with spectacular double entendres which got Mary Whitehouse's knickers all in twist. She assumed it was a song in celebration of masturbation and, to be fair, she was probably right. It was, however, also really funny. Another live recording from the same gig (at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry) of his old standard 'Reelin' and Rockin'' - complete with new, filthy, lyrics ('we boogied in the kitchen, we boogied in the hall, I got some on my fingers so I wiped it on the wall!') - was issued as a follow-up single in the same year. It, too, was a hit, his last Top Forty record in both the US and the UK. Both were included on the half-live, half-studio LP The London Chuck Berry Sessions on which his backing band included the likes of Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan of The Faces and The Average White Band's Robbie McIntosh. At the end of the live section, the recording includes the sounds of festival management desperately trying in vain to get the audience to leave so that the next performers, The Pink Floyd, could take the stage; the crowd simply breaks into a noisy, boisterous chant of 'We want Chuck!'
Whilst he was no longer churning out the hits, Chuck Berry was still thrilling audiences with his live performances. In the 1970s Berry toured constantly on the strength of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a local band that already knew his music by heart no matter where in the world he went. His trademark became the duck walk, a crouching movement across the stage made during his often outrageous guitar solos - Jimi Hendrix was but one of many guitar heroes to confess that he had based much of his own 'guitar-as-a-sex-object' iconography on the trail that Chuck had blazed. Offstage, Chuck could be a notoriously prickly and difficult character, exemplified in the 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll which featured a tour with a backing band organised by his lifelong devotee Keith Richards who was left both exhilarated and hugely frustrated in equal measure by the experience.
Among the many bandleaders performing a back-up role with Berry at various times were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was starting their careers. Springsteen related in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll that Berry did not give the band a set-list and expected all the musicians to simply follow his lead after each guitar intro (the memorable 'keep playing till I raise my foot' instruction which many musicians who backed Chuck over the years would later recall). Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show, he would simply walk off into the night, the money in his pocket and his guitar case in his hand. In 1987, he published an explicit, idiosyncratic autobiography - called, unsurprisingly, The Autobiography - genuinely, though not entirely candidly, written by himself. Berry's attitude to money was also notorious. He demanded cash upfront for the promoters of his concerts and in 1979, he did one hundred-days jail for tax evasion.
There were further brushes with the law. In 1988 he settled a lawsuit from a woman he allegedly punched in the face. Two years later he was sued by a group of women after it was discovered that a hidden camera had been placed in the toilets of Berry's restaurant in Missouri. He also received a suspended jail sentence for marijuana possession. Despite the advancing years, he continued playing one-night concerts and embarked on a European tour in 2008 at the age of eighty two. In January 1986, Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and/or Roll Hall of Famous with a citation that summed up his contribution to popular music. 'While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.'
Berry himself had a simple explanation for his success: 'It amazes me when I hear people say, "I want to go out and find out who I am." I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me.' Berry's music has and will remain on tour extra-terrestrially. 'Johnny B. Goode' is on the golden discs contained on the Voyager I and II spacecraft, launched by NASA in 1977. Chuck Berry may be dead, dear blog reader, but his music has already left the solar system and is, currently, flying through interstellar space. That's immortality. (The comedian Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live once claimed that NASA had received its first contact for aliens which had merely pleaded: 'Send more Chuck Berry!') Berry announced on his ninetieth birthday that his first new studio LP since Rock It in 1979, entitled Chuck, would be released in 2017. His first new record in thirty eight years, it featured two of his children, Charles and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica, with songs 'covering the spectrum from hard-driving rockers to soulful thought-provoking time capsules of a life's work.' The record was dedicated to his wife of sixty eight years, Themetta Berry. Themetta survives Chuck, as do four of their children: Ingrid Berry, Melody Eskridge, Aloha Isa Leigh Berry and Charles Berry Junior.