❉ From rock’s back pages: Charlie Gillett on Chuck Berry.
At the time of his greatest popularity, 1955-59, there were several other singers who had more hits, were more often copied, and commanded higher fees for personal performances. But Chuck Berry had the greatest long-term effect on his audience, shown in the immense influence his music had on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and other singers and musicians who began making records in the mid-6os) having been among those who listened to: Chuck Berry in the 50s.
Berry’s first record, ‘Maybellene’, made the Top Ten in 1955 but bore little similarity to anything he recorded later.
The sound and Berry’s flat whine showed little sign that the musicians were the same men who played on the blues sessions at Chess, or that by preference Berry liked blues and jazz. But Berry’s next four singles showed his interests much more obviously – performed in a blues style and presenting in their themes some strong criticisms of aspects of American life: judges and courts in 30 Days, credit and car salesmen in ‘No Money Down‘, high culture in ‘Roll Over Beethoven‘, and all these plus more in ‘Too Much Monkey Business‘.
Since they were performed in a strong “blues” voice, the songs received relatively little attention from disc jockeys, with the exception of ‘Roll Over Beethoven‘. This had a brilliant rolling rhythm and a lyric that was particular to adolescents rather than general to adults as the others were. Even this song, despite its graceful power, did not make the national Top Twenty.
But ‘School Days‘ (1957) was a hit. As in ‘Roll Over Beethoven‘, Berry described events from a position close to them – without actually taking part. The song effectively captured the feeling of penned adolescence:
Up In The Morning, And
Out To School,
The Teacher Is Teaching
The Golden Rule,
American History And
You Study Them Hard,
Hoping To Pass …
But All Day Long You
Been Wanting To Dance.
The song was a little too long and the rhythm insufficiently varied, to be numbered among Berry’s best performances. But ‘Rock and Roll Music‘ (1957), ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode‘ (1958) were more ingenious.
The basis of Berry’s rhythm was an alternation of guitar chords comparable to the “alley” piano style of the Coasters’ ‘Searchin’’. But the effect was complicated by frequent lead guitar figures – and a piano that seemed to be played almost regardless of the melody taken by the singer and the rest of the musicians: apart from a few vocal groups such as the Five Satins, few rock ‘n’ roll performers dared to challenge the conventions of harmony in this way.
‘Sweet Little Sixteen‘ presented the breathless world of a music-mad girl, using a traditional technique of American popular song writing: introducing several place names in the hope that residents of those places would identify with the theme.
‘Johnny B. Goode‘ was one of his finest songs and used another traditional theme of American popular music: local country boy makes it in the big city. The opening guitar figure on that record has become one of the classic sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. But ‘Memphis’ (1959) was his last great song.
The record was not a popular hit (its B-side ‘Back in the USA’, was a small hit), but was an example of rock ’n’ roll at its best: the musicians played a modified version of the boogie rhythm developed on guitars by Jimmy Reed, while Berry created an unusual mood of tension through his restrained vocal. It tried to convey the singer’s feelings about a six-year-old girl whose relationship to the singer remained obscure:
Last Time I Saw Marie,
She Was Waving Me Good-Bye,
With Hurry-Home Drops On Her Cheek,
That Trickled From Her Eye:
Marie Is Only Six Years Old,
But Information, Please,
Try To Put Me Through To Her
In Memphis, Tennessee.
The Start Of The Duck Walk: Paramount Theatre, 1956
“Alan Freed had a house full … 6,000 some odd, and at that time clothes were just about like they are now … you could wear yellow suits, pink trousers, blue shoes – everybody was a plainclothesman – and my trio that I brought from St Louis, incidentally, this was one of my first gigs, and I had to outfit my trio, the three of us, and I always remember that the suits cost me $66 – $22 apiece. We had to buy shoes and everything.
“So anyway, when we got to New York, the suits, they were rayon, but looked like seersucker by the time we got there…so we had one suit, we didn’t know we were supposed to change. So we wanted to do something different, so I actually did that duck walk to hide the wrinkles in the suit – I got an ovation, so I figured I pleased the audience, so I did it again, and I’ll probably do it again tonight.”
They Said He Corrupted Her: St. Louis, 1959
Late in 1959 a prostitute he had picked up while on tour in Juarez – and then brought back to St. Louis to be a hat check girl in his club – turned herself in to the police after he dropped her. She was, she admitted then, only 14 years old, and Berry was arrested and charged with violating the Mann Act.
Given a few sordid realities, the charge became absurd. The girl, a Spanish-speaking Apache Indian from New Mexico, had been a prostitute for a year and he hardly “compelled, induced, and incited her to give herself up to debauchery” in the language of the indictment. And a man of Chuck’s status doesn’t have to bring his pick-ups home.
It’s probably true, as he insisted, that his real intent, which the law requires proven, was to learn Spanish because he thought that songs in foreign languages were the coming trend (though he might have had a few other things on his mind as well). But the law and the public were not ready to take so worldly a view.
The case dragged on for two years through two humiliating trials, both in St Louis. The first judge was so blatantly prejudiced, calling Berry “this Negro” or “whatever his name is”, that his judgement was vacated, but the verdicts of both trials were the same: guilty. Berry went to jail.
The implicit substance of the charge was expressed by the newspaper headline: ROCK ‘N’ROLL SINGER LURED ME TO ST LOUIS, SAYS 14-YEAR-OLD. “They” had always known that his dirty music was corrupting their children, and now they had caught this gaudy nigger with his pants down to prove it: ‘Is this the kind of man our children idolise?’ Maybe, if they could put him away in jail, they could forget that the answer to their question was yes.
Chuck Berry On Stage: New York, 1966
There’s no accounting for taste: one of Chuck Berry’s ambitions is to front the Basie band, getting all that power and punch in behind him, while he wails the blues. At Madison Square Gardens last night he got as close as he’s likely to get to his dream, and had a 15-piece big band stacked up in rows on the stage, leaving just enough room in front for Chuck to skate and slide, drive his train and walk like a duck.
Leaning forward, knees bent, Chuck slides to the side of the stage, whips round and slides across to the other side. Waddling never had such grace. The up/down beat and the brittle guitar breaks become sound effects for a strange dance; but then the break is over, and he swings to the mike to sing again.
How many times has he done these songs? The question is academic, unnecessary. He’s just as deadpan with the funny lines as he ever was, just as plaintive on the sad ones. He still looks like his pictures of ten years ago, and the songs sound the same as they did then. By making no effort to update them, and by being completely unselfconscious about their familiarity to him and to us, he lets them hang, in time, and be true forever.
The Four Tops were on the same bill. I liked them better than any group in the world at that time, but I could hardly bear to sit through their act: Chuck Berry can’t be followed.
❉ Reproduced for review purposes according to Section 30 (Criticism, review and news reporting) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA).