It was May of 1955. The record business was about to undergo a sea change.
Six major labels dominated the industry with established crooners like Frank Sinatra and instrumental bands like Mitch Miller and His Orchestra. The popular music scene was as racially divided as the country at large; black artists were largely limited to the R&B charts while white musicians got all the attention on the mainstream Top 40.
But smaller independent companies were making their mark with lesser known niche artists who enjoyed some success on a regional basis with narrower audiences. One of these was Chess Records in Chicago, which specialized in blues and R&B music with artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, The Moonglows and Ike Turner.
Label honcho Leonard Chess was eager to find a “crossover” act — a black musician who could take the energy of R&B and make it acceptable to white radio stations and audiences. “What I need,” he mused, “is someone who can successfully merge country music with blues music.”
And into the studio one morning walked Chuck Berry.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry — who died March 18th at age 90 — was without question one of the two or three leading pioneers of the new hybrid genre known as rock and roll. He has been widely hailed as rock’s original guitar hero for his flamboyant style of performance that helped push the electric guitar into the forefront of rock music.
Elvis Presley, a country boy from Memphis who loved R&B, was by far the greater commercial success, but he was an interpretive singer, not a songwriter. The emergence of Berry, an R&B singer/songwriter/guitarist from St. Louis who appreciated country as well, was arguably the more symbolic game-changer.
Berry was a feisty talent who had been marinating for more than a decade in the jump blues and big-band swing of Louis Jordan and the fiery blues guitar licks of T-Bone Walker. But he also enjoyed the warmth and storytelling nature of country music, and he, like Chess, dreamed of finding a way to somehow bring the two worlds into the same orbit.
One of the songs that had been percolating in Berry’s mind was “Ida Mae,” a re-working of a popular country ditty called “Ida Red,” made famous by Bill Monroe and the Playboys. He grafted on some electric guitar stylings and added a new set of fun lyrics about driving his V8 Ford to chase down a girl driving a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
When Berry entered Chess’s studio that fateful day with his trio and ran through his first take of the song, Chess instantly perked up. “YES!” he shouted, and after four hours working to preserve on tape the best possible take (out of nearly 40 tries), he knew he had a winner.
Chess thought it best to give the song a different name, and, spying a bottle of Maybelline mascara left on a nearby table, concluded, “Let’s change her name from Ida Mae to Maybelline. But let’s spell it ‘Maybellene’ so the lawyers don’t come calling.”
It was a watershed moment. By mid-August, “Maybellene” was #6 on the charts, arguably the first “crossover” song that brought a high-energy, black R&B artist and a white audience together in a time when the charts were filled with relatively bland fare like “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
You really cannot overestimate the enormous influence that this single, and this man, made on the popular music scene. It was perhaps only a moderate ripple at the time, but its impact, and Berry’s, on pop music over the next five years — and five decades — was seismic.
Within the year, rock and roll was elbowing its way onto the charts on a weekly basis. Sure, Presley was by far the dominant figure, with big hits like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog,” and Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and others were regulars in the Top 20 as well. But Berry cut a singular path as the most prominent black artist in the new genre.
Berry had a keen understanding of how various musical styles could borrow from each other to create something altogether new and vibrant. Thirty years later on a 1987 appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” Berry described it this way: “I wanted to sing like Nat Cole, with lyrics like Louis Jordan, with the swing of Benny Goodman, playing Carl Hogan’s riffs, and with the soul of Muddy Waters. Oh, I had it all mixed in there.”
He was no one-hit wonder, that’s for sure. He followed “Maybellene” with “Thirty Days,” then “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and perhaps most important, “Johnny B. Goode.”
Said Rolling Stone Keith Richards in 1989, “‘Johnny B. Goode’ is the basic tune every rock song has been based on.” He wasn’t kidding. He pretty much admitted to Berry’s deep influence when, at Berry’s 1986 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richards said, “It’s difficult for me to talk about Chuck, because I lifted every riff he ever played.”
The lyrics of Berry’s songs were a crucial element in the mix. At a time when rock lyrics took a back seat to the sound of the records, Berry’s words, better than those in any other artist’s catalog, captured the typical teenage passions and anxieties, from fast cars and romance to high school tensions and the thrill of dancing to rock and roll.
“Roll Over Beethoven” stated emphatically that it was inevitable that the high-brow music of previous generations needed to step aside and make room for this new upstart. It even name-dropped another big hit of the era: “Well, early in the morning, I’m a-giving you the warning, don’t you step on my blue suede shoes…roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news…”
“Rock and Roll Music” talked about heading to the “undesirable” part of town to better experience the irresistible draw of this new music: “I took my loved one over cross the tracks so she can hear my man a-wailin’ sax… It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it, any old way you use it, gotta be rock and roll music if you wanna dance with me…”
“School Day” alluded to the boredom of attending class (“back in the classroom, open your books, gee the teacher don’t know how mean she looks”), the underlying racial tension (“the guy behind you won’t leave you alone”), and the liberation of heading to the juke joint after school (“all day long you’ve been wanting to dance, feeling the music from head to toe…”). And it concludes with a cry of allegiance: “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!”
Additionally, Berry was a compelling force on the manic rock and roll tours of the ’50s with his arresting stage presence and his famous “duck walk,” in which he crouched down and shimmied across the stage with one leg extended and his guitar held high.
Berry wasn’t universally loved. Far from it. Mainstream newspaper critics turned their noses up at him as they did all the early rockers, and he had to face hostile audiences as part of touring revues in many segregated Southern cities. Adding to his woes was the heat he took from some black audiences, who preferred pure blues and felt he had sold out with his leanings toward “hillbilly music.”
Many older observers sneered at the rock ‘n roll of Berry and his contemporaries as just another fad, concluding (hoping) it would soon fade away, but the music found its way to England and elsewhere, where youngsters like John Lennon and Keith Richards were wholeheartedly absorbing it. Less than a decade later, when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and others invaded our shores in 1964, among the songs they recorded and performed were Berry songs like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Come On,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Around and Around.” Even the homegrown Beach Boys loved Berry’s tunes; they brazenly ripped off “Sweet Little Sixteen” and its mention of multiple US cities when they hit #1 with their similarly geographic “Surfin’ USA.”
Berry grew up with supportive parents in a comfortable home and stable black neighborhood in St. Louis, but underneath, he still had that rebellious streak that has affected so many teens through the years. On an impulsive whim, he and two friends chose to rob a few small retail stores and then steal a car, but they promptly got caught, and paid a steep price. The judge chose to impose a 10-year sentence in a Missouri reformatory, of which he served three years. All of this came before he turned 21.
It was only the first of three run-ins with the justice system. In 1959, after four years of rising fame as a recording artist, Berry found himself on the wrong end of the law because of a misunderstood relationship with a Mexican waitress who accompanied him on tours for a spell. He was convicted under the Mann Act of trumped-up charges of “transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.” Again, he had to serve time in prison, which severely damaged his career momentum in the early ’60s.
As it turned out, he would have only three more hits once he returned, all in 1964. “Nadine” stalled at #23, but “No Particular Place to Go” reached the Top Ten, although it was in fact just a note-for-note reworking of “School Day,” this time with inventive lyrics about the frustrations of cars, teen romance and uncooperative seat belts. Last was “You Never Can Tell” (which had a second life 30 years later in a key scene from Quentin Tarantino’s classic “Pulp Fiction”).
As rock music branched out into folk rock, psychedelic rock and other sub-genres in the mid-to-late 1960s, the pioneers were largely pushed to the sidelines, which made Berry bitter. These trends, along with the legal entanglements, and multiple incidents when unscrupulous concert promoters withheld or unfairly reduced his pay after performances, hardened Berry dramatically. The young man who had been generally good-natured and jovial turned into something else entirely — a suspicious, irascible man who many found “unpleasant to be with.”
It’s a strange and sad testimony to the vagaries of pop music record buyers that Berry’s only #1 hit came in 1972 with the truly awful “My Ding-a-Ling,” a live recording of a lame, risque tune ostensibly about a child’s toy but actually a euphemistic reference to his private parts. It was a low moment in rock and roll history.
Berry curtailed his recording in the ’70s and beyond, but continued live performances well into his 80s. He made the curious choice to tour alone with his guitar, hiring local groups to wing it behind him in each city. The performances, consequently, were often ragged and inconsistent, and his reputation suffered somewhat.
But he will always be regarded as a rock and roll legend in most circles. A copy of “Johnny B. Goode” was the only record chosen to represent humanity among the cultural artifacts installed on the Voyager space probes launched in 1977. Berry received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1984 and was one of the inaugural class to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He was the subject of a documentary film, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” in 1987, and he was named to the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000.
He was immortalized in others’ songs as well. Consider Bob Seger’s 1977 hit “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” which includes the line, “All Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks, get into your kicks, come back, baby, rock and roll never forgets…” Or check out “Berry Rides Again,” an energetic rocker on Steppenwolf’s 1968 debut that name-checks every one of Berry’s biggest songs: “Well, thinking of my school days, I remember Maybellene, used to dance with her all night, she was little sweet sixteen, her brother used to chase me, he thought I did but I never could, I used to call him Little Queenie, his name was Johnny B. Goode…”
In the wake of Berry’s death last week, many rock luminaries lauded him and his important contributions. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry noted, “If you want to learn rock and roll, if you want to play rock and roll, you have to start with Chuck Berry.” Eric Clapton, perhaps the most celebrated rock guitarist of the past 50 years, credits Berry with inventing the template: “He laid down the law for playing this kind of music.” Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, said, “My heart is broken. Chuck was my first and greatest inspiration.”
Mick Jagger was more reflective: “He lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light onto the American dream. He was amazing, and his music is engraved inside
us forever.” His bandmate Richards added, “To me, Chuck Berry was always the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection.”
Perhaps most telling of all was this succinct summary by the late John Lennon in a 1972 interview: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
R.I.P., Chuck. Your legacy is forever intact.
If you’d like to learn more about Berry, may I suggest Bruce Pegg’s 2002 biography, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”