Chuck Berry may be dead but you know he won’t stay buried. He’s just too irrepressible for confinement to such a singular state. He was like his music: audacious and muscular. His huge hands easily enveloped the fretboard of his Gibson ES-335 and pulled sounds from it that would electrify the soul. Is it possible to remain still while experiencing the pure energy coming from his records? I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been able to do it.
Today, his presence is everywhere in the American landscape. Urban streets. Country roads. Everyone can identify his songs from his licks. It’s hard to find anyone who can resist his hooks.
Chuck Berry and his distinctive style have permeated the culture to its deepest sonic vocabulary.
Yet, as an early rocker, he had a couple of obvious strikes against him.
First, there was the issue of racism. Many consider Ike Turner’s 1951 record Rocket 88 the starting point of the rock ‘n’ roll era, when “separate but equal” was still the law of the land. Though the doctrine was legally overturned by the 1954 Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the deeply-rooted “separate but equal” political and social legacy wouldn’t be overturned for years, even decades.
In the 1950s, you could peddle jazz, blues, and R&B records to the black community and a few sophisticated whites in urban areas. To reach the wealthy demographic of baby-booming, white teens in the suburbs, however, required something more familiar.
And by more familiar, I mean something white.
Take, for example, Little Richard’s self-penned Tutti Frutti. Considered seminal in rock history, the record is a pure original in Little Richard’s unique style. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart January 4, 1956. A mere two weeks later, Pat Boone’s diluted cover of the recording entered the charts. Little Richard’s record peaked at #21 on February 18. That same week, Pat Boone’s cover peaked at #12 – nine places higher! (Boone’s recording would again hit #12 three weeks later.) Little Richard’s version stayed on the charts for 12 weeks, Pat Boone’s cover for 18 weeks, 50% longer.
Apparently Pat Boone’s paler version played better to, well, paler audiences. In 1956 anyway.
In addition to race, there was the matter of Chuck’s age. His first single, Maybellene, hit the charts in 1955 when Chuck was at the ripe old age of 29. He was years older than his music peers Little Richard (22), Jerry Lee Lewis (19), Johnny Cash (23), and Elvis Presley (20). The only real precedent was Rock Around The Clock‘s puffy, hillbilly, old white man Bill Haley who was a year older than Chuck. And what teenager wants to go see someone practically their parent’s age play something in the spirit of youth and rebellion?
Chuck’s race and age fueled in him a focused financial drive essentially unique in all rockers, early or modern. As anyone who has read his 1987 autobiography, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, or seen the revealing documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, can attest, Chuck was about bucks. Chuck Berry could (and would) discuss the payday of practically every gig he played – even those of decades past. “Too Much Money Business” could have been the title to his autobiography.
No pure artist was he. He knew the teens in the white neighborhoods didn’t play his favorite musicians (T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, and the like). And the teens in the white neighborhoods were where the money was. As he admits in his autobiography:
Whatever would sell was what I thought I should concentrate on, so from “Maybellene” on I mainly improved my lyrics toward the young adult and some even for the teeny boppers, as they called the tots then.
So out came songs universal to the pre-adult experience of the time: cars, school, and a more innocent love than the sweaty heat described in Tutti Frutti.
But if Berry’s topics tended towards the simple, his lyrics were not. As John Lennon put it: “He was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby I love you so.'” Like Shakespeare, Chuck Berry invented words (such as “motorvating” and “botheration“) to enforce metric rhythms while maintaining meanings. His phrases were likewise precise: students hoped to pass “American history and practical math” and Nadine walks towards “a coffee-colored Cadillac.” I once suggested No Particular Place to Go to a friend writing a linguistics term paper about bilabial stops. She got an A.
Berry’s music also came from an unusual place. His original band, Sir John’s Trio, was run by piano player Johnnie Johnson until Chuck took it over. The trio consisted of Johnson on piano, Ebby Hardy on drums, and Chuck on vocals and guitar. The instruments clearly suggest a band following a jazz groove. Contrast that to the country-western make-up of Elvis‘ or Johnny Cash‘s trios or the horn-heavy, big band sound of Little Richard. Keith Richards will tell you that Chuck Berry adapted Johnnie Johnson’s piano riffs for guitar “because of the key it’s in… you’re playing in piano keys, horn keys, jazz keys, Johnnie Johnson’s keys.” So important was Johnson’s influence that Richards thought he should have gotten co-writing credit and royalties on the songs: “But Chuck being Chuck, you’d be lucky to get a quarter. Or you’d end up paying him.” It’s not terribly difficult, however, to listen to Johnson’s piano and hear the grounding for Chuck Berry’s riffs.
So there you have it: sophisticated jazz riffs with tight literate lyrics about inoffensive, universal subjects. All by design. And Chuck went further. His strong diction on the records (the better to hear the meter) and subtle infusion of the country-western music popular in his hometown of St. Louis allowed a magical transformation to happen. If Elvis was, as Sun Records owner Sam Phillips surmised, the “white boy who could sound like a black man,” Chuck Berry was the black man who could sound white. As he put it in his autobiography:
All in all it was my intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.
Consequently, in Chuck’s early days, many deejays and promoters thought he was white. In his autobiography, he tells the story of a promoter outside a Knoxville venue who told him:
“It’s a country dance and we had no idea that Maybellene was recorded by a niggra man.” They had sold out the place but couldn’t permit a black person to perform, as it was against a city ordinance.
The local white band hired to back Chuck ended up replacing him.
But even that story, set in the Jim Crow South, demonstrates the effectiveness of Chuck’s strategy to pull in the white audience he desired. Other examples are easy to find. In this 1958 television performance (with an intro by a young Dick Clark and younger Johnny Carson), a lip-synching Berry, unplugged guitar in hand, fires up a bunch of neatly-clothed and well-behaved teenagers who giddily clap their hands. These same teens would likely have to duck and cover in a school drill the following day. In an era where classroom discussions on the horrors of atomic bombing were routine, Chuck Berry knew how not to make his music frightening for white teens and, especially, their white parents:
Chuck’s ability to create this magic never abated as the 1987 bio-documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll proves. Here is part of a concert nearly 30 years after the television appearance above. This time, however, Chuck Berry performs in his racially mixed hometown of St. Louis. Note the shots of the racially unmixed crowd:
The same film also shows Chuck performing in a rehabilitated Cosmopolitan Club. Decades earlier, Sir John’s Trio was the house band for the original venue. Here again the film reveals a racially unmixed audience – but of a different kind and more typical of East St. Louis. We also see a different kind of Chuck Berry: bluesy, sexy, and far more dangerous. He gamely comments to his East St. Louis audience, “I’m sorry I left the Cosmopolitan but I’m glad I made that money.” He couldn’t even keep a straight face during the “apology.”
Comparing the two scenes clearly demonstrates Chuck Berry’s “intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.” But intention is sometimes not enough. Even with his desire to sell his product to white audiences, he could never quite outrun the racism of the times. It seems a pity Chuck never had a #1 song during the 1950s when he was at peak creativity. He came close only once: Sweet Little Sixteen hit #2 for a couple of weeks in 1958.
I guess you can make a song sound only so white.
So it’s a sad irony that Chuck Berry’s first (and only) #1 song was (a) achieved in the 1970s with a (b) novelty tune that was (c) not written by him and (d) recorded in England. Could there be anything more antithetical to the Chuck Berry mythos than My Ding-a-Ling?
And then it occurs to me that Chuck wouldn’t have found it sad at all. All gold records have the same luster and there are no asterisks on the Billboard Hot 100. Money is money. After all, this was the man who took the exact melody off his Run Rudolph Run and repackaged it the following year as a “new” song, Little Queenie.
Which is not to say that Little Queenie isn’t a little gem unto itself. Because it is.
In fact, Chuck Berry’s, or rather, Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson’s music was so powerful that it has been thoroughly absorbed by the culture to nearly the point of cliché. Nearly, but not quite. While Chuck may have targeted an audience, he never did so in a cynical manner. Intentionally blending elements to capture an audience’s attention does not lessen one’s standing as a creator.
Chuck’s desire for bucks may have provided a pow’ful motor and some hideaway wings but the resulting journey itself was joyously pure. Chuck was a creative artist of first degree and his work, even if culturally ubiquitous, sounds just as vital today as when it was first committed to wax.
Chuck Berry may be gone but his songs have already withstood the pressure of time. And racism as well. By targeting a specific audience, he universalized the sweet dreamland of fast cars, young love, and not being a minute over 17. Chuck’s commerce created culture. And so he’ll keep all of us – no matter what age, no matter what race – rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ for all eternity.
Originally published March 20, 2017 in Footlights.