[guest post by JVW]
[UPDATE:] I saw the incomparable Van Morrison perform at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles earlier this evening. A few numbers into the show, he played “Sweet Little Sixteen” in tribute to Chuck Berry. I’ll try to find an online version and embed it here.
Maybe Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock ‘n roll. By the time his first single, “Maybellene,” hit the charts in July 1955 there had already been several early rock records on the airwaves including “Good Rocking Tonight” by Roy Brown, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (featuring a young Ike Turner on piano), “Shake Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner, and “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets. Over in Memphis, Elvis Presley had already released most of his early recordings made by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Fats Domino had already scored a Top Ten hit with “Ain’t That a Shame” and Little Richard was two months away from recording “Tutti Frutti” for Speciality Records.
But the release of “Maybellene” and the hits that followed over the next three years — “Thirty Days,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and others — established Chuck Berry as the purest embodiment of the sound of the 1950s. Nearly ten years older than Elvis, he nevertheless retained the heart of a teenager well into his thirties, writing magnificent songs about cars, school, carefree fun, and young love.
As the Fifties progressed to the Sixties, the music began to lose much of the youthful innocence. Songs about cars, girls, and sock-hops became songs about politics, drugs, and violence. Though Berry’s influence among the new generation of rockers remained strong and his songs were respectfully covered by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the legend found himself relegated to playing state fairs, nostalgia shows, and college dances. As music writer Robert Christgau has noted of that period, “For a fee. . . Chuck Berry will hop on a plane with his guitar and go play some rock and roll. He is the symbol of the music — the man invited to come steal the show at the 1975 Grammys, although he has never been nominated for one himself, not even in the rock & roll or rhythm & blues categories.” There is something comforting about the idea that in an age when Elvis was playing Las Vegas showrooms, the Stones and the Who were playing football stadiums and basketball arenas, and the Beatles no longer had any interest in performing live at all, there was Chuck Berry arriving at a fraternity party, quickly rehearsing the chord changes for ten or so hits with a pickup band assembled for just that night, playing a forty-minute set, collecting his fee (cash please), and heading on to the next location. No doubt that Berry would have preferred a life of English countryside manors, chauffeured cars, sumptuous backstage buffets with a full bar, but fate dictated that he play the role of the pioneer, the man who lays the groundwork so that those who come after him can succeed.
His only Billboard Number One pop hit was a miserable ditty, a throwaway naughty children’s song he had been doing to get a laugh from college audiences, which kept “Burning Love,” Elvis’s best song of the 1970s, from reaching the top spot in October 1972. Berry was said to have hated the song but loved the royalty checks that it brought in. When Keith Richards put together a 60th birthday party concert for him and arranged for the filmmaker Taylor Hackford to record and release it as the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Berry saw a slight career resurgence on the oldies circuit, but some of his questionable decisions of the past continued to haunt him and he once again found himself in legal trouble of his own making.
But no one deserves to be judged solely on their weakest moments, and Chuck Berry overcame poverty, discrimination, shady music business operatives, incarceration, and career neglect by being willing to humble himself and play 180 nights a year for any audience who would pay him. His legacy is the influential music he left behind, the sound of teenage America for two generations. As Ted Nugent once said, “If you don’t know all of Chuck Berry’s licks then you can’t play rock & roll guitar.” Finally, he’s the man who coined one of my favorite words, “motorvate,” in the song that started it all and that we will leave here as a fitting epitaph. Rest in peace.
Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.