Thursday, 20 April 2017

ROCKERS & MODS #5: Chuck Berry

WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #10: Chuck Berry

c. 1957

Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show
17 May 1958


Up in the morning and out to school
The teacher is teaching the Golden Rule
American History and Practical Math
You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass
Workin' your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won't leave you alone

Ring ring goes the bell
The cook in the lunchroom's ready to sell
You're lucky if you can find a seat
You're fortunate if you have time to eat
Back in the classroom, open your books
Gee but the teacher don't know how mean she looks

Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and round the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in

Drop the coin right into the slot
You've gotta hear somethin' that's really hot
With the one you love you're makin' romance
All day long you've been wantin' to dance
Feelin' the music from head to toe
Round and round and round you go

Drop the coin right into the slot
You've gotta hear somethin' that's really hot
With the one you love you're makin' romance
All day long you've been wantin' to dance
Feelin' the music from head to toe
Round and round and round you go

Hail hail rock n' roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock 'n roll
The beat of the drums
Loud 'n bold
Rock, rock, rock 'n roll
The feelin' is there body and soul

Lyrics & Music © 1957 Chuck Berry/Chess Records Inc

The Rocker/Songwriter:  The death of rock and roll legend Charles Edward Anderson Berry on 18 March 2017 marked the end of a never-to-be-repeated chapter in the history of popular music.  Berry's influence was global, as pervasive in its way as that of jazz superstar Louis Armstrong a generation before him.  In Berry's case, however, the influence was confined almost exclusively to white musicians, many of whom John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards among them –– would go on to record their own versions of his music in the 1960s, breathing new life into what had become a stalled career and earning him a fortune in royalties in the process.

Berry was born in The Ville, a middle-class black suburb of the Missouri city of St Louis, on 18 October 1926He was the fourth of six children born to a building contractor (who was also a deacon of his local Baptist church) and a school principal.  Music was an important part of his life from an early age and he performed publicly for the first time in 1941 while still a pupil at Sumner High School –– the same segregated black high school later attended by soul singer Tina Turner, jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie and tennis champion Arthur Ashe.

Berry was in his senior year at Sumner when he and some friends decided to hold up a bakery, a barber shop and a drygoods store in Kansas City, afterwards stealing a car from its driver at gunpoint in which to make their getaway.  He was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to three years in reform school, where he remained until 1947.  Unfortunately, this was not to be his last run-in with the law.  In December 1959 he was arrested again for violating the Mann Act –– a law which forbade the transportation of a minor across state lines for immoral purposes –– after hiring a fourteen year old prostitute to work as a hatcheck girl in a restaurant he owned at the time.  He was convicted of the offence but appealed his sentence on the grounds that the jury had become biased towards him as a result of racist comments made by the white judge assigned to hear his case.  Berry won his appeal, only to be convicted again in a second trial and sentenced to three years behind barsHe appealed again but this time his conviction was upheld, resulting in him serving eighteen months in a Federal penitentiary.  

He was briefly jailed for a third time in 1979 after pleading guilty to tax evasion, this time serving a four month sentence in addition to being required to perform 1000 hours of community service in the form of playing benefit concerts for charitable organizations.  He fell afoul of the law again in 1990 after being sued by 59 women who claimed he'd videotaped them using the restroom in a restaurant he'd recently purchased in the Missouri town of Wentzville.  He settled their class action suit out of court but was later charged with drug and child abuse offenses after the police raided his home and discovered 62 grams of marijuana and a videotape showing a minor using the same 'bugged' restroom.  He escaped going to jail by pleading guilty to the drug charge, receiving a suspended six month sentence on condition that he donate $5000 to a local hospital.

In October 1948 Berry married Themetta 'Toddy' Suggs, a woman he'd known for five months who would remain his spouse for lifeTwo years later, having become a father for the first time, he began playing guitar in several St Louis pick-up groups, his style primarily influenced by Texas blues musician T-Bone Walker and by his own friend and local guitar teacher Ira Harris.  (His interest in music had not waned during his time in reform school, seeing him form a vocal group which was occasionally granted permission to perform outside the institution.)  Berry continued to play in nightclubs and dancehalls, taking day jobs as a housepainter, auto factory worker and janitor to support his growing family, until he was invited to join the trio of popular blues pianist Johnnie Johnson in 1953.  (The pianist, who accompanied him on all of his most iconic recordings, unsuccessfully attempted to sue Berry in 2000, claiming that he'd co-written many of his most iconic songs without receiving credit for it.)  Johnson's band appealed to both black and white audiences, with the whites generally preferring the country tunes it added to its sets to the blues-based numbers traditionally favored by its black fans.  Berry's ability to combine these two seemingly disparate styles of music with that of his other major influence, pianist and singer Nat 'King' Cole, proved to be a winning formula.  In 1955 he was signed as a solo artist by Chess Records, a Chicago-based blues and R 'n B label seeking to expand its roster with artists who could appeal to what had suddenly become the music industry's most important demographic –– white middle-class teenagers with disposable income to spend on 45rpm records and the portable machines to play them on.  

On 21 May 1955 Berry's first single for the label –– a song called Maybellene that was an adaptation of the old country chestnut Ida Red –– was released, going on to sell in excess of one million copies and becoming an instant classic of the new style of music dubbed 'rock and roll' by pioneering New York DJ Alan FreedMaybellene became the template for much of the music Berry was to record during his 'golden era' –– a period which lasted roughly four years and saw him release a handful of songs, including Johnny B Goode, Roll Over Beethoven and Rock 'n Roll Music, that would go on to establish him as the most widely imitated rock and roll performer after Elvis Presley.  The resurgence of interest in his music, sparked by popular British Invasion acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who frequently recorded it for both LP and single releases, confirmed his status as the poet laureate of rock and roll, earning him millions of new fans and guaranteeing him a permanent place in the history of popular culture.

While Berry's talent and influence as a guitarist are generally considered to be seminal, his groundbreaking achievements as a lyricist are sometimes overlooked.  His music became instantly popular with white teenagers because it was rhythmically irresistible and crammed with catchy riffs, frequently employing a traditionally-based 'call and response' melodic line which had been a feature of black music and particularly of the blues since the arrival of the first African slaves in America during the early eighteenth century.  A song like School Days is a perfect example of Berry's unique, rhythm-based method of songwriting, with each sung line being echoed by a corresponding guitar line which mimics it exactly and makes the song virtually impossible to forget after hearing it just onceBerry was also a master when it came to matching syllables with specific musical phrases, ensuring that each accent was placed precisely where it needed to be placed to optimize a song's mnemonic impact.  This led to a seamless welding together of language and melody that's seldom been bettered by any songwriter working outside the Jewish-dominated Tin Pan Alley and Broadway traditions.
Chess Records LP, May 1957

His subject matter was equally well chosen, presenting the listener with an idealized image of American teenage life that quickly came to be considered synonymous with everything young, cool and modern not only in the minds of American teenagers but also in those of their non-American counterparts throughout the Western world.  So definitive was Berry's eternally appealing vision of a car and girl-obsessed America that Brian Wilson was able to recycle it, virtually unaltered, for the emerging white surf culture of the early 1960s, directly basing The Beach Boys' 1963 hit Surfin' USA on the riff of Berry's 1959 song Back In The USA.  (Berry won several lawsuits against white musicians, among them Wilson and John Lennon, who 'borrowed' his ideas without bothering to acknowledge their creative debt or paying him any form of financial compensation for having done so.)  He had an uncanny understanding of the tribal phenomenon that rock and roll so rapidly became, penning song after song that celebrated the lifestyles of its anthem-loving fans while celebrating the music itself as the eternally defiant antidote to all of life's troubles –– an attitude that persisted into the 1960s and still serves as the self-referencing foundation for much of the music produced by white musicians working in the genres of stadium rock and heavy metal.

It's interesting that, of all the tributes that have been paid to Berry since his death, almost none have come from black musicians or, for that matter, from black music fans.  The great irony of Berry's success was that it stemmed from his ability to understand and define a culture he was technically barred from entering at even the most superficial level during the peak of his fame in the latter half of the 1950s.  While he could write songs based on what white teenagers were experiencing in their day-to-day lives and perform them to that same white audience at sold-out concerts and inside television studios, segregation meant that he was technically barred from entering their schools or from sitting beside them in restaurants or on various forms of public transport (restrictions, it should be noted, that were not exclusively confined to southern states like Alabama and Mississippi).  Like his hero Nat 'King' Cole –– another black outsider whose music proved to be exceptionally popular with white middle class audiences –– Berry was accepted into white homes as long as he made no attempt to challenge or rise above his status as a 'harmless negro entertainer.'  His arrest and subsequent conviction for having violated the Mann Act made him a dangerous, sexually threatening negro in the eyes of the white establishment, resulting in his music vanishing from the nation's airwaves until its transatlantic-led revival in the early 1960s. 

This hypocritical attitude possibly explains Berry's difficult personality and his perpetual distrust of bookers, promoters and even of his fellow musicians.  He insisted on being paid in full in cash before he went on stage and was notorious for his refusal to rehearse, expecting the musicians he hired off the cuff to accompany him on his frequent club and concert dates to recognize his songs by their opening riffs and already have their chord progressions memorized –– behavior that did as little to endear him to diehard fans as his 1970 novelty song My Ding-A-Ling which went on to become his only #1 US single and the first #1 song to specifically refer, however coyly, to the act of masturbation.

Whatever else he was, one fact remains indisputable:  without Chuck Berry, there would be no rock music as we know it todayAlong with Elvis Presley and Little Richard, he defined an era and set the standard for everything that followed while managing to create music that will always remain, in the best sense, timeless

Click HERE to read an article about the controversial life and times of CHUCK BERRY by journalist KATE JACKSON published in the online archive of UK newspaper The Sun.  You can also click HERE to listen to more great music by CHUCK BERRY on YouTube.

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

You might also enjoy:
ROCKERS & MODS #1: Gene Vincent
ROCKERS & MODS #3: Johnny Burnette & His Rock 'n Roll Trio
WATCH THAT MAN Remembering David Bowie  

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