When one of the DJ’s on SiriusXM announced recently that Chuck Berry had turned 89, my first thought was, “Can he still do the duck walk?”
Given some further thought since then, the occasion of Charles Anderson Edward Berry’s natal anniversary left me pondering the impact of a musician who may have had more influence on rock and roll than any other. Not only did he write and record what some consider to be the first rock song, and made some of the classic records in the genre, his influence on guitar players was immense.
Berry’s early career in many ways encapsulates rock’s synthesis. He sang church music as a child — so did Elvis — his first public performance otherwise (in a high school talent show) was a blues number, he learned his instrument from a jazz guitarist, but was also influenced by country and western.
His life also recapitulates much of the African-American experience in our country in the 20th Century. He grew up in a segregated enclave of St. Louis, Mo., and never saw a white person until age three. His stints in prison — a total of four years by age 27, for armed robbery and a Mann Act violation — were the result of acts that might been adjudicated differently, had he been white. (He was 17 and a first-time offender at the time of the robbery.)
Berry’s first appearance on the music charts was influenced by a couple institutions important in the development of rock and roll: Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters and Chess Records, the Windy City label that helped popularize rhythm and blues and soul music. The former referred him to the latter, and the result was “Maybellene,” the 1955 single that many music historians point to as the first rock song. (Interestingly, it was a rewrite of a country tune.)
After that, the hits just kept on comin’; during that year and the next six, Berry had at least one — usually three or four — songs in the Top 100. And they were some of rock’s most memorable tunes: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Nadine,” to name a half-dozen.
His songs included some of the most memorable lines in rock music, too: “Cause my uncle took the message and wrote it on the wall,” from “Memphis”; “But he could play a guitar just like ringin’ a bell,” from “Johnny”; “Cadillac lookin’ like it sittin’ still, I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill”; “I got the rockin’ pneumonia I need a shot of rhythm and blues,” from “Roll Over Beethoven.” (As I write this, I’m listening to The 20th Century Masters version of Berry’s best.)
Berry’s songs have been covered by a lot of rock bands, mostly straight up by the Beatles and Beach Boys, popped by Johnny Rivers, Prog Rocked by Electric Light Orchestra, etc. His lyrics influenced a lot of songwriters — John Fogerty pretty much liftrd one of his lines, “Rounding third he was headed for home It was a brown eyed handsome man,” in “Centerfield.”
And as Bob Seger wrote, “All Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” His guitar picking was tremendously influential on The Music — the opening licks of “Johnny B.” and “Roll Over” are instantly recognizable to just about everyone who’s been paying attention. One of the first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Berry was introduced at his induction ceremony by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard, who said, “ … I’ve lifted every lick he ever played. This is the man that started it all!”
Curiously, for all his influence, though, Berry had only one song at No. 1 on the annual Top 100 — 1972’s “My Ding-A-Ling,” a novelty song, really. (He had several No. 1 hits on the R&B charts, though.) “Sweet Little Sixteen” hit No. 2, and “School Day” was No. 3; “Maybellene,” the one started it all, was No. 5 in ’55.
Berry’s new releases, and his earlier hits (as covers and first-time-around “oldies”) were among the songs that were on the AM radio when I started listening to The Music in the early 1960s. “Nadine” sticks in my mind as perhaps the first I heard, in 1961; that was one of three Top 25 hits he had that year, the others being classics, too: “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell.”
I saw Berry in 1970, on the Sunday bill of the Iola (Wis.) rock festival. He was backed by one of the Madison-area regular bands — Django, I think was their name — and yes, he did the duck walk.
(Like most of the acts at that ill-fated event — Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, etc. — his performance was for me fogged by an evil combination of bad chemicals, some of them probably occupational. I silk-screened t-shirts for the festival workers, and spent the overnight before the event started breathing paint fumes in a closed attic.)
According to Wikipedia, Berry still performs, and was touring as recently as 2008 — at 10 years beyond the Biblical “four score and 12” in age. So, a belated happy birthday, Chuck — and whether or not you can still duck walk and play the guitar at the same time, for sure take a bow. Those of us who love The Music owe you a debt of gratitude.