The year was 2002, I was working as a Security Screener at the airport. One night I was gently trying to convince a five year old girl to place her baby doll on the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” I told her, “If you put your baby on the conveyer belt, I promise you she’ll come out the other side safe and happy.” She wasn’t budging, she maintained the tight grip on her doll and eyed the x-ray machine suspiciously. In the meantime, the mother was placing her items on the conveyor belt and fussing with her 6 month old baby.
I almost had the little girl convinced to put her doll through the x-ray machine, when from the corner of my eye I caught sight of something odd. It was the baby in it’s baby carrier disappearing into the x-ray machine! With cat-like ninja reflexes, I snatched the baby back from the jaws of the x-ray machine. I handed the baby back to the mother, saying “No, maam, not your baby, your daughter’s baby doll.“ Very casually she replied, “Oh, I thought it was kinda funny that you were asking me to put my baby through the x-ray machine.”
Hours later, still stunned by the baby in the x-ray machine incident, I was screening passengers that had set off the magnetometer. As I ran the security wand over one particular passenger, it dawned on me, it was the one and only Chuck Berry! I fought to maintain my composure while a Chuck Berry guitar riff began playing loudly in my head. Standing in front of me was one of my rock ‘n’ roll heroes, one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Maybellene’s and Johnny B. Goode’s daddy, the man who told Beethoven to roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news!
Cool as a cucumber, I acknowledged I knew who he was by telling him I loved his music and that I was a huge fan of his. He gave me a small smile as he collected his items. And just like that, the day had gone from being “the day a child had almost been run through an x-ray machine” to “the day I had a brush with rock ‘n’ roll greatness“. As Chuck Berry walked away to his gate, his Cajun-tinged song, “You Never Can Tell” began playing in my head. “C’est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show, you never can tell…”.
Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. As a young man, Chuck Berry developed a passion for poetry and blues and learned to play the guitar very well. So well, in fact, that by the age of 28 he had managed to take over the Johnny Johnson Combo and make it his very own Chuck Berry Trio. When asked about his guitar style, Chuck claims modestly his guitar style was a mix of T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan and Charlie Christian.
One thing Chuck realized early on was that Black audiences liked a wide variety of music and he went about trying to reproduce as much popular music as possible. He recorded a demo tape and presented it to Leonard Chess who liked one song in particular, a “hillbilly” tune named “Ida Red”. The title was changed to “Maybellene”, rerecorded and released in July 1955. “Maybellene” skyrocketed up the charts and the rest is rock ’n’ roll history. In retrospect, you can see the huge influence of that song. I invite you to listen to the impressive 24-bar solo in the middle of the song. Fantastic!
The Chuck Berry hits started coming at a mind-boggling pace over the next few years. To say that Chuck Berry’s musical output in the ensuing years as a recording artist was productive is an understatement. In the short span of three years, Chuck Berry recorded his biggest hits and most influential music. A majority of these songs were on the fast road to becoming all-time rock ’n’ roll classics, rock ‘n’ roll blueprints for many generations of rock ‘n‘ rollers waiting on the sidelines.
The following songs are just some of the songs Chuck created during this very creative timeframe: “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “School Days”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Rock And Roll Music”, “Guitar Boogie”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Carol”, “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Back In The U.S.A.”. All Gems! But my all time favorite Chuck Berry song was the Gem, “Johnny B. Goode”. So much so, that I painstaking learned to play it on guitar using a Hal Leonard guitar instruction book. “Go, Gonzo, Go…”
Amidst legal problems that would have Chuck Berry serving time in federal prison for offenses under the Mann Act, he continued recording and releasing music in the first part of the 60s. The standouts were, “Let It Rock”, “Bye Bye Johnny” and “I’m Talking About You”. And as Chuck served his time, his momentum continued with The Beatles, Rolling Stones and a host of other English bands covering his music. Take a gander at early Rolling Stone albums and you’ll see it looks like a Chuck Berry song list. British teenagers were discovering his songs and making them hits all over again.
Released from prison in 1963, Chuck returned with a batch of hits he had penned in prison. One of the first songs recorded was another one of my all time favorite Chuck Berry tunes, the Gem, “Nadine (Is That You)”. I love‘s Chuck’s wordplay and the imagery the lyrics paint, “As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street, I shouted to the driver, “Hey, conductor, you must slow down, I think I see her, please let me off the bus”. Nadine, honey, is that you?…” The remainder of the hits were “No Particular Place To Go”, Promised Land”, “You Never Can Tell”, “I Want To Be Your Driver” and “Tulane”.
Though the hits were not as plentiful as in the 50s and 60s, Chuck Berry did an admirable job changing with the times as he continued touring and presenting his brand of rock ’n’ roll into the 70s. His last two hits to chart were the 1972 live recordings of “My Ding-A-Ling” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” which appeared on “The London Chuck Berry Sessions“ album. “My Ding-A-Ling“ was a double-entendre novelty song and “Reelin‘ And Rockin’” was a reworking of his 14 year old song, only a lot racier. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of “London Chuck Berry Sessions“, buy it immediately and without hesitation. The price alone is worth hearing the instrumental Gem, “London Berry Blues”. The song incorporates all of Chuck Berry’s riffs and licks in grand style.
I remember visiting family in New Mexico in 1978 and going to watch “American Hot Wax” at the small theater in town with my brother Gilbert and my cousin Danny. The movie was a biopic about fame rock ’n’ roll disc jockey Alan Freed. The film had Chuck Berry appearing as himself during the concert portion of the film. I remember my brother and I being impressed by the energy of his performance and his showmanlike flair as he “duck walked” across the stage while playing his Gibson. We left the theater singing, “Reelin’ And Rockin’”.
Just last month, I stumbled across a very rare copy of Chuck’s “Rock It” CD at a used CD store. “Rock It” was originally released in 1979 on Atco Records and it was Chuck Berry’s last studio release. Talk about a rare find! I had only seen a very bad copy of it in LP form at a yard sale many years back – the cover was faded and weather worn and the album warped. So, I purchased the CD and popped it into my car’s CD player for my drive home. I was pleasantly surprised. It had all the classic Chuck Berry riffs, solos and brilliant wordplay. The standout cuts were “Move It” and “Wudent Me”.
In 1986, a year after being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Chuck published, “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography”. The following year, he filmed “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll”. The first half of the film serves as a rock documentary and the second half presents a live concert celebrating Chuck’s 60th birthday with special guests, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James and Julian Lennon. There’s an edge, a tension to documentary as we witness standoffs between headstrong Chuck and musical director Keith Richards.
This year, at the age of 83, Chuck Berry played Las Vegas at the Viva Las Vegas 13 Rockabilly Festival at the Orleans Hotel. Opening up with “Roll Over Beethoven”, the living legend then ran through his rock classics, stopping long enough for a breather and poking fun at his age. “I’ve got 270 songs I wrote myself and I can’t think of one of them. Anybody know any Chuck Berry hits?” With his hit songs about fast automobiles, young love and raucous music, his influence on rock ‘n‘ roll has been immense.
Chuck Berry is probably the most important artist in helping to define early rock ’n’ roll. He was a triple threat: the best songwriter, best guitarist and best performer. Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Dion, Bob Seger and countless others have recorded his songs. “All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” says Bob Seger. He has been referred to as “the poet laureate of rock and the Shakespeare of roll”. Jerry Lee Lewis’ mama even had a say in the matter. “You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.” I second John Lennon’s sentiment… “Don’t give me any sophisticated crap, give me Chuck Berry.”
(DVD) “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll” (1987)
(CDs) The Great Twenty-Eight (1982) and Chuck Berry: The Anthology (2000)
(Songs) Maybellene, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Too Much Monkey Business, School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Rock And Roll Music, Guitar Boogie, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, Carol, Memphis Tennessee, Back In The U.S.A., Let It Rock, Nadine (Is That You), No Particular Place To Go, You Never Can Tell, I Want To Be Your Driver, Tulane, and London Berry Blues