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Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry, the great pioneering, motorvatin’ rock ‘n’ roll innovator!
We’ve just learned today — Saturday, March 18, 2017 — about the passing of the great pioneering, motorvatin’ rock ‘n’ roll innovator, Chuck Berry, age 90, at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri, some forty miles or so west of his birthplace in St. Louis.
Berry has been a longtime Night Flight fave and he made many appearances over the years on various “Night Flight” episodes, including this full-length hour-long episode of “Night Flight,” originally airing on November 16, 1984, featuring our “Take Off to Rock Legends,” which included performers and recording artists who had a profound influence on popular music over the decades.
Here he is performing his 1958 hit, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” from the numerous times we’ve featured his live concert performances from the “London Rock ‘N’ Roll Show,” a concert held at Wembley Stadium on August 5, 1972:
At the time, Berry was enjoying major chart success in the U.S., the United Kingdom and other countries for his naughty re-write of a Dave Bartholomew 1952 novelty tune, “My Ding-a-Ling” — it was #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — a song that he’d originally recorded in yet another re-write as “My Tambourine” on his 1968 album From St. Louie to Frisco.
“My Ding-A-Ling” surely isn’t typical of the types of tunes Chuck Berry wrote and played during his long career as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s revered elder statesmen, however, and if you’re going to spend any time remembering him for the music he left as part of his historic legacy of 20th Century recordings, you certainly have dozens of much better songs to choose from, including — and in no particular order of preference, “Maybellene,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell),” “Roll Over Beethoven,” Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Almost Grown,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Carol,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Little Queenie,” “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land,” the Christmas song “Run Run Rudolph” and so many more.
(photo by Bob Gruen)
Berry repertoire of self-penned hits — particularly those early ones for the Chicago-based R&B and blues label Chess Records — helped define the rock ‘n’ roll genre in the 1950s and 60s, influencing literally everyone who folllowed, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys (who ripped off his tune “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their 1953 hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and were forced to share the publishing and songwriting credits with him), and hundreds and hundreds of lesser bands who sprouted up all around the world, inspired by Berry’s music.
His distinctively brash, almost rhythmic guitar picking style was clearly influenced by the work of ’40s R&B star Louis Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan, jazz picker Charlie Christian and bluesman T-Bone Walker. Berry took their styles — — his signature was a double-string bending lick, usually played on a hollow-body amplified Gibson electric guitar — and created his own, which was then copied by thousands and thousands of guitar players thereafter, down to the smallest gesture.
Berry didn’t just play rock ‘n’ roll songs, though: he excelled in the R&B, blues and country idioms too, just like many of his earliest contemporaries (including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis).
Berry’s over-the-top bold personality was evident in nearly every clearly-enunciated clever lyrics, always delivered with a droll sense of humor, whether it was about a car or a girl or high-school life, teen dances, or whatever the subject matter happened to be, and his memorable smile belied a simple truth that Berry truly enjoyed playing music for the people, and their energy fed back to the stage in invisible jolts of electric awesomeness that kept him motorvatin’ along.
Berry was the consummate onstage performer, memorably inventing a flashy stage move called the “Duck Walk” that drove concertgoers wild. Crouching low, and playing while he hopped across the stage on one foot, he put on what was described as an astounding stage show, and most of the time he seemed content to play his many best-selling hits, which thrilled audiences for decades.
Berry also duck-walked his way through numerous black & white 1950s teensploitation movies like Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), hamming his way through scenes in which he didn’t appear to be acting.
In January 1986, Berry was among the first round of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry — but always “Chuck” — was born on October 18, 1926, growing up in the middle-class Ville neighborhood on the north side of the highly segregated city of St. Louis, Missouri, where originally his first musical interest was actually singing, inspired by Nat “King” Cole’s smooth vocal prowess.
He first picked up a guitar and learned to play as a teenager, swiftly picking up basic chords and song structure by playing along with the blues and country-western music he heard on the radio, and then learning some of the more difficult chords and techniques from his friend Ira Harris.
Berry made one of his first public appearances at Sumner High School, playing Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues,” a tune that set school officials on edge because it was pretty edgy for the time.
Playing music wasn’t initially enough of a distraction to keep him out of trouble, however. At age eighteen, after being caught attempting an armed robbery with two friends, he was arrested in a stolen car and sentenced to ten years.
He served three years at a Missouri prison, a facility that wasn’t much more than a reform school for juvenile delinquents, with bars on the windows. While incarcerated, he sang in a gospel group and played jump blues in a prison band.
(photo by Jean-Marie Périer)
When Berry was released, he ended up working on an assembly line at a GM Fisher body plant.
He also studied hairdressing and cosmetology at night school and for years would supplement his income during these early years in a series of factory, custodial and hairdressing jobs, working as a beautician (as you can see from his photos, his always liked to look good, keeping his mustache trimmed and slicking back his hair).
Music was always a part of his life, though, no matter what kind of day job he held down during the late Forties and early ’50s. By 1952, after first playing in a club band who played nearly every type of music — everything from blues to calypso to jazzy ballads — he ended up with a steady gig at the East St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club, playing with the Sir John’s Trio, which featured legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson.
(photo by Jean-Marie Périer)
Soon, he and Johnson and a drummer, Ebby Hardy, were forming their own trio, and in just a few years they were the top club band in the greater St. Louis area, in the heartland of the country.
In May of 1955, Berry came to Chicago to check out the city’s club scene there and he’d hoped to land a recording contract with the local black-operated label Vee Jay, but when that didn’t work, he began to look elsewhere, and it was through blues great Muddy Waters that he first met Leonard Chess, who listened to a demo tape Berry had made.
Chess liked Berry’s songs, and one in particular, a country-blues sounding tune called “Ida Red,” which was basically a re-write of a Bob Wills tune from 1938. Chess suggested to Berry that he change it to “Maybellene,” and speed it up a little, which Berry agreed to, and after Chess sent that revved-up new recording to legendary deejay Alan Freed (who also added himself as a co-writer as part of their ongoing arrangement), Berry quite suddenly found himself with his first Top Ten hit in the summer of ’55, spiraling to #1 on the R&B chart while also taying on the pop charts for eleven weeks, cresting at #5.
Berry followed this first jolt of success with extensive tours and the hits just kept coming over the next half-decade, crossing over and charting on multiple listings.
Berry and Jagger (photo by Ethan Russell)
His biggest hits — “School Day” (#3 pop, #1 R&B, 1957), “Rock & Roll Music” (#8 pop, #6 R&B, 1957), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1958), “Johnny B. Goode” (#8 pop, #5 R&B, 1958), “Carol” (#18 pop, #9 R&B) and “Almost Grown” (#32 pop, #3 R&B) — provided Berry with lots of paying gigs on the late 50s club and concert circuit, and he started appearing in those early rock ‘n’ roll films — at a time when most teens were still going to movie theaters because they didn’t have a TV set at home — and by the dawn of the ’60s, he was already a legendary figure.
His influence on the British invasion bands — the first, second third and all subsequent waves of them — cannot be underestimated. Many of the Beatles and Stones and the Yardbird’s earliest songs were frequently Chuck Berry covers, many of them hits on their own.
Berry continued to ride his 50s and 60s success all through the ensuing decades, touring constantly, but recording more sporadically in the 1970s and ’80s. That he would have a hit (his only #1 pop hit!) with the salacious little throwaway ditty “My Ding-A-Ling” in ’72 remains baffling to this Berry fan.
Chuck Berry performs ‘Memphis Tennessee’ at the BBC Television Theatre, London on Wednesday March 29, 1972.
He closed out the decade by appearing in American Hot Wax, and releasing one of his last albums, 1979’s Rockit.
By the middle of the 1980s, Berry was performing on auto-pilot, flying to the venue and usually bringing with him his Gibson guitar but using a local pick-up band in whatever city he happened to be playing in.
Musicians everywhere knew how to play his songs, and so he rarely even rehearsed, and would often show up just before it was time to hit the stage, playing the hits and then grabbing his pay (in cash!) for the allotted time he’d contractually agreed to play before heading off to his hotel room for a quiet night alone, then getting up the next morning to do it all over again.
One of the best examples of what his life had become was the Taylor Hackford-directed 1987 music documentary/tribute called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, which chronicled Berry’s 60th birthday concert, an all-star affair held in 1986 at St. Louis’ Fox Theater.
The film features some great performances by Berry along with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (who served as musical director on the project), Bruce Springsteen and others, and around this same time he published his memoirs, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.
Back at home in St. Louis, he performed monthly at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, and opened venues of his own, including Club Bandstand (which welcomed all attendees, regardless of race) and, years later, a country club-styled venue called Berry Park.
Berry collapsed on stage in the middle of a New Year’s Day 2011 concert at Chicago’s Congress Theater, although he’d battled back and last year he even announced that he would even release a new album’s worth of recordings in 2017, his first in 38 years.
Titled, simply, Chuck, the album is due out on June 16, 2017, on Dualtone Records.