The Legend and the Legacy
THE world is waking up to the news the legendary…
guitarist and singer Chuck Berry has died. It is the first ‘big’ musician death of 2017 and one that has shocked social media. I guess there was a certain inevitability to the news: he is in his one-hundredth decade of life and has lived a long and rich time. That being said, it is always sad when any great musician dies. It makes one think about what they have given and what they leave behind. I know Berry was working on another album mooted for this year – I wonder how much we will see and if he ever completed it. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry grew up in a family of six. Growing up in The Ville (a middle-class area; his father, a sermon, and his family not really fitting into that mould) it was a beginning that would have seemed odd for a working-class black family. Berry performed his first gig in 1941 – whilst a student at high school, we would hear that first burst of talent and promise emerge. His early life was filled with events and troubles. In 1944, he was arrested for armed robbery after holding up three shops. He also carjacked a passing motorist. Berry recalls it differently but the event led him to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa. Berry was released on his twenty-first birthday but, whilst in prison, did form a singing group and focus on music. By 1950, Berry was supporting his family by taking various jobs; he worked as a factory assistant and, two years previous, welcomed their first child, Darlin Ingrid Berry. Supporting his family through the decade, the new family able to afford a nice white-brick place, Berry cut his teeth working in local bands in St. Louis – as a way to earn extra money and foster his passion for singing. That legendary guitar sound was beginning to take shape. Like all those in the Blues oeuvre; Berry began borrowing licks and styles from some of the greats. Learning techniques from T-Bone Walker and seeing the fantastic musicians coming through at the time: a rich and fascinating experience for a hungry young artist.
After performing with the Johnny Jonson Trio throughout 1953; Berry was learning Country songs and sounds: quite foreign and new to a mainly black audience. One of the first landmark decisions came when Berry travelled to Chicago in May 1955. There, he met Muddy Walters who put him in touch with Chess Records’ Leonard Chess. Berry’s adaptation of Ida Red showed he was able to tackle Blues and Rock with aplomb – reinventing the song and showing a fine and agile talent. Maybellene is the first real big hit for Berry and went on to sell over a million copies. It reached number one on Billboard magazine’s R&B charts. In June 1956, Roll Over Beethoven reached number twenty-nine and further showcases Berry’s popularity and ability. Throughout the late-1950s, Berry scored multiple chart successes and would perform the greatest of them all – the fantastic and hugely influential, Johnny B. Goode. That song along almost reinvented Rock ‘n’ Roll. A young Elvis Presley would have been listening – you can hear a lot of Chuck Berry in his most empathic moments. We can say Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel shattered music and changed everything – the same can be said for Johnny B. Goode. I am hearing tributes saying how music would not be the same without Berry. Big names from The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. What was most notable about Berry at the time (late-1950s to early-1960s) was the audiences he was bringing in. Being a black artist in America at that time would not have been easy – not that it is now, to be honest! Back then, a lot of Black Blues artists would have been playing to a largely black popularity. Berry managed to transcend racial barriers and reach a white, predominantly affluent audience. Were it not for that widescreen appeal, many argue Berry would not be in the position he was – and able to reach so many people. Certainty, that time was influential when it came to his future career: people were taking notice and starting to fall for this shining, audacious musician.
Despite acclaim and opportunities, Berry was still falling foul of the law. By 1961, Berry was back in jail: this time for eighteen months. He was imprisoned as a result of sexual intercourse with a fourteen-year-old girl. It seemed like he was losing direction and reverting back to his old ways. Unsurprisingly, his popularity waned during this time. When he was released in 1963, he was able to assimilate back into the music community. British Invasion bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were turning on to Berry’s music and employing some of his components in their best tracks. Certainly, the early Blues sounds of both bands can be traced to Berry’s earliest work. Legendary Surf band Beach Boys incorporated elements of Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen melody in their hit, Surfin’ U.S.A. Between 1964-1965, Berry released eight singles and that prefaced his most successful period to date: from 1966 to 1969 he released five albums and was a major hit. Being Chuck Berry, things would never run smooth. His performances at the time were defined by erratic behaviour and unreliability. It seemed even musical acclaim and security was not enough to tame a recidivist. No hit singles came from his 1970 album Back Home so a rethink was needed for Berry. With increasingly frequent prison stays and bad behaviour; there was a need to focus and level an artist who was threatening to ruin his career. The novelty song My Ding-a-Ling was released in 1972 – it was his first and only number-one single. That song, despite ‘alternative’ versions and misunderstandings by students at the time, did put him back in the public consciousness. Throughout the 1970s, Berry was touring solidly and bringing his trusty Gibson guitar with him. Whilst Berry was rehearsed and professional on record, the same could not be said of his live performances. There was a series of rotating musicians playing alongside him; sloppy gigs and out-of-tune songs.
Rock It was Berry’s last album of the 1970s (1979) and was not to be followed until last year’s Chuck – that will be released this year. It is perhaps fitting that an album after such a gap would be posthumous. What I mean is it is such an event on its own: Berry’s death is the showman and legend trying to outdo himself. I am glad he managed to record that album as it would be a shame were it half-complete. I thought he was going to record another album (after that) but maybe I’m wrong. Despite his controversies, troubles and prison spells – you cannot deny the legacy and influence of Chuck Berry. Tracks like Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B. Goode updated Blues and Rock to speak to new audiences. Reaching both black and white listeners; more accessible and cool to young/high school-age people – broadening it to new age groups and demographics. His natural showmanship and spritzing guitar solos resonated with musicians at the time and, in turn, led them to create some of the world’s finest music. We can debate all we like but The Rolling Stones and The Beatles would not be as renowned as they are were it not for Chuck Berry. He kept the traditions of Blues masters alive but modernised their templates. That swagger, incredible electric riffs and detailed songwriting was a major reason why he was taken to heart. Berry himself explained the reason he became popular was the meshing of white and black cultures. In the period before his rise – the 1950s especially – there was compartmentalisation and musical segregation. Black stations would play black music; white stations white music – genres and artists those races preferred and were brought up on. Berry helped smash such ridiculous barriers and assimilated the people – his music touched all races and creeds; that, in turn, deeply inspired the big acts of the 1960s. Chuck Berry is seen as one of the most iconic guitarists. His songs are the stuff of legend and his perfect music will never be forgotten. It is sad he is no longer with us but his influence will continue to pass down the generations. I have provided a closing playlist: one that brings together Berry’s best and most enduring tracks. As we mourn today we should remember a man who, in spite of hardships and troubles, he managed to give music greater relevance, genius and influence…
FEW other people have.