If you’d asked me in high school, in the early 70’s how much I liked Chuck Berry’s music, I might have asked who the hell Chuck Berry was. Maybe not. I may have known Johnny B. Goode. Maybe not. But the 50’s revival in popular culture through films like American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days, didn’t let us forget for long. Chuck Berry, he was the guy with that Number 1 hit “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. So yeah, I might have known who he was, but I certainly didn’t know how important he was.
I know there are legions of Elvis fans out there, those who still worship the ground he walked on, who make their pilgrimages to Graceland. There is an industry built on Elvis impersonators. We’ve been sold the mythology of Elvis bringing gospel, country and rhythm and blues together and molding them into something called rock and roll, and somehow managing to sell it to a white mainstream popular culture.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s hooey. Elvis, ultimately, was simply a salesman. He had the hips, but Berry had the licks. Elvis depended on great guitar pickers like Scotty Moore and James Burton to carry the show, but Chuck wrote ’em, played ’em and sang ’em all by his lonesome.
If we all dragged out our collections of Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and Hollies records, we’d be listening to guys influenced by two important artists–Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers. You have to be able to play the licks, and sing close harmonies. Yes there are plenty of other influences in there too, including Elvis, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, but foremost was Berry. Listen to With the Beatles; it’s riddled with Berry riffs. Keith Richard didn’t become Keith Richards until he mastered Chuck Berry. Dave Davies? Same. The British Invasion may have been British, but it floated to America on Riffs by Chuck.
I was fortunate to see Chuck Berry in 1980. He played Bumbershoot in 1980 and 1981. Famously he unplugged Steve Fossen, bassist for Heart, from his amp in ’81. I didn’t see that show. No it was a more low-key affair, with Chuck playing the Arena. It was a free show. But the highlight for me was taking my baby son, hauling him around in a backpack to see the master at work. That’s right, Patrick Galactic’s first concert was with a brown-eyed handsome man.
It was a great performance in front of a small crowd, and I’ve never forgotten.
Yes, I do have some Chuck Berry in my record collection. I have a re-pressing of his first record, After School Session. It includes “School Days,” “Havana Moon” and the ground-breaking “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” It was a song a bit ahead of its time on race issues. I also have a couple of live albums from the ’60’s. Live at the Fillmore Auditoriuum from 1967 is pretty much a blues album, and mostly misses his big hits. The really interesting aspect of this record is he is backed up by a very new to the Bay Area Steve Miller Band. Finally, I have a re-issue of 1978’s Live in Concert. It was originally issued as a 2 X LP set of his 1969 concert in Toronto. Unfortunately, my 1982 budget pressing only has half the songs. I’ll need to fix that.
It’s sad to see Chuck pass away on the wind. Even in his 80’s, it’s said, he would make his way to the clubs in St. Louis and take his turn at Blueberry Hill. He was not taken from us suddenly, and Berry lived a long life. But it’s hard not to think the ranks of rock and roll are little thinner today, and that the party in rock and roll heaven is a little more fun.