He was the father of rock and roll.
Oh, don't talk to me about Bill Haley. Boomers were barely conscious at the time "Rock Around The Clock" was a hit, if they were alive at all. And Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were vastly influential, especially in the U.K., but the progenitor who pushed it over the top, made rock a staple, was Chuck Berry.
Not that we had any idea who that was either.
But we knew the songs.
"Tutti Frutti" was already in the rearview mirror.
But not only did the Beatles cover "Rock And Roll Music" and "Roll Over Beethoven"…
But the Beach Boys ripped Chuck off for their gargantuan hit "Surfin' U.S.A.," which was really "Sweet Little Sixteen."
Chuck's got a bad reputation. As being an ungrateful SOB who demanded cash upfront and played with unrehearsed pickup bands. Keith Richards tried to give him a victory lap with that movie, but thereafter the Glimmer Twin testified as to Chuck's bad behavior and I'm not sure if Berry's reputation ever recovered. You usually only get one shot at a second chance.
But you've got to cut the guy a break, he was there at the beginning!
He was punk before punk. As in he did it his own way with the basics, with no trappings. Every band in a garage owes a debt to Chuck Berry.
And for years the road was a cash business. Even at this late date if you haven't been ripped off by a promoter, you're not in the business.
And until Peter Grant flipped the script, the act got the short end of the stick, the promoter made all the money.
And it wasn't until the seventies that sound systems were any good, people basically cheered over the music, did it make any difference whether the band was tight, it was more about the experience, being there, in the presence of a renegade. That's right, once upon a time rock and roll was dangerous.
But that time is long gone.
Don't hate Chuck Berry. The truth is most performers are mercurial jerks. Do you know how hard it is to make it? DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO WRITE A HIT SONG?
When everybody else was using the usual suspects, Chuck composed his own hits. That's the mark of a genius, when you can channel greatness out of thin air.
So by time the British Invasion happened, Chuck was mostly done, he only ended up having one more hit, the novelty "My Ding-A-Ling." But at least that's more hits than today's classic rock acts manage to eke out.
And talk about influence…
ELO's cover of "Roll Over Beethoven" jump-started their career.
And Brian Wilson testifies about the Four Freshmen, the vocal groups, but the band from Hawthorne, California was not a cappella, it needed a soundtrack, and not only were they influenced by Chuck Berry, as I stated above, they ripped him off.
So this is not the twenty first century. Wherein acts have hits and then fade into obscurity along with their music.
And it's certainly not the twenty first century where everything is niche. Berry's hits were not only huge, they've sustained! Even little kids want to know if Maybellene will be true. And "Johnny B. Goode" is a bar band staple.
We know all his songs by heart. Even though most of us were not around when they dominated the hit parade.
And he was a black man in a white man's world. And he refused to accept second-class status. Chuck Berry was a beacon, an artist, who felt if he walked into the wilderness following his own muse the people would come with him.
And they did.
So at this point they die and we shrug. After all, Mr. Berry was ninety and no one lives forever.
But the truth is an era is disappearing in front of our very eyes. One in which experimentation was in music, not tech. One in which people were enthralled by the radio, not their mobile handset. One in which there was television, but if you really wanted to know what was going on you listened to the radio.
And the fuel was rock and roll.
And it was a big tent. Didn't matter how you looked, attitude was key, and Berry had that in spades. Along with talent and inspiration, what a concept.
It was simpler back then. The lightning bolt hit and you tried to capture it in a bottle, get it down on wax, distribute it all over the country, will it into a hit. It was less a battle plan than a skirmish, we were developing it as we went along.
To the point where the highest goal in America is to be a rock star.
People label bankers and techies and athletes, winners in all walks of life, rock stars. It means not only are you rich and successful, but that you're doing it your own way, beholden to no one, forging your own path.
Chuck Berry was there first.
In those days Little Richard was the raw unbridled power of Rock n Roll and Chuck Berry was the poet, innovator, and lyricist. Songs like Memphis Tennessee and Too Much Monkey Business, which weren't household names, displayed his gift with creating a picture while still rockin.
He affected us all, and we all played his songs in every garage band we were in as did the bigger names you mentioned. That's a sign of respect in both environments.
In the UK in 56 Bill Haley was the perverted uncle with the kiss curl. I saw him live. Visually, he was awfully dissapointing – and expensive — the ticket was the price of two 78 RPM's. But his band swung that night in the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road.
Chuck Berry was the teddy boys delight. A manevelent immaculate spiv who strutted for us and wrote the words that gave us hope and escape.
Presley, for a while, and Johnnie Ray gave us emotion. Chuck Berry gave us everything. As did, for me, Eddie Cochran.
Andrew Loog Oldham
He moved mountains so Marvin could see. Paved paths that Micheal moonwalked on. Laid the foundation for Run DMC and made The Beatles and Stones look like copy cats. But in the end he is simply the greatest of all time!! RIP Chuck.
Robert Ritchie / Kid Rock
The first two records I ever bought when I was 14 or 15 were "Maybellene" by Chuck and "Ain't That A Shame" by Fats. They remain personal heroes and favorites along with Jimmy Reed and my all time favorite Ray Charles.
You're right about Bill Haley, one listen to original "Shake, Rattle & Roll" by Joe Turner says it all. Bill Haley & the Comets owe their limited success to "Blackboard Jungle" using "Rock Around the Clock" the film and to one of the greatest, A&R men and producers, Milt Gabler at Decca.
Chuck Berry was great, perhaps the greatest. He wrote great POP songs in the early days of Rock & Roll. His only rival in that respect was Otis Blackwell, " Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," "Return to Sender," for Elvis; "Fever" for Little Willie John, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless", for Jerry Lee Lewis, "Handy Man for Jimmy James, "Hey Little Girl" for Dee Clark and more.
As a performer few could come close to Chuck. But, Little Richard was incredible live and for all his 250 pounds, Fats Domino could move and pump that piano across stage with amazing grace. Jerry Lee Lewis; also amazing. They're about all of the great ones from those early days, still alive and hopefully kicking.
Sam Cooke, James Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Hank Ballard, Tony Williams of the Platters and one, not yet inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Ivory Joe Hunter, who I regard as the missing link between Country and R&B with songs he wrote and recorded like, "I Almost Lost My Mind" and "Since I Met You Baby".
Also, lest not forget Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who together wrote and often produced some of the greatest early Rock & Roll records ever.
"Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live Rock & Roll
The best of the drum is loud and bold"
I'm getting old too; relax you're just a kid.
P.S. Sorry, typo Jimmy Jones who had not only Otis' "Handy Man, but, I believe self penned hit, "Good Timin'.
I was there Bob .. Backed him up once here in Dallas (pick-up band). Yes he was a rough "customer" and expected you to know all his stuff. He would take the stage and immediately start playing … You had to catch up. Backed up Jimmy Reed too. Same deal except Jimmy was a heavy drinker and his wife had to shout lyrics to him sometimes. Yes, I was there, and it was wonderful to be a very small part of the beginning. Brother Steve cut an album with Chuck on Mercury Records in the very beginning of his career. Bud Miller
And when you listened to the radio at our age Bob you didn't know the singer was black or white or Latino. It was all about the music
"That's the mark of a genius, when you can channel greatness out of thin air."
Truer words… roll over indeed.
I'm just sitting here reading the news. Amen Bob. Amen.
All such a walk down memory lane, and all so true. Plus I still have to laugh at how many stations didn't play "My Ding-A-Ling." I did, and no one complained, and no visit from Franks Chicken Company (FCC).
Great hail hail rock n roll
Michael J. Lembo, Jr.
I love your honesty.
That we STILL have Richard, Fats, and Jerry Lee is miraculous, but today changed the landscape forever.
One of the highlights of my life was when my band backed up Mr Berry in Roanoke, VA in 1979. We were 19. He showed up 5 minutes before his set & said this sentence to me as he took the stage: “Listen to my intros to get the keys.” (None were the same as on the records). It was a blast and the next morning my mother cornered him in the hotel cafe and asked him how I did. “Ma’am, your son plays pretty good for a white boy.”
– Billy Straus
Don't forget the famous guitar lick Chuck Berry invented that EVERY guitarist to this day knows and has played more times than they'd like to admit.
It's the foundation of every blues/rock pentatonic guitar solo….
As I’m sure you know— early in his career, Chuck was swindled out of a good chunk of his writing/publishing. That probably explains why he became the ‘SOB’ that he was thereafter. Can you blame him?
Spot on Bob. Yep Chuck was the first.
Bob…..Brilliant……….I was just having a conversation with a friend and we both said, "Chuck Berry was the true father of rock and roll." And then I see your letter…….. I got to see him playing Portland in a tent at a Oktoberfest thing in the early '80s….so glad I have that wonderful memory. I did not realize he was one of the first to write his own hit songs.
Chuck Berry was a pioneer in so many ways. On "Memphis," he created a one-man masterpiece, overdubbing his own guitars and percussion at his home studio when it was unheard of for any artist to do such a thing, presaging Prince and so many others. He was a poet of the first order, who was able to look outside himself to create songs that resonated with all of us.
Johnnie Johnson. Give credit where credit is do.
Very sad day for Rock and Roll. I hope Chuck Berry gets his due. He was the Original. RIP Chuck.
Bob. Interesting video. John was Les Paul's pianist. Great combo. They had never met as Chuck describes in another song. But this version of Carol has rare Jazz meets RnR magic because one or the other usually misses the mark. I know this video because I grew up listening to this pianist. He's my 7 years-older uncle. Give it a whirl and watch John's glances over…the knowing glances of a man who's spent his entire career platforming greats. This is the one and only gig they would ever play and there were no rehearsals. John didn't know the material but jazz pianists intuitively know everything. In the end Chuck says, "Can he play PIANA?!"
Back in early 60s my band play all the colleges in New England. We were the back band for all the groups playing the frat party's At one gig they said were we're the back band for chuck. I saw them hand him a big envelope and then he came out on stage and just turned to us and said key of G and we all just rocked on. Never forgot it. His music will always live on Jerry Green and the passengers
Hail Hail Rock and Roll. I first fell in love with Chuck Berry from the American Hot Wax sound track that my dad had. He was an early rock and roller and I think that is awesome! I am now 46 and I am blessed that my dad gave me exposure to such great sounds like Chuck!
My son and I have been enjoying your writings for about 3 years but this is the first time I decided to write you.
My son, Malcolm (16), is an aspiring guitarist (wants to be a legend).
When I told him another one of our legends had died, his reaction was, "Ahhhhh mannnnn! Everybody is dying."
I wasn't sure if he even knew Chuck, but he did.
You are right, "Chuck was there at the beginning!"
Thank you for paying respect.
Marshall Chess told me that Chuck never had a written contract with Chess. Just FYI
Well Bob, I insist that we had THREE founding fathers: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. The ascendance of the guitar as the primary rock n roll instrument caused Chuck's legacy to eclipse that of Richard and Fats..but in 1956, all three of these titans had an equal hand in writing the book.
The Beach Boys' self-contained structure had been unique among American teen acts until early British rockers reinforced the concept that youthful guitar bands didn't necessarily need help from professional songwriters, arrangers and producers to create catchy rock n roll of their own. The rebellious nature of that vision brought on the rock revolution of the 1960s, and although the horn sections and solid boogie-woogie piano of Fats and Richard's records were absent from the evolving scene, those elements were as much a part of the music's bedrock as Chuck's groundbreaking guitar style.
The first time I backed up Chuck Berry, he met the band backstage about 5 minutes before the show. He spent maybe 30 seconds with us motioning "This is a stop", "This is a stop", and "Watch me!" and that was it. The band was weak, Chuck wasn't happy, and then he was gone.
Two years later my band was backing up most of the blues acts that came through Boston. One night Don Law called me to see if we'd play behind Chuck who had an upcoming 3 day stint at The Boston Teaparty. This time we were ready.
On the final set of the weekend, Chuck stopped the band and looked at us. Then he turned toward the audience and said, "There's a lot of bands that play behind Chuck Berry, but these guys are the best. I've got a little news for them, Chuck Berry is taking them on the road!"
Just a few months out of high school, I was understandably ecstatic. We floated through the rest of the set, put away our gear and went to find our new boss.
Of course, he was gone. We figured he'd be in touch, we tried to call him in Missouri, but all to no avail. Although I was crushed at the time, I've come to believe that he wanted to do something nice for us, and that was the best he could do. I certainly have fond memories of the gig, and of the experience as a whole.
He was an insanely talented man.
Well said Bob. Hail Hail to the true King of Rock and Roll. Like Keith said in his documentary. It's all about the roll. Nobody did it better then Chuck. I wouldn't be playing music if it hadn't been for him.
Some of Chuck Berry's lyrics were pure mid-century rock & roll poetry. The Chess brothers supposedly changed Chuck's song "Ida Red" into "Maybellene" named after the women's eye make-up product. And I think DJ Alan Freed got a piece of the writer/pub money on at least one of his songs. Imagine that, who knew Freed could write? HA!
Anyway, I and millions of other white boys lived, loved and drove behind his great music.
Peace & Love, Chuck!
Chuck and Little Richard were the first to cross over — thanks to Alan Freed — from segregated black radio to the mainstream top 40. Personally, I think his genius was twofold: 1) Lyrics — he was both a poet and a storyteller. The story of Mablellene, in her big, '55 Cady pursued by Chuck, in his V-8 Ford captivated all of us. And I remember dancing to that record in junior high in 1958, 3 years after "Maybelline" came out. The song had legs. And so did Chuck. Ever try the duck walk? While playing lead guitar licks the like of which no one had ever heard? I have — it's impossible! Thank you, Chuck. You were a cantankerous old bastard, but you were also a genius, so everything is forgiven.
What’s so great about Chuck’s genius is that its at once the most simple and the most profound of things: the “roll” in rock n roll is the SWING part, and Chuck wrote the book on that. The greatest rock n roll riff, the inarguable, SINGLE greatest rock n roll riff, is the intro to Johnny B Goode and ya can’t do it right on a piano and Bill Haley didn’t swing it like that on his big box arch top – Sister Rosetta Tharp had that swing first but Chuck mastered it and universally applied it. No Chuck, no Beatles, and you take it from there. That swing is why The Beatles HAD to have Ringo and that subtle but infinitely profound gift of rock n roll swing is what makes Ringo the most underrated drummer of all. The Beach Boys might have “stole” S.L.16 for Surfing USA but they went out of their way to pay homage in Do You Remember from All Summer Long “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along”.
Chuck Berry and the Isley Brothers were rock & roll. They moved me and all of my age group, and everyone up to this day, and will move everyone else in the future. Music is fun. Music is sex. Music is life. When you don't like Mabellene, you're dead.
This has been a hard year for my age group. I'm still above ground, but not forever. Chuck will live after me.
Just got the sad news Chuck Berry has died. I brought him to Moscow with Stas Namin in 1997 to Headline a Free Concert at Pushkin Square for the Moscow Film Festival. It was perfect. The huge crowd blew him away as they sang along to every song. The backup band we put together kicked ass so much that Chuck stole the keyboard player to tour with him. (Huge Honor)
Chuck had so much fun that day. Moscow loved and respected him, the musicians were in awe of him as it was his music that inspired them.
And yes, he was a little feisty, but I had worked with the Dead Boys, PiL and a slew of other sports so I have tough skin. I also gave him a bag full of cash that made him happy. Funny upfront he said "if they want an encore it's $2,000 more." He looked at me devishly smiling after his last song as the crowd kept calling for more. I mouthed no money. He smirked then smiled and went out and did three more songs.
Afterwards he bought me dinner and told me how much he loved the show, the band and was really happy to do the encore gratis. We spent the next day sightseeing and have spoken a few times since.
I'll miss him as will we all. He gave us so much. He was the real deal and had to fight to survive, so let's not waste too much time dealing with the dark side, let's honor his contributions and enjoy the inspiration.
All the best,
As the Grateful Dead said as they ended their concert during the last run of shows that closed the Fillmore West in 1971 – Alright folks, here’s the one it’s all about!
I played a club date, Friday night. We covered “wasn’t me”, guy came up and said to the effect “you guys are good, that sounded like a chuck berry song”. Complement of the night.
Got to thinking, he was born in 1926, he missed world war II by an inch. He was a boomer parent. Yet for all the noise about a generation gap, he led us through to the other side.
Man – I wore out the crappy thrifted 50s memories cassette I found at the thrift store listening to Johnny B. Goode (and Life would Be a Dream…). It's always been my understanding that Chuck Berry invented it all (after Rosetta Thorpe). Rock n Roll is dead. Long live rock.
Well said all around of course. And yes, at 90 it's not a shock but I feel the loss! Never not great. He had it. He gave it. We will never be the same!
Got to see him at a small club in Lake George NY in 1969. Duck walk and all he had the crowd "reelin and a rockin." Another one bites the dust
Me and a Fillmore East buddy saw the Who in April 69 during that gig where there was a fire in the deli on the corner…where Townshend or Daltrey literally booted the plainclothes fire marshal who tried to grab the mike…The Who got arrested. When we left that evening we saw that Chuck Berry was playing with Albert King. We sprung for the $5.00 tickets and got fourth row center seats. Little did we realize that Bill Graham would seize the opportunity of the Who’s arraignment in June to add them to the top of the Chuck Berry bill. It was billed as “The Triumphant Return of the Who” and it was an awesome evening…the Who of course were great, but to see Chuck Berry duck walking, reeling and rocking…when you’re 17-year old rock fanatics, wannabe guitar players…it just didn’t get any better. We played Roll Over Beethoven at a jam today even before we heard the newas. As Bob Seger sang in Rock n Roll Never Forgets…”all Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks…”)
Hear! Hear! EXACTAMENTE!! YES SIR!!
Good one Bob!
Not only will he be missed but he will be one of the few remembered throughout the universe. Literally. His song Johnny B. Goode is recorded on the gold record aboard the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and destined to wander the universe forever spreading word of humanity's greatness. He's one of only 3 Americans thus represented.
"Love the Music, Not the Man…"
That Golden Shower stuff was sick, and I don't mean good. Chuck was the original mistreated, and I'm not just talking about women, just ask Johnny Johnson. Oh I forgot, he died broke.
Oh Carol!! The hagiography in death us a little much. Need to dial it back. He ain't no Tommy LiPuma or Sam Cooke.
Just my two cents.
A fine and honest tribute. Thanks,
Thank you! Long live Rock and Roll
Chuck famously used local pickup bands, but more than a few bands he opened for in the seventies and eighties backed him on their own gigs at no charge, anytime he was on the bill. Beach Boys, Steve Miller, Santana, Bob Seger, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Allmans, Skynerd, Little Feat, Grateful Dead,Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, I theenk maybe even Mellencamp. NRBQ probably did it more than anybody. He did it because he could; if you didn't know his stuff, you could hardly call yourself a player.
He was still killin' it in 1990 at the first festival at what's now the Klipsch Music Center, near Indianapolis; duckwalk and all. He held that crowd in the palm of his mighty hand; he was so charismatic, it hardly mattered if he played well. He wrote the book on rock guitar but if he was the father of rock'n'roll, Johnnie Johnson's left hand was the mother. For my money, he was a better lyricist than Dylan, or at least the better storyteller. Sorry to hear he's finally motorvated under the hill; may he RIP
The Father Of Rock, the very first inductee into the Rock and Roll HOF and without Chuck we never would have had the Beatles or the Stones just to name two of the top legendary rock bands that came to be because of him.
RIP Mr. Berry
I was lucky enough to work for Jeff Kruger’s TKO in the U.K. in the Eighties.
I expect you will be drowned in contributors to add a paragraph to the passing of Chuck Berry, because as you say the man was a loner. No cosy organisation of crew and co conspirators. Almost every time the man played it was with a team exclusive to that occasion so there must be hundreds who go the kind of insights I witnessed.
However the reason for that, as you say, was the man trusted no-one. He had been ripped off by the best and the worst. He had reached the point where he did not want sidemen, collaborators, sycophants, well wishers, musicians, organisers and especially not promoters with a great idea.
All he required was a self drive Mercedes at the airport, another vehicle to guide him, his suite and a scratch band who new the songs, (and who in music didn’t?) and of course cash up front.
My first experience of him was at the first show in France. He fired the scratch band at the sound check, announcing he would work with the support act. When we asked them, they refused, their Gallic leader would not let his boys play with another front man and the scratch band had gone – driving home to the UK. (In those pre mobile phone days). Anyway, money talked and ego walked and the show went on.
In a quiet conversation in 1989 he told me he had personally earned more from music in the last 5 years than in the previous 25, and you can discount royalties of any description from those totals because I gathered he didn’t get any till the re-recording years arrived (if indeed they did for him). He was as you say the archetypal example of the 50s ripped off rock and roller.
So the bad attitude and aggressive demands were simply an ultimate statement of “we don’t get fooled again” that gave the then generation of promoter no way in to bonus earnings. He didn’t want all the income, he just wanted his share and make that pre-show!”
On a few occasions at the end of the eighties I was privileged to be involved with a handful of his concerts. Was he difficult? Hell yes! He had a black look that could kill at 50 paces! We're those gigs great! Of course, but not for the music, which was” going through the motions” at best but the whole audience knew they were sharing the evening with a true rock & roll god who still had some of it, even at that age.
One of the few who wrote chapters the book!
Steve Lewis (Linko)
Keep it up Bob. You make us laugh, you make us mad but you make us think.
Chuck Berry required a pair of Fender Showman Reverb amps and a Lincoln Town Car be provided at every gig, or he wasn't playing. It always seemed we could never source the right amps anywhere except from a provider who lived in….St. Louis.
Bob-it’s true that Surfing’ USA is Sweet Little Sixteen with different lyrics but to be fair, every 45 after the very first issue on the Capitol swirl label gives total songwriting credit to Chuck Berry. As it should. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” -John Lennon
How fucking amazing. He was the father of rock and roll. He was a motherfucker. And he lived 90 years. That's a damn amazing life by any measure. Top that…
Thanks for setting the record straight, Bob.
Chuck Berry invented rock guitar as far as I know. The the lead solo on “Maybellene” predates Scotty Moore’s stuff with Elvis by a good year or so. The classic Chuck riff that so many rock songs are based on is the one that makes your leg move to the beat uncontrollably. It is the one that adds the roll to the rock literally creating “rock” and “roll.” Some say he got that riff from what Johnnie Johnson was playing on the piano when he joined Sir John’s Trio (which he reshaped with Johnnie’s blessing after Johnnie saw the great potential in the band with Chuck as a new leader). If so, then Johnnie Johnson should be given way more kudos than he’s ever received, as he was overshadowed by other hot dynamic front men like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc..
As Jon Pareles put it so eloquently in the New York Times today, “While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heart-throb, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius. The songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.” Those fantastic lyrics of his, captured the culture like no other. “Well there she is again standing over by the record machine. Well she looks like a model on the cover of a magazine. But she’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen.” Come on!!! “She’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen”—that’s f*cking genius and that’s only one line of one song! The title and song “Roll Over Beethoven” was an anthem that announced rock to the world and is as important as Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are Changing” sentiments. He even invented his own brand of street talk with words like “motorvatin’."
I met Chuck at my first Grammy Awards in the very early ‘70s. The ceremony and show was at the Hollywood Palladium. Those were fun days in the music business, you could walk around and freely meet anybody and everybody because the room was so intimate. I had learned how to play rock guitar listening to Keith Richards on early Rolling Stone’s albums. Then I learned that those riffs weren’t Keith’s at all, they were Chuck’s!! By the way, Keith never tried to hide that fact and has alway given Chuck credit—“I am a disciple of Chuck Berry.” Anyway, I saw Chuck, ran over, and couldn’t help myself—I just gushed and words came flying out of my mouth. “Chuck, hi, you don’t know me, but I play soooooooooo many of your licks!!!” I thought he’d be happy that what he’d invented was being passed down to another generation. But he wasn’t, in fact he was bitter. He looked down, glared at me, and in a very sarcastic tone said, “They do go around, don’t they?!!”
At first I was taken aback but then I began to put two and two together. Imagine you are Chuck Berry and you invent rock guitar, write so many great songs that define the culture of the day—teenage love, car songs, dance party songs, etc., etc., and then you watch white groups like the Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones (just to name a couple from the tons of artists who copied him) get all the credit, and make all the money! Wow, that must hurt like you can’t stand and would make anyone bitter.
In the end, Chuck did not became a superstar nor make superstar money. But anyone who knows music knows who the King really is!
I recommend you dig out the album “The Great Twenty-Eight” and blast it all day long! That’s what I’m gonna do!
PS. Last year, I finally found he best guitar I’ve ever owned. It’s a fab Gibson Custom Shop VOS ’59 Les Paul. Two months ago my wife named it “Maybellene.” I thought at the time, what a perfect name–it takes on a much greater meaning today.
Saw Chuck a few times. But the first time was a memorable one- in a bar in St Louis with my buddy, the same one who turned me on to your newsletter, or whatever you consider it. As you probably know, Chuck lived in the St Louis area, and he played this bar called Blueberry Hill. Couldnt have held more than 100 people in this little room downstairs called "The Duck Room", named after him, obviously. He played one Weds a month for a while.
Me and said buddy made a pilrimage (my idea) to see Chuck at the bar. We also made plans to see Nashville and Memphis at the same time, to make it a nice little musical tour. We flew in to Nashville, had fun in town that night. The next morning, we woke up to 9/11/2001. Nightmare. All planes grounded, and the rental car company advised us to drive straight home.
We called the Duck Room on 9/11 to see if Chucks show, scheduled for the day after 9/12, would still happen. Sure enough, Chuck said the show must go on. Chuck was seemingly the only thing in the entire country that wasn't cancelled. While the country was curled up in the fetal position, Chuck played a gig.
The show wass great, and it was a moment in time that we could all forget about the nightmare that put a pit in our stomaches, albeit even just for 1.5 hours. The next thing I know, Im on stage with Chuck, dancing with three or four beautiful women. I even put my arm around him for a moment, for a photo op (while he was playing!) and he didnt seem to mind. Looking back on that moment, I realize I was very lucky that went off without a problem. We met him after the show and he signed his autobiography that I brought. Great night.
John Lennon once said "if you were to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry". Keith Richards sites him as his biggest influence. Probably the biggest influence on the Beatles and the Stones. Chuck is legit…..the riff master.
And when you listened to the radio at our age Bob you didn't know the singer was black or white or Latino. It was all about the music
Chuck was 90 and lived an unbelievable life.
I recently bought a box set — 16 CDs I think — from Germany (Bear Family) that collects 98% of his studio recordings that have been officially released. Including alternate takes, outtakes, etc. I have other sources for that remaining 2% .
He really was a genius…so far ahead of his time.
Without him, there's no Beatles. No Rolling Stones. Rock and Roll just doesn't happen without him. Elvis and his appearance on Ed Sullivan were inspirational for the kids of that time…but it was the music and those guitar riffs of Chuck Berry that was the engine of it all. It drove it all to actually happen. Elvis might have freed kids sexually….but Chuck freed their rock and roll soul!
Johnny B. Goode. Nadine. School Days. You Never Can Tell. Roll Over Beethoven (a huge hit for the Beatles (especially in Canada). Rock 'n' Roll Music…the list literally goes on and on and on.
From the '50s, no one came close to him. He was the blueprint. Elvis didn't write his own material…Chuck did. And it defined what a rock and roll song could, and should, be.
My regret is that he seemingly stopped recording and writing new material by the mid '60s. I suppose he might have thought that he couldn't top himself…and he was probably right, but I think the world was deprived of dozens of excellent songs over those missing years. But I'm glad to have what we have…and the songs, and instrumentals, that you haven't heard can just blow your mind.
He's the master, and will forever be the master of rock and roll. The kids of today don't know it, but without Chuck Berry, popular music, as we know it today, simply doesn't exits.
So this can serve as my eulogy for Mr. Charles Edward Anderson Berry.
The King of Rock and Roll.
Mike Anderson in Des Moines
Bob, wanted to make sure you knew that though Surfin' U.S.A. was indeed a 'rip' of Sweet Little Sixteen, Brian Wilson wisely credited Chuck Berry as the sole writer and paid him every cent owed from record one. If Chuck wasn't yet rich from his Chess sides, you can probably bet that he loved The Beach Boys in 1963! Unlike Jimmy Page and others, Brian Wilson gave credit where it was due. When asked about the song, he would always say "Oh, that's Chuck Berry. We just changed a few things .."
My band Sky Cobb backed up Chuck Berry at Sparrows Point outside Annapolis in, I think it was, 1972. The other band playing was Blue Oyster Cult.
The whole evening was terribly odd!
But we did very well and Chuck complimented me strongly on my piano playing. "Man! That guy can really play!" I'd heard how he threw Nicky Hopkins (terrific pianist) offstage at a recent concert because he played too well – so I kept it very simple and out of Chuck's way.
His biggest hit, My Ding A Ling, was a severe low point. Especially in light of revelations to come.
Hard to imagine what it was like to be Chuck Berry in 1958. Some of the words of Malcolm X still spin around in my head when I think of that.
It was at that concert that I first figured out I could spit beer through my front teeth into the crowd.
The crowd loved it. The whole night was a smashing success.
A very odd night indeed! But loaded with smiles, some pride and fond memories.
You forgot to mention the duck walk! No one did it better than Chuck Berry!
Hey, what about the hidden cameras in the women’s rest room at Berry Park? What about the disgusting video footage of Chuck peeing on the teenage girl in the bathtub?
I recall seeing Chuck at Bumbershoot in Seattle around '80?, where his backup band was Heart' s musicians. During the show one of them was playing what Chuck apparently thought was lackadaisical, and in the middle of a song went over, unplugged him, and pointed him off the stage.
And continued the show.
What can you say about Chuck Berry…he was a force to be reckoned with..there isn't a rock 'n roller on the planet that doesn't owe him…with all our technology and production capabilities it's interesting and important to realize that many of the best songs ever written and recorded were the simplest and best treated that way with respect…Berry's songs were timeless and can never be surpassed in that era and moreover will live forever…even he couldn't live forever but he gave it a hell of a good try at ninety..astounding after all he had been through..i wouldn't have wanted to take him on in a back alley..R.I.P.
Hey Bob, I guess I'm a little bit older than the "boomers" at 72. But when I first heard "Rock Around the Clock" in the opening credits to the Glenn Ford movie booming over the theatre speakers, I was about eleven, and it was an epiphany. It didn't matter then nor does it matter now, who was first, Elvis, Bill Haley and Little Richard, and the great Chuck Berry provided the soundtrack for my pre-teen and teenage years and my collection of 45 records. I even won a bop dance contest in the 8th grade dancing to "Rip it up" in the final. It's hard to explain how profound these performers and rock and roll was to an 11 year old who's mother played Perry Como and Nat King Cole all day on the kitchen radio. I didn't care how much that dogie in the window was after hearing go, go…go Johny go. I went.
thanks for the eulogy.
I am sad my heroes are passing on even when they are certifiable loons like Chuck. James Brown too. And on and on. Even tho they lacked in common sense they made our lives a lot better with their talent. And oh how different the world would have been without them.
Think of how many more that never made it! At least we all got to benefit from being around each other because of the music business.
Rock will never be dead! The attitude remains. All you have to do is pay the man before he goes onstage!
We've lost Chuck Berry. He pretty much made the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and pretty much every other band happen. He inspired me to pick up a guitar and play. He used to sing "No Particular Place To Go". Well now he's gone to a Particular place. Thank God Chuck Berry had left the world his music and his legacy is Rock and Roll.
"HE COULD PLAY THAT GUITAR JUST LIKE RINGING A BELL. . . "
I've had the honor and privilege of working with and meeting hundreds of recording artists through the decades. Very few times, however, have I requested a photo or autograph. Introduced to Chuck Berry at American Music Festival was an overwhelming experience. I was in awe when we shook hands. He had the longest fingers of anyone I ever met. His attitude and demeanor projected quiet royalty both off- and on-stage. And his songs and performance were exhilarating.
A shot by the house photog of me watching from the side of the stage on Virginia Beach is the ONLY celebrity photo I've ever carried. It's in my briefcase every day. 'Nuff said. . .
Can you say KING?
Long live rock and the house of Lefsetz.
Thanks for this. As a part of the label working on the new record, it hits especially close to home. I was actually finishing up a promo video set to go live on Monday (now tabled) when I heard the news.
This is the story I want people to know. I didn't learn it myself until last fall when it was decided our little label would be the home for his first new record in 38 years. Sure I knew the hits and some of the history, but I had no idea the pioneer that Chuck was, the genius in his craft and the unequal conditions (both socially and economically) in which he thrived. He didn't move the needle, he invented the speedometer. And he did so in a time when musicians were no more than paychecks to music industry vultures that made fortunes and paid pennies. Oh and this all happened in a time when African Americans were thought of as second class citizens… at best. I was humbled and ecstatic for Mr. Berry to experience a record released by the type of music business that Chuck largely never knew.
Sure there are stories out there, but his body of work impacts the history of music so deeply, it completely outshines any shadows cast by the trappings that rock's dad may have been known for — and that's how people should reflect upon Chuck's legacy.
As with any release, I (and the rest of the staff) dove in to Chuck's life up to this point so that we could properly honor the art being representing here. I truly wanted Chuck to see this release come to fruition, from a label that has always been driven by passion as much (or mostly more) than finance. One that wished to celebrate his art with the pure excitement we all have when we hear that new record.
P.S. This is a simple thank you for your email, NOT an effort to be a part of your replies in hopes of a bit of free PR, as a matter of fact with all that's going on right now, I'd prefer you didn't. Besides, my name doesn't carry the cache necessary 🙂
"Chuck's got a bad reputation. As being an ungrateful SOB who demanded cash upfront and played with unrehearsed pickup bands. Keith Richards tried to give him a victory lap with that movie, but thereafter the Glimmer Twin testified as to Chuck's bad behavior and I'm not sure if Berry's reputation ever recovered. You usually only get one shot at a second chance."
He came by that honestly. Anyone can understand that. How Chuck Berry operated is, as you put it, how rock 'n' roll does business. We have all personally witnessed acts getting screwed out of money; in my 20s, I stood backstage at a then-kinda-upscale Houston club as one prominent blues guitarist was informed by his road manager about 10 minutes before showtime that he'd be getting only half of his guarantee for the night. As a result, that guy hasn't played Texas–the whole state– in 25 years.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of his behavior in life, Chuck was thought to be a pill because he didn't play for free, ever. Same for Col. Parker, same for Peter Grant [who had to physically threaten everyone in the industry, it seemed], same for Andrew Loog Oldham–all reviled to some degree–but their acts managed to survive whereas everyone else got picked off one-by-one. As Paul allegedly put it, "You can't make it unless you're a bastard, and the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth."
As for Chuck's orneriness, well, three stints in prison will do that to you, and at least two of those, were, arguably, racially motivated. Especially if you look at how much Elvis got away with.
There are many fathers, and mothers of rock n roll, but the lead architect of the way a rock n roll song would ever after be sung is Chuck Berry; no offense to Little Richard. Berry's cadence, swinging swagger, and winking commitment me to the intensity of what he brought unto the world in 1957 is the template for the term: 'rock star.' Add to this the fact that he was the tip of the spear of what would come to be known as a guitar hero, and the man who defined how rock guitar would be played for the next 60 plus years — Berry souped up the blues long before any of those British dudes. Arguably, without Chuck Berry, there is no British movement that gave us the Beatles and the Stones, et. al. He was the lightning rod that brought it all together and the template of the triple threat — writing, singing, playing, and being a brilliant performer — who broke it the whole thing out. Gone is an originator, gladiator, and instigator of an art form that rocked the world (no pun intended).
If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"
— John Lennon
Chuck & I sat together after one of our shows. I as asked him if he liked barbecue (as we had a full spread.) He said "Lavon have you ever met a black man who didn't like barbecue?!" I said, Chuck I don't think I've ever met anybody that didn't like barbecue. His show was not good, but the moments sitting, eating barbecue & talking with Chuck were priceless.
RIP: The Godfather of the Stones & so much more.
And I believe you know that when the Stones played Little Queenie at the Oakland Coliseum, I changed my name. (But please, the Taylor is not from Mick Taylor.) So in a way he is my nominal father…
You've got it there, Bob. The beginning of it all. And the writing!
He was not the first but he was one of the first. What made him special was his ability to tap into the zeitgeist of youth and wax poetic on it in three minutes or less. Chuck Berry was a rock and roll icon. His music will live forever.
2005 I last saw Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill in St Louis, giving me an opportunity to pay homage to a god.
Front row I was calling tunes to his son Butch, C’est la Vie, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Sweet Little 16, he played them all for me.
When people ask if I still love music and I say yes, they then ask what kind of “classical” music do I listen to for enjoyment ?
My response without missing a beat – CHUCK BERRY.
This is the classical music of my life, Roll Over Beethoven, I dig Chuck’s rhythm & blues.
Thanks for your wonderful thoughts about Chuck Berry.
Many many of us who hail from Chuck Berry's home town of St Louis MO have wonderful memories of him. He was beyond kind and friendly. He was someone who could bond with anyone.
In the 1960s, he taught my teenage cousin how to play guitar only because he could see that my cousin had a sincere desire to excel. (I know this because Chuck said it to me once when I asked him.)
And Chuck did it every week for several years for free. He helped my cousin form a band and even got him gigs around St Louis to help him get started. He remained in close contact with my cousin for years after, and my cousin remains fiercely loyal to Chuck even today.
And a close friend of mine at TWA was who Chuck relied on to book all of his flights for many years. They also formed a close bond of trust and friendship that endured.
The first time I met Chuck I was a teenager, and I thanked him for blessing my life with his music. He patted me on the shoulder and said "You're sweet to say that. But I'm the one who has been blessed by the music. And by people like you who like it."
Nobody's perfect. That included Chuck. But I'm so glad he was driven to risk sharing his musical vision and, by doing so, make the lives of ordinary music lovers like me joyful and fun.
He just copied the T-Bone Walker school of music but without the licks !
And don’t forget the video’s of women taken with a hidden camera while they defecated – way before his time for sure !
I knew Chuck Berry and worked with him several times over the years.
He was my first guitar teacher. Like so many other young players, I learned off his records. We always had great talks about music, and I told him how much his music meant to me.
I'll never forget when we worked together with Bob Hope at the tri-centennial celebration of Rhode Island. We had a lot of laughs together.
Chuck was a friend of mine and I'll really, really miss him.
There will never be another like him.
How long until someone writes "Roll Over Chuck Berry"?
Not me, not going there. I don't think. Cheap shot.
It should be called The Chuck Berry Hall of Fame.
Bob… I played the Stone Balloon in Newark, Delaware years ago and got there around 11 a.m. to do a sound check. As I walked into the club, I noticed a guy asleep in the backseat of an old Cadillac. I told the manager there was a homeless guy passed out in the club's parking lot. He said, "No, that's Chuck Berry. He had a show, last night, and was too cheap to get a hotel room." R.I.P. Chuck Berry
Amazing feedback. RIP Chuck. A true original in every sense of the word.
….god damn, that Seymour Stein is a national fukking TREASURE!!!
In Toronto at our first POP Festival in June of '69, Chuck stole the show…despite acts like Sly, Steppenwolf, The Band, Johnny Winter all giving stellar performances. Hell, Doctor John even stopped the rain. But Chuck had 30,000 kids doing or trying to do the Duck Walk and the cheers of the crowd was second to none that weekend. So much so that we put a whole festival around he, and Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Bo Dddley and Gene Vincent in September. It didn't take John Lennon more than a few seconds to say, when invited to emcee, "We wouldn't want to come unless we could play" I guess not. John Lennon knew if all his heroes were going to play, so was he. And thus was born The Plastic Ono Band and the first live performance of Give Peace A Chance. Those were the glory days for we who got in early and got the concert and festival scene going, mostly so we could see the bands that no one else was bringing in. Chuck of course, always got local musicians as a pick up band, and to this day they still tell how thrilled they were to be on stage with him and to be the guys he took across the road from the stadium and bought hamburgers, since they only sold hot dogs at the venue.
Saw Chuck Berry at the Fox West Coast theater a place owned by Bill Graham back in the 70’s he never traveled with a band he would always pick them up in the town he was playing because if you didn't know Chuck Berry music you didn't know Rock & Roll ~ RIP ~
Our band gets requests almost every performance for C'est la vie. What a classic. Goes to show you, you never can tell.
Love that piece in Back to the Future
Please keep in mind Lloyd price with the mentions .. he was a great who was the first black musician who would not play the record company…Grammy….game…
He stood up to the segregated system.
First 45 I ever bought. Chuck Berry's reeling n rockin b/w sweet lil 16.
James Lee Stanley
Somewhere 25 yrs ago, late night, club NYC, WASTED out of my mind. Seeing Chuck. Pulls me up on stage. And we do the bump….(I'm only 4'11). Will never forget how much fun…
Thanks for your brilliance here and for publishing Seymour Stein's words.
From: Kenny Weissberg
Rest in peace, Chuck Berry.
All of us who are rock 'n' roll lifers owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry. His contribution to our lives can't be quantified. What an innovator and trailblazer!
And a mythic character.
Chuck Berry's music jumpstarted my lifelong passion for rock 'n' roll. Working with him professionally (twice) sent me to the medicine cabinet in search of Advils and Xanax.
The image with this post is Chuck's signature on a Humphrey's note pad when he gave me his home phone number in St. Louis in 1988.
"Call me directly from now on," Chuck said. "There's no reason to cut my agent in on our deals."
One of my most memorable life experiences was seeing the legendary pioneer of "Rock and Roll Music", Chuck Berry, perform at a small dinner club called The Strand (now defunct) in Redondo Beach, California on August 13, 1990. The venue only seated approximately 200 people, and I was given a table at the foot of the stage, where I got an up-close unobstructed view of his performance and the famous "duck walk" guitar playing.
In typical Chuck Berry fashion, he arrived at the venue with no touring backing band (using a local band instead), no crew and no entourage. After the show, he exited the club alone, walked to the parking lot and got into his "coffee-colored Cadillac" with a tall, statuesque blonde woman as his only companion. Before driving off, he stopped and signed my copy of his "The Great 28" CD. This was Berry's first L.A. performance since his recent arrest in St. Louis for "Too Much Monkey Business", so as he drove off into the night he was unfortunately tailed by an unmarked police car whose officers were following his every move.
"Bye Bye Johnny", Rest in Peace you "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man".
I ran into Chuck Berry one time – literally – almost knocked him down. August 1970 I was going out the front door of the venue for some air and he was coming in. Walked straight through the crowd, carrying his guitar case, climbed up on the stage, plugged in, tuned up, and started the show. It was August 1970, Washington DC, the middle of the Viet Nam war. The crowd was made up of hard hats from the subway construction, Congressional aides and interns in their suits, hippies of all ages, suburbanites, black folks, white folks, guys in uniform – all the polarized groups, keeping with their own, wary of everyone else. Then he played Johnny B. Goode. And the house became one, everyone knew the words, everyone sang along. Everyone was together for 3 minutes. And despite the Kennedys and King, and My Lai and Kent State and Nixon, I knew we would be ok.
El Granada CA
saw Chuck for the 1st time about 15 years ago. The venue was the Westbury Music Fair on LI. I was warned by veteran attendees, "Stay the course."
Chuck comes out a begins to berate the local band because of where their amps were on stage (too far from his). I told myself, "Stay the course." He gets into the first song and stops it all to teach the piano player the correct part. Took ten minutes. I told myself, "Stay the course." He gets into another song and stops it to fix his guitar sound that from the downbeat was terrible (way too much bottom from the rented amp). This tweaking went on for an additional ten minutes with him returning to the vocal mic from time to time to say something uninterestingly anecdotal. Now a group is booing and heckling.
I told myself, "Stay the course." People are now leaving. I told myself, "Stay the course." A third of the audience is now gone. Johnny makes another adjustment to his amp and now it's perfect. He launches into "Carol" and from there on, it was pure rock and roll perfection til the end. I stayed the course, wore out "The Great 28" and looking back to just last last week while on tour with Johnny Rivers, am so glad that I was able to get a nightly dose of Chuck while grooving to Johnny's version's of Maybelline and Memphis.
The very first show we did to launch our long residency at the hollywood palladium and put it on its way to becoming one of the top rock emporiums in the america….and who would be more fitting for this grand opening but Chuck….leading the way for The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart & Faces, Roxy Music, David Bowie, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Grateful Dead, and countless others that followed for a nice long very fun run….Thank you Chuck…for many many great shows and not a dull moment at any one of them…..as a side note, johnny otis who was retired when i reached out to him to do this epic event, spent months putting his old revue back together and rehearsing for this show….he was a wonderful guy….and also my favorite DJ on the radio back in the day, along with Huggy Boy and Art Laboe when I was a young teen…remember, Johnny discovered Etta James as well.
Let's not forget his innovative and immaculate guitar playind – at least on record. And unbelievably great slide on for instance "Deep feeling".
So this quote has been flying around everywhere "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'" – John Lennon
Fairly profound, right?
Except the quote comes from when John Lennon appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and Mike is about to introduce Chuck Berry and instead of himself reading the intro from the cue card, Mike tells John to handle it. Thus the "great" quote seems to have been written by some production assistant on the show who handled the intros.
When John reads the now famous line, he even ad-libs "right!" as if he heard it for the first time and is certainly agreeing with the notion.
At the end of the day, we know Lennon was a fan.
I love your work and and especially the recent Chuck Berry tribute.
Chuck was very vocal about his love of the guitar style of Carl Hogan who played in Louis Jordan's band. One listen to the guitar intro of Louis Jordan's 1946 hit "Ain't that just like a woman" will give you an idea of how he used it to create his own intro.
Keep up the great work!
I played a his band in the 80s…we did plenty of the pop stuff…but the number that brought the house down (as much as a bunch of 16-year-olds playing to 16-year-olds could) was Johnny B. Goode….it was either the opener or the closer. you cant even call it 'classic rock'…it is more like 'original rock'. I was on bass but I loved that song so much I learned the entire thing on guitar and yet another 3 chord hero was born.
The song was ~ 30 years old by then but high school kids in the 80s were screaming 'go go, gooo Johnny go, go!
Chuck Berry's influence stretches out infinitely…literally from garage/basement bands in rural america to small quartets from rural Liverpool, UK.
– Gary Mendel
I'm a little late to the tribute party, but….
In 1972 or '73 I saw him at a rock festival in Germany. He was cooking and everyone was singing along. In the middle of the song he hollered "Sing it children! You're all my children!"
Truer words were never spoken.
The story about this I have heard for years was yes, Chuck had in his contract rider a requirement for two 19xx Fender Dual Showman Amps.
Caveat was, Fender happened to not make Dual Showman's in 19xx, thus always giving Chuck an out on any gig that he had a contract for.
Regarding his playing with local bands, on the occasions I had to mix him, his command to the band were simple "you figure out the key and watch my foot. When I put it down you stop When I do it again you start again."
I can't watch any Chuck Berry Video to this day without having my eyes trained on that foot . . .
Nice obit Bob.
I've been a musician for 45 Years and from my first band, when I was 15, up to today there's still some Berry that creeps in once in a while. I wouldn't have it any other way–and it's not just Johny B Good.
Rock Around the Clock may have shown what Rock could do, but Chuck was certainly the first poet, and I don't think anyone did it better.
Bill in MN.
Great piece. As you point out, Chuck Berry was certainly punk before there was punk and he knew it, perhaps that was central to his attitude.
Thought you might like to check out his reviews of punk albums in 1980:
We opened for him a couple times. Always local pickup guys, always showed up a few minutes before, always left with a briefcase that had $2,000 in cash (that would be worth about $14,000 today). But he was neither rude nor particularly friendly to us. He had his gig and did his gig, we had our gig and did our gig. It was that simple. But they were simpler times.
If you didn't know the guy then you might believe all the BS that was written about him. I grew up in the 60's and I always thought it was the Beatles that kicked the door down. So wrong! Chuck Berry could write & sing & play like nobody else. He was there first.
I booked several shows with him back starting in 1992. First show scared the hell out of me. I wasn't sure how it would go. He walked in the club, checked the guitar amps I was to provide & then looked at me and said "ya did good son". It was the beginning of a great friendship.
No one tells the stories of him speaking to our high school students everytime he visited Columbia, Mo. That guy was ripped off by so many people back in the early days of rock n' roll. I paid up front even after we became friends. Best times I ever had in the club biz.
Thanks for recognizing him for what he was- THE FATHER OF ROCK N ROLL!
I’m a kid in the bush of Australia and I hear Chuck Berry hitting my then virgin R&R ears, I knew my life was to change. Thank God for Chuck and the other pioneers of R&R. RIP.
Perhaps, one of the unsung markers that ensures Chuck Berry’s music and impact will reach way beyond the magnetic pull of the Earth, is contained in this letter that he got from the late and great Carl Sagan some years ago, that confirms that his music and its impact will be very far-reaching, and go way beyond our planetary sphere. Who else from the rock n roll era can claim this credit ?
One day, I have to tell you the story of my visit to Wentzville, Missouri, to spend a day with Chuck Berry, when I was trying to sign him to Capitol Records. He had written a long melodic and lyrical tone poem about his life, which he played me in full, in his home studio, and which excited me, as it was a simple but lyrically effective summary of his life story, his music and his belief in the impact of music. All the while as he was unfolding the tone poem to me in his little home studio, his wife, Themetta, whom he married in 1948 and survives him today, was at the kitchen table assiduously reading the Bible – which Chuck told me was what she did for most of every day. I figured then (back in 1995) that it would be fitting to release the musical tone poem and have, what might be his last album. For a variety of reasons which I’ll tell you about sometime, and despite Chuck’s enthusiasm for doing a deal with me, it couldn’t get consummated. However, that day with Chuck, getting into the raw and the deep of his creative psyche, gave me a special insght into his deep well of creativity and expression, and the way he and Themetta lived their own personalised rock n roll dream.
Here’s the Carl Sagan letter:
Judas Priest's cover of Johnny B Goode is a fucking monster! It also convinced me to go back and check out the original source as a pre-teen.
In the U.K., Chuck Berry's records came out via the Pye label, which had a deal with Chess. A lot of kids in Britain discovered him, during his second wave in the early ‘60s, via some great double-header EPs Pye International issued, with a couple of Chuck Berry's hits on one side and a couple of Bo Diddley's on the other.
Les Cocks, who was second in command at Pye at that time, once told me a great story, much embellished I'm sure, about cutting the album "Chuck Berry In London" in 1965
Chuck agreed to make an album while he was in the country to do some shows, and it was arranged that he would record the whole thing on the day of his London appearance. The only instructions to the producer were to find him a group of musicians who knew his stuff, and be finished in time for Chuck to soundcheck at around 5pm. So the studio was booked for 10am, allowing time for two standard three hour sessions and a break. It was going to be tight, but possible.
10am arrived and the musicians, all of them rockers on the circuit who were in awe of Chuck and knew his songs backwards, turned up and set up their gear. By 11am, Chuck hadn't showed. The producer called his hotel and was told not to worry, Chuck was on his way. 12 noon came and went, still no Chuck. Another call elicited the same response: Everything's cool, Chuck's coming. At 1pm, the musicians’ union rep was obliged to call the end of the first session and a lunch break. The producer was going nuts. The band went to the pub, under strict instructions to cone back after one pint and a sandwich in case Chuck showed up. They did. He didn't.
Finally, around 2.15 Chuck saunters through the door, doesn't explain or apologise, walks over to his amp and plugs in. Then he asks each member of the band in turn to accompany him on one of his tunes, he plays eight bars of No Particular Place To Go to test the bass player, a burst of Maybelline to assess the drummer and so on. Audition over, and apparently happy with their playing, he unplugs his guitar and says to the producer. "OKay man, you got an office in this place? I need an office. " The producer says "Yes, there's an office here." "Great," says Chuck, "show me where it is. " And the producer, who's having a heart attack by this point, shouts , "Chuck what do you need an office for? it's almost three o clock and we have two hours left to cut this album." And Chuck says: "Well, first I gotta write the fucking songs.”
I have a unique and funny story to share with you about the late great Chuck Berry… One that I know you'll appreciate…
My uncle Bobby Barnes was in a group in the 60's called the IMPACS that toured extensively with Dick Clark's tours and he was fortunate enough to have played with everyone from Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty (in his Rock and Roll days), Patsy Cline, and so many others as a back up band while the IMPACS were up and comers on KING Records…
He also had the opportunity to play for Chuck… As you know Chuck would often show up to many of his dates with the promoter supplying the back-up band…My uncle just happened to be the drummer on one of those dates at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg Florida…
Now, knowing from insiders in the industry that Chuck could be demanding and at times difficult for promoters and hired guns to work with my Uncle decided he was not going to allow Chuck to have any regrets or apprehensions about playing with him as a drummer…
Prior to the Show, my Uncle took the opportunity to introduce himself and they had the conversation that earned my uncle a personal bow from Chuck in front of his drum kit at the end of the Show (which you know didn't happen that often with a guy like Chuck)…
The conversation went as follows:
My Uncle: "Hey Mr. Berry… I'm Bobby Barnes from the IMPACS and I'm going to be your drummer tonight"…
Chuck: "Uh huh! I see that"!
My Uncle: "Well Mr. Berry, I think I've got you all figured out and after tonight I hope I can call you Chuck"..
Chuck: "Oh yeah Son? You've me figured out? Well enlighten me boy" !!!
My Uncle: "OK Mr. Berry"… (My Uncle began to swing his arms as if holding a guitar and said) 1."Guitar neck down means stop" 2."Guitar neck up means Go" 3. "Most importantly you're ALWAYS right and we're ALWAYS wrong"!!!!
Chuck: (Standing looking at my Uncle, he looked perplexed and then smiled and put his hand out to shake my Uncle's hand and said) "FINALLY"!!!!!! As he shook his hand he said "You Son, can now call me Chuck"!!!!!
I hope this story made you smile as much as it does every musician that hears it Bob…
The year was 1981. I took my 2 year old son to the Bumbershoot festival at the Seattle Center Coliseum to see Chuck Berry.
We were standing backstage chatting with John Bauer, the concert promoter. Just before showtime, Chuck walks through the backstage door with his guitar and a hooker on each arm. He strolls up to Bauer and says, "You got my money?" John handed him an envelope with $50,000 in cash (Chuck only takes cash). Berry opened the envelope, flipped through the bills – and I witnessed this conversation:
Chuck: "There's only $50,000."
Bauer: "Right, our contract was for $50,000."
Chuck: "Not anymore, I need another $10 grand. Somebody's got to pay for these fine ladies."
Bauer: "But we have a contract."
Chuck: Fuck the contract. I ain't playing unless you pay me another $10,000."
Bauer: "But our deal was for $50,000."
Chuck: "Look man, you got two choices. Either go on stage and tell 15,000 people that I ain't playing – or find another $10,000. Cause I'm not going out there until you do."
Bauer begged Chuck to start playing while he rounded up $10,000. Meanwhile, the crowd was growing restless, shouting, "Chuck…Chuck…Chuck". Berry laughed and said, "Ya hear that? If I was you, I'd be running to the bank." Realizing that Chuck was serious, Bauer looked pale as he ran out the backstage door, headed for his car.
About 30 minutes later, Bauer rushed back in, handed the $10,000 to Chuck and breathlessly said, "Okay, here's your money, now go play". Chuck smiled, stuffed the bills in his pocket and walked onstage…the guys from Heart were his back-up band. With my son on my shoulders, I stood next to Chuck's hookers and watched him tear it up from the side of the stage.
But I give the man his due. Without Chuck Berry, I wouldn't have had a radio career.
It has been fascinating to read so much about who invented Rock and Roll since the passing of Chuck Berry. Clearly, no one person, but many of the names forwarded certainly played a part. Or perhaps a bunch of really good cooks perfecting a dish – two parts blues, one part country, a dash of gospel. Whatever!
That said, take a listen to Chuck Berry's Thirty Days for a significant, but partial answer to the question. A tribute to Hank Williams and "rebel" country music. A genius songwriter – singer, guitar player, performer, story teller, paying tribute to a genius songwriter – singer, guitar player, performer, story teller:
If I don't get no satisfaction from the judge I'm gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge If they don't give me no consolation I'm gonna take it to the United Nations I'm gonna see that you be back home in thirty days
So much more to it than blues and country – black and white – one tradition or another. There were so many musical ingredients defining the American experience over generations – a few dozen or so master chefs created some awesome recipes. Since then, our pallets have been in a state of Nirvana – or any one of the thousands of musicians that do in fact come from somewhere.
Love the newsletter.
Feels like Chuck Berry was hugely influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, would be great if she was considered the godmother of Rock’n’Roll…she even used a Gibson SG way before ACDC were about, but then again she was a woman and would not have had the same level of opportunity.
Chuck berry and the boys basically took it and rolled with it.
Would be great to have one of your insightful posts on women in the industry again (I am sure you have done many, I still have not read though all previous posts to know)
Have a nice day,