Friday, January 21, 2011

Chuck Berry & His Lyric Gift

Chuck Berry's [1926- ] the real McCoy. A native hybrid Black African American musical genius who almost single-handedly invented Rock & Roll out of its constituent elements of R&B, Boogie, small Jazz combo, and a declamatory male solo vocal.

By 1953, Berry had formed his own combo, his echo-accoustic-enhanced voice, his amplified guitar, pianist-partner Johnnie Johnson, with drums and bass men providing the heavy back-beat. Berry's tight, catchy 3 minute singles began hitting the charts, and by the mid-Fifties the country was rockin' n' rollin to Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, and a string of solid hits that only stopped when Berry was sent up for trying to transport a 14 year old Indian girl across state lines. Narcotics and tax evasion troubles would trouble the singer-composer for much of his adult life. As if being a naughty black-skinned man weren't suspicious enough, Berry typically tested the limits of business practice and public morality, when during his many later years of concertizing, insisting on cash only for his live gigs and hiring local yokels--instead of seasoned veterans--for back up.

But the tunes were what made him, and he milked them for every dime over the decades. Following his release from prison in 1963 he released Nadine, and No Particular Place to Go. It was the Sixties, the Beatles and the Times They Were a-Changin', but Berry kept pumping out his sweet teen ballads for another generation of delighted fans. He had begun as a straight Blue & Rhythm crooner, but his style changed in the Fifties, his enunciation became clear (like Nat King Cole's) and the mood became distinctly up-beat. This polished image was better suited to the white audience, which increasingly was the target market. But Berry's seductive, racy demeanor (and off-stage hijinks) belied the songs' content. That's probably part of why his fans loved him. He romanticized being a teenager, innocent but eager, light-hearted but verging on delinquency. Berry himself had had a troubled growing-up in Missouri, and the success he made as an adult was a kind of fantasized glorification of the post-War childhood/'Teen-idol world of screaming bobby-soxers and greasy, wise-cracking prima donnas. Meanwhile, the mainstream found its preferred version in Elvis Presley, who sneered and gyrated and shrieked his way to super-stardom. But true Rock N Roll was already passing the torch, as the Beatles (and all their imitators) ushered in a new wave of smart sophisticated lyricism and edgy content, putting paid to the naive excelsior of the Teen craze. And the counter-culture got going too, followed closely by the Flower & Love culture. Each successive wave of pop focus distanced the originators further from our attention, so that by the late Sixties, inventors like Berry seemed like "old men" by the age of 40.

Sixties Rock now seems as far away from us as Dixieland jazz probably seemed to the children of the 1950's. It's been over 50 years since Berry took the radio waves by storm, and started everyone jitterbugging and twisting and shaking, and ducking and crawling and making waves.

One of my off-beat favorites is Havana Moon, an early moody Caribbean-flavored ballad as smooth and polished as a golden cane-head; it seems to come from an entirely different era and tradition. A girl I knew once would cry every time she heard Memphis Tennessee (played here in an old Chess record company recording) she thought it so touching a piece.

Just for old times' sake, here are versions of Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music, School Days and Carol. Growing up during these years, I recall my parents' attitudes about all the scary lawlessness this music threatened to bring into our generation. Surely just listening to such raucous liberated stuff would make a girl get spontaneously pregnant, or be cause for immediate arrest by the authorities. The Devil's Music! It was worse than masturbation, might lead to drug abuse, or gnarled toenails.

But we survived. There were worse things coming down the road. Drugs, open disobedience and relationships, resistance to authority, wearing flowers in your hair, marching, and draft dodging. If we'd gone to church, we probably stopped. If we'd been destined to become doctors and engineers, we probably ended up as teachers or lawyers. Working class kids probably understood it all better. It was about having a good time. They didn't have so many kinks to work out. It took us longer, but we finally untangled the knots. In modern or post-modern capitalist culture, each generation thinks it needs its own music, and its own heroes. But they age fast, and grow up quickly.


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Great tribute, Curtis.

Somethings never get old: and Chuck Berry is one of them!Everybody (Beatles, Stones, etc) was ripping him off.

The word verification for this post is actually: muzation.

Ed Baker said...

don't forget/leave out

Chuck Willis &/or Lloyd Price

I shall NEVER forget the first "cross-over"

R&B/Rock n Roll artist...

Johnny Ace who preceded all of 'em.

Ed Baker said...

C., you 'hit the nail on the head'

not only were they ripping off
Chuck Berry

but the white-based moneyed record companies were ripping off ALL of the other GREAT/ Original Black artists..

had Little Richard been white
there'd have been no Elvis Presley


Big Mamma Thorton had the original (& better) version of Hound Dog


Pat Boone became "huge" because of racism..

track back just about every one of his "hits"

at least
The Beatles acknowledged Berry

who did Carl Perkins bow towards?

J said...

ahhyeah. Sir F. returns to form. The Keith Richards/Berry flick was quite entertaining--a good band and playing as well, though you get the sense CB was...not entirely pleased with his student, or somethin'. He has to slow down and show KR licks and so forth.

Actually few bands match the Stones' rhythm section of Wyman/Watts...but they coulda used a Hendrix, or maybe Zappa or joey defrancesco or some virtuoso top of it

Go little queenie

Craig said...

I saw him perform with the Skyboys, a local band, at Bumbershoot in Seattle. The first number they did was a little rough because there had been no rehearsal, but by the third song they were his band. He had each musician do a solo like it was a jazz ensemble so he knew what he had to work with and they were tight. He did a couple of encores and then slipped into his limo and was all the way to Sea-Tac before the Skyboys realized he was done for the day, but they kept playing and the crowd kept dancing and yelling out for more.

Anonymous said...

Those who know their chords and riffs insist that Johnnie Johnson was the key, o a co-key animator of those songs that Berry copyrighted in his own name.

Curtis Faville said...

When I was growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, I don't think I had a clue about how good some of the best early rock and roll was. Our parents had put such a wayward spin on it all, that it seemed tainted, even when it made you feel good (perhaps especially then).


When I went back and listened to a double album of Berry in the early 1970's, it blew me away. It was so polished and sweet and confident!

Same with Elvis. Especially the early stuff, before that manager guy got a hold of him and started steering him away from traditional soul and into the pop whirl. He had a wonderful voice, and a real feeling for that music.

Too bad we have to wait years to discover that liking something was just OK.

But the way I felt about hip-hop and rap, makes me wonder how blind I may be about it. After 20 years of the stuff, I still can't see its virtues. It's all so angry and impatient and pressed and ground down. God, it sounds awful.


J said...

Berry's great for like 20 minutes but...tends to get redundant IMHE . The Stones took the energy, upgraded it (and took it to the f-ing bank as well). As did Hendrix, a few others.

But they...sort of ran out of ideas--and changes-- until ....phreaks like steely dan, zappa, the fusion players arrived

Curtis Faville said...


I wouldn't disagree, and I think that would be true of most popular music, even the best. Even Ellington, if you take a steady diet of it, can get repetitive.

It isn't merely a matter of taste, either. There's no reason why we should expect a novelty genre--which is really what rock & roll singles are--to withstand constant exposure--it simply doesn't have that much density. Sixties R&R expanded the limits which had been imposed by the old single cut duration. That happened in jazz, too--no more 3 minutes and you're out.

When I haven't listened to Chuck Berry for a couple of years, it sounds fresh and sharp. But obviously one couldn't listen to it every week without running out of tolerance.

J said...

it sounds fresh and sharp

yes I listened to a few CB YTs and agree--it was the rhythm, mostly IMHE, along with the ..electrification.

Charlie Christian of course played much mo' complex music than CB (and the bop school, Ellington etc) but...they kept to the jazz-swing beat. That rock 8th note beat...produced some odd effect on the Herd--

Adorno may not have cared for jazz, but thought rock rather...sinister if not verging on totalitarian. Check out like footage for the Stones at Altamount--quite intensely malevolent...e.g. Dystopia arrives