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.