Just like ringing a bell
Chuck Berry’s gift for words and music changed rock history
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Chuck Berry died on March 18. Without him, something called “rock ’n’ roll” might still have come along, but it would’ve sounded different. And it almost certainly wouldn’t have sounded as good.
The dozen records that Berry placed on the Top 40 from 1955 through 1964 included “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Nadine,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Back in the U.S.A.,” and “School Day.” Each one forged an enduring, red-hot template.
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones covered Berry’s songs. (Keith Richards later said that he “lifted every lick [Berry] ever played.”) The Beach Boys rewrote “Sweet Little Sixteen” as “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and reached the Top 5. Johnny Rivers had hits with “Maybellene” and “Memphis.” Bob Dylan went electric to Berry’s cadences and riffs. The Beatles turned the 13th line of “You Can’t Catch Me” into the first line of “Come Together.”
Berry left his mark on the 1970s too, earning his only No. 1 with a live version of Dave Bartholomew’s double-entendre novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” in ’72. The Beach Boys and Linda Ronstadt scored hits with “Rock and Roll Music” and “Back in the U.S.A.” respectively. Electric Light Orchestra concerts frequently ended with a hard-rocking “Roll Over Beethoven.”
For Berry, however, the ’70s ended with a whimper. Rock It (1979), a solid effort that sounded fresher than anything he’d recorded in ages, stiffed, convincing him to abandon the studio altogether and to double down on the itinerant-musician routine that had become as integral to his reputation as his guitar licks and his crowd-pleasing “duck walk” (which AC/DC’s Angus Young later turned into his own signature move).
Berry’s routine went like this: Having checked his guitar as luggage, he’d fly into town, show up at a venue, collect his money up front, perform with a band that he’d never met, and leave. The low overhead helped him maximize his earnings potential, but it also resulted in his becoming notorious for inconsistent performances.
It was this situation that Keith Richards sought to redress as the musical director of Berry’s two 60th-birthday shows at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre in October 1986. Backed by Steve Jordan (drums), Richards (guitar), and the Stones’ sidemen Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Bobby Keys (sax) and reunited with his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson, Berry got to strut his still-formidable stuff in a musical setting befitting his stature.
That stature owed a lot to his vivid, sharply observed lyrics. But Berry could write striking prose too. “He didn’t know me from Adam on that eve,” he wrote in his autobiography, correcting a rumor that he’d sat in with Muddy Waters the first time the two met, “and Satan himself could not have tempted me to contaminate the father’s fruit of the blues, as pure as he picked it.”
When Berry turned 90 last fall, he announced that he’d soon be releasing an album simply titled Chuck. Due out later this year, it’s dedicated to Themetta “Toddy” Berry, his wife of 68 years. Given that two of his several criminal convictions involved sex-related offenses, the gesture is probably the least he could’ve done. (Berry did time at the peak of his career for transporting a minor across state lines for lascivious purposes and settled a class-action suit in the ’90s for secretly filming women in the restroom of his restaurant.)
And, given what he sang 38 years ago in the Rock It song “Oh What a Thrill,” it’s a gesture that he had long had in mind:
Baby, you’re so beautiful to want me here to stay / I would be here forever, but I gotta die someday / But I will be lovin’ you, baby, when I pass away.
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