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Chuck Berry


Without Chuck Berry Rock 'n' Roll may never have happened, or, at the very least, it would have been vastly different. The combination of Berry's songwriting (great lyrics, not just gibberish) and his guitar (the famous "Chuck Berry riff") fueled Rock 'n' Roll.

Berry started playing local R&B clubs in his native St. Louis in the early '50s. While he was doing OK he still needed a day job. With a degree from a local beauty school, Berry worked as a hairdresser and beautician. He also did some recording of little consequence. It wasn't until '55 when Berry ventured to Chicago and met legendary Bluesman Muddy Waters that things turned around.

Impressed, Waters put Berry in touch with his label, Chess Records. First out was a reworking of a Country standard called "Ida Red." With a nod to his beautician past the song was renamed "Maybellene." It ruled the R&B charts and even broke the Top 5 on the pop charts. From that point on Berry produced numerous classics: "Roll Over Beethoven," "You Can't Catch Me," "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode." During this period Berry headlined several tours and appeared in a couple movies including "Rock, Rock, Rock." He also opened a nightclub in St. Louis and that's where the story took a nasty turn.

1959 was not a great year. Despite two brilliant songs, "Almost Grown" and "Back In The U.S.A." Berry didn't have much chart impact. He appeared in the film "Go Johnny Go" but it was apparent his career had stalled. To make matters worse, after a show in El Paso, Berry came across a fourteen year old girl who had been working as a waitress and prostitute. Berry, unaware of the girl's age or past occupational experience, offered her a job at his nightclub and drove her to St. Louis.





By the time the legal process finished Berry was convicted of violating the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes) and began serving a three-year sentence in '62. Parole came just two years later and Berry attempted to resurrect his career. He had some help. The Beach Boys had reworked "Sweet Little Sixteen" into their first hit "Surfin' U.S.A." Also, the Rolling Stones put out a cover of "Come On," another Berry chestnut. On his own he created the humorous "No Particular Place To Go" and "You Never Can Tell." And though it never cracked the Top 40 Berry also released "Promised Land." (Over a decade later a version of this song would be among Elvis' final recordings). However, the British invasion soon ruled the U.S. charts and that was that.

By '66 Berry was signed to Mercury Records. The relationship did more harm than good with Berry re-recording his classics. These performances in no way compared with the originals. Still, it was a paycheck.

The early '70s Berry landed in England recording with notable Brit Rockers including members of the Faces. "The London Chuck Berry Sessions," containing both live and studio tracks was Berry's most commercially successful album which contained his biggest hit, the silly novelty song "My Ding-A-Ling." It rolled out in '72.

In '79 Berry found himself in the slammer again, this time for tax evasion. Ironically, prior to serving his five-month sentence, he performed at the White House at the special request of President Jimmy Carter.

Long out of the limelight, Berry died on March 18th, 2017, at his home in St. Louis at age 90.

His songwriting, singing, guitar playing and showmanship left an indelible imprint on Rock n' Roll.

As one of Rock n' Roll's founding fathers, Berry's career also had a down side. There were his legal troubles and the tendency to sleepwalk through live shows often with unrehearsed pick-up groups (anything to save a buck). But like his contemporaries, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry was larger than life. That's his legacy.

Chuck Berry Discography

Chuck Berry is a singles artist and incredible singles they are. His music has been packaged and re-packaged but it's important to get the original Chess recordings. Those are not only the best but they are the only ones that count. Another argument for the Chess recordings: stellar musicians back Berry. That's not the case on much of his later work.

"Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits," "Chuck Berry's Golden Decade" and "His Best: Volume I" are excellent. For a complete retrospective there's "Anthology," a two CD set that has the hits from "Maybellene" to "My Ding-A-Ling" along with album tracks and R&B titles. It's a great look at Berry's career and talent, beyond the obvious.

"The London Chuck Berry Sessions" is OK. Its popularity was due to a combination of working with famous British musicians and finally getting the recognition due.

Avoid re-recordings done in the '60s. These are second rate and Berry sounds like he's doing it for the money - probably was. Also, live recordings are usually a waste since Berry rarely toured with a back-up group preferring to use local musicians. It saved money but didn't always make for a great show.

Gotta Haves:

Chuck Berry Anthology:
It's all here. Chuck Berry's classic Rockers, "Johnny B. Goode," Roll Over Beethoven," etc. and even his not so classic "My Ding-A-Ling." Also, this set traces Berry's R&B influences on lesser-known but no less impressive tracks.


 

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