Chuck Berry turns ninety today, and has also used today to announce that next year he will be releasing his first album in thirty-eight years.
I’ve often said that Berry is the perfect example of a case where it’s a good idea to separate the art from the artist. Chuck Berry the man is, from what I know of his life, a fairly loathsome human being on every level, and I think it important to acknowledge that, but Chuck Berry the artist is a contender for most important artist of the twentieth century, and so I’d like to celebrate the artist’s birthday here.
John Lennon once said “if rock and roll had another name, it would be Chuck Berry”, and that’s pretty much the simplest way of putting it. Rock and roll had no singular inventor, no single moment of creation — at first it was really a marketing label slapped on stylistically disparate records — and one can argue forever what the “first rock and roll record” was, but listen to most of them and it’s hard to see a direct line to anything created after about 1956. Roy Brown’s “Good Rocking Tonight” and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” are Louis Jordan knockoffs (and Jordan *really* needs more credit for the huge influence he had). Bill Haley’s “Rock the Joint” is a lumpen western swing band (with, admittedly, a fantastic guitarist) playing a Louis Jordan knockoff. Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama” is, other than the astonishing vocal, a standard hillbilly record. Some of them are truly great recordings, but they all sound like interesting paths that didn’t really lead anywhere.
Chuck Berry, though, from his very first single “Maybellene”, sounded different from anything that had come before. His influences were obvious — Jordan, Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters, Cab Calloway, Rosetta Tharpe, Nat “King” Cole, Bob Willis — but he mixed them in an utterly unique manner. To see what I mean, compare these two videos. The first is Bob Willis doing “Ida Red”, the second is Berry’s “Maybellene”.
Ignore the clumping old white men backing Berry in the second video, but pay attention instead to the vocals and guitar. Berry’s song is very obviously “inspired” by the Willis song, but the difference is so great they might as well have been recorded in different centuries, rather than just four years apart. “Maybellene” is certainly dated, but most people would, I think, get the appeal — it’s not modern, but it’s modern enough that people can connect with it. “Ida Red” is ancient history.
If Berry had “only” been the first person to come up with the idea of combining hillbilly rhythms with jump-band licks played on an electric guitar, with a Chicago blues timbre, he would still have been one of the great innovators of 50s music. If he had “only” invented rock and roll guitar — and of the great 50s rock stars he was the only one who was a lead guitarist, with all the rest either strumming an acoustic or playing the piano (though of course there were plenty of great blues guitarists around that time, but Guitar Slim or Johnny “Guitar” Watson were never considered rock and roll and never made the crossover to a white audience like Berry, Fats Domino, or Little Richard) — he’d have been one of the greats.
He also had a much better stage presence than almost all of his contemporaries. Other than him only Little Richard and Elvis didn’t look uncomfortable on stage — all the other early rock stars look like nervous kids in a school play who’ve forgotten their lines. But watch that video again — Berry is not only all over the stage, dancing, pulling faces, but he’s also doing knowing, funny, eye movements at the camera — he’s the first TV-aware rock and roll performer, and knows how to use the medium.
But his greatest contribution was in his lyrics. Berry’s topics were almost always the standard topics of the time — girls who he likes, girls who don’t like him, cars, school, and especially rock and roll music (in fact Berry is largely responsible for rock-as-myth — he largely invented the subgenre of songs about how great rock and roll is) — but the actual *words* he used…
To my mind Berry’s ability with words is second only to P.G. Wodehouse. He doesn’t *quite* have Wodehouse’s ability, but then Wodehouse wasn’t all that great as a lyricist — coming up with unusual and memorable words that fit a strict melody is much harder than *just* coming up with a good phrase. But look at a song like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, just as an example.
This is a song which takes *every single negative stereotype about black men* — they’re lazy, they’re criminals, they’re better at sports (this was less than a decade after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball — the argument for keeping them out had been that black people were too good at it for the white man), and most of all that they will steal your white women with their pure sexual magnetism — and turns them into unmitigated positives, and does so in such a witty manner that you don’t even realise that’s what he’s doing.
“Arrested on charges of unemployment, he was sitting in the witness stand” — what an opening line, and how much it says in so few words. This black man has been wrongly arrested, for something that isn’t a crime, but which plays up to the stereotype of black men as lazy — but Berry states it so casually, it’s impossible not to laugh. It’s simultaneously a brilliantly funny line, and one that carries real political bite. And this song, about black men being irresistible to white women, came out only a year after the murder of Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman.
But at the same time, it’s also a funny, erudite song — “Milo Venus was a beautiful lass, she had the world in the palm of her hand/She lost both her arms in a wrestling match to meet a brown-eyed handsome man”. The idea that this would be how the Venus de Milo really lost her arms is wonderful, and at the same time the line is another snub to racists — this is a black man, singing about other black men, but casually dropping references to high culture.
And Berry’s lyrics are *full* of great lines like those, whether little observations like “the coolerator was jammed with TV dinners and ginger ale” or great metaphors like the stalker in “Nadine” calling out to the woman he’s after “campaign shouting like a southern diplomat” (the line was originally “southern Democrat”, but Berry changed it to avoid party politics in his songs). Then there are things like the shaggy dog story that is “Memphis Tennessee”, where the entire song is set up to make you think it’s a story of separated lovers and only on the last line do you realise it’s from the point of view of a man whose daughter has been taken from him by his ex.
Berry’s career as an important songwriter was a short one — his first record was in 1955, and his last really important songs were in 1964, by which time a new generation of musicians inspired by him had already become major stars. The time he was a relevant artist overlaps pretty much exactly with the history of “rock and roll”, as opposed to the rock music that came later, and while he made occasional records after that time, and even had his only number one single in 1972 with the Dave Bartholomew song “My Ding-A-Ling”, nothing he did afterward mattered in the way those nine years did.
But in those nine years he did “Maybellene”, “My Ding-A-Ling”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Carol”, “Come On”, “Little Queenie”, “The Wee Wee Hours”, “Nadine”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Johnny B Goode”, “No Particular Place To Go”, “School Day”, “You Never Can Tell”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Thirty Days”, “No Money Down”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Promised Land”, “I’m Talking About You”, “I’ve Got To Find My Baby”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, “Almost Grown”, “You Can’t Catch Me”, and a dozen others. He wrote “Havana Moon”, a song which with a couple of changes by his namesake Richard Berry became “Louie Louie”. He inspired Keith Richards’ guitar, Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and the Beach Boys’ hits. He *was* rock and roll.
Hail! Hail! Rock and roll.
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