Catching up with Chuck Berry

“My Ding-A-Ling” was a big hit when I was a kid. Even at that tender young age I understood the double entendre and enjoyed it. To hear a grown man sing about his little captain was a wonderful thing. I had never heard such a thing before! But then to hear him not only sing about it, but to command his audience with such ease, was simply amazing to me. It was my introduction to the music of Chuck Berry. Perhaps not the ideal introduction, but it certainly served its purpose.

As that song was still on the charts we visited a relative who had some Chuck Berry records. Having expressed an interest, I was shown to their stereo and permitted to listen to whatever I wanted. The first thing I went for was something by Chuck Berry. I don’t recall what it was, but I do recall that Johnny B. Goode was the first track I heard—and may well have been the only track I heard, because that’s the only song I can remember listeneing to that night! I played it over and over and over again. Couldn’t get enough of it!

There’s no getting around the fact that Chuck Berry is a towering figure in modern popular music. Though he hasn’t had a hit in well over thirty years, his influence is nothing short of staggering. He single handedly created the vocabulary of rock and roll guitar, and since the guitar is the dominant instrument of the form, he by extension created much of the vocabulary of rock and roll itself. All pop artists from that point on have learned and taken from him. Some overtly, some unknowingly, but it happens none the less.

A couple of weeks ago I watched Hail, Hail, Rock And Roll, a documentary celebrating Chuck Berry’s sixtieth birthday. Filmed in 1986, it featured a live performance in Berry’s home town of St. Louis, MO intercut with interviews of such luminaries as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Cray and so many others. To hear how these artists, giants themselves, were moved, influenced and even humbled by Berry’s music was remarkable. They happily pushed aside their own egos to wax poetic on the music they grew up with and that helped make them the musicians they are now (or were then).

And then there’s the concert. Wow! Watching him perform is like watching an old artist paint. But it’s much more than the thrill of seeing a master at his craft. There’s no getting around the fact that he’s a gifted writer and player, but he also has charm and charisma to burn. When he was on that stage, he was in full and total command of not only the band, but the audience as well. Whatever he wanted, he got. With a nod of his head or a quick flick of his wrist, he worked the room like nobody else. It was showmanship at its best.

And he certainly had no problem finding people to perform with. His bandleader was Keith Richards, his bassist was Joey Spampinato, and the invited guests included Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James and Eric Clapton. Not a slouch among them!

So there I was, soaking all of this in and realizing that although I knew precisely how influential a musician Chuck Berry is, I had not a single song of his in my collection. Nothing! I had other people’s versions of some of his songs, but not the originals.

I decided to remedy that situation by ordering a copy of his Chess Records boxed set from Amazon. It arrived in less than a week. As soon as it came I tore it open, burned it onto my iBook, and began to soak it in. I listen to it on my iPod, my iBook and at work.

So far I’m having a blast listening to these great old songs and hearing exactly where certain things came from. Things like Marc Bolan’s line “meanwhile, I’m still thinking” that comes as his T. Rex song “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” fades out. That came directly from “Little Queenie”. Cool!

But it’s not like the only interesting thing about his music are the ways it influenced people. These are great songs in their own right! There’s a palable sense of playfulness and mischief in his writing that is very endearing. The little “ah” that he puts into the lyrics of “Too Much Monkey Business” really help sell the feeling he’s trying to get across. The nonsense words that the background singers use in “Almost Grown” are great! They’re fun and fit the music beautifully. The same goes for “Back in the USA”.

I think I’ll keep this stuff on my iPod for quite a while.