I Forever Can Tell: RIP Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

"Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode / Playing guitar like a-ringin' a bell and lookin' like he should" – "Garden Party", Ricky Nelson

I had been aware of Chuck Berry for most of my life. For me, above all others, he was the real king of rock ’n’ roll. As a kid in the early ‘70s, I would hear Chuck’s music on the radio and on TV, as first American Graffiti and then Happy Days brought about a wave of ‘50s music nostalgia that was inescapable at the time. It seemed everybody in the world knew Johnny B. Goode and Maybellene, myself included, even if I didn’t own any of his records. But then we did end up owning a couple of K-Tel/Ronco collections of novelty songs. On one of those records was Berry’s extremely silly 1972 song (and, shockingly, only #1 hit), My Ding-a-Ling, with its double entendre (but still gentle) lyrics coming off so goofy that most parents couldn’t really even get mad at it. While Chuck did not write the song (it was a cover of a tune that had first been released in 1952), My Ding-a-Ling was the one that broke through the clouds for me.

As I reached my teens and heard both the Beatles and the Electric Light Orchestra cover (in very different ways) Chuck’s Roll Over, Beethoven, I found that my interest in Mr. Berry's music was definitely becoming more pronounced. (The Beatles covered many of Berry’s songs live and in the studio, though the only other cover released on an official LP from their original run was Rock and Roll Music.) In fact, I seemed to own a lot of covers of his songs by many of my favorite artists at the time: Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Johnny Rivers, Rockpile, Delbert McClinton, Dave Edmunds… too many to name here.

Closing the deal for me, however, was John Lennon’s Rock ’n’ Roll LP, a 1975 album that I first owned on vinyl when I was 15. Fans and critics alike have debated that album’s merits for decades now, but at the time, Lennon’s rip-roarin’ take on ‘50s standards was instrumental in developing my interest further in rock and roll’s roots. The standout track on the album for me was Chuck’s You Can’t Catch Me, though I did not know then that the song’s inclusion on the album – and, in fact, the production of the entire album – were the direct result of Lennon losing a court battle with Berry’s lawyers over the appropriation of some of its lyrics for Come Together. While Chuck’s original version of You Can’t Catch Me rolls along fast and smooth atop Johnnie Johnson’s piano, Lennon’s take sports a Phil Spector-produced Wall of Sound horn section that turns the song into a truly epic ride, just a hair under twice the length of the original but still as exciting. But the length of the song and its increased grandiosity had another effect on me that was even more important: it made me truly give a deep listen to Berry’s lyrics for the first time.

And that was what hooked me into Chuck Berry for a lifetime. Not the guitar… it was the lyrics. His virtuosity and athletic inventiveness on guitar is, of course, quite legendary, and I watched him with as much wide-eyed wonder as anyone when I saw him. As a teenager fascinated both by rhyme and absurdly detailed narratives, Berry’s lyrics were a revelation, and they became the focal point for my continued adoration. He could cram so much detail into a song that was still under three minutes long, deliver the words with mannered, overly precise diction that almost verged on parody, but still keep almost perfect meter AND rock your ass off at the same time. With the rush of details in each song, it was like Chuck was an adult reporter to the world of the ‘50s teenager, and seemed almost duty-bound to provide the listener with as clear a picture as he could. (Insert blues-inspired, rockin' guitar solo here...)

In the days before instant access to nearly every artist and album on demand became the standard, I longed to find a collection of Berry’s music that would give me the proper dose of his work that would allow me to investigate further. There were greatest hits records available, but they were too short. In 1982, when I was still 17, that collection arrived in the form of The Great Twenty-Eight, a double-LP released by Sugar Hill Records (a subsidiary of Chess). There are indeed 28 songs in the collection, arranged chronologically across two LPs, covering his work from 1955-1965. Most of his best and most famous songs are here, though today’s listeners would likely wish that You Never Can Tell (a 1965 song given new life in the ‘90s via the Jackrabbit Slim’s twist contest scene in Pulp Fiction) was included as well. (It is a strange exclusion, since the song was a Top 20 hit for Berry, and also came off the same 1964 album as No Particular Place to Go, which itself is included on The Great Twenty-Eight.) The double album was the biggest dose of Chuck Berry I had come across at the time, and while there have been bigger and even more cohesive collections of his material released since then, The Great Twenty-Eight, then and now, is still the best and most balanced look at Chuck Berry’s early days that you could ever find.

In the first half of the 1980s, Anchorage, Alaska was treated to a pair of Rock ’n’ Roll revival concerts, which were package deals that each brought about a dozen classic ‘50s and early ‘60s artists to play in the Sullivan Arena. Over the course of the two shows, my family and friends were treated to the likes of – amongst many – Bo Diddley, the Platters, Dion, Bobby Vee, Tommy Roe, and Ricky Nelson (not long before his death in 1985). Chuck was the headliner for one of the shows, and my buddy Tony and I were able to secure front row tickets for the event, at which my two younger brothers joined us in watching the usual pickup band of locals attempt to keep up with Chuck as he rambled through a fun though somewhat haphazard near-hour onstage. We got a dose of both the clownish, playful side of his personality via his wordplay and guitar antics, but we also saw glimpses of the more serious, troubled man underneath, who couldn’t help but get upset when the band couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do (though he praised them openly when they did as he requested). Regardless of the outcome, I had gotten my chance to see Chuck Berry live (and in the front row) and found it a remarkable experience.

News of Chuck Berry’s death Sunday left me rather stunned for a few hours. I wasn’t sure what to feel, since I had always figured he would keep duck-walking until he was at least a hundred years old. He didn’t quite make it there, but then, neither will most of us. I am not a religious person (and am about as close to anti-religious as you will meet), but if you want to keep a vision of Chuck meeting his old cronies in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, I won't hold it against you. It's a nice notion.

Myself, I prefer to honor him by continuing to listen to his music, listening to others who worshipped his music as well, and watching his scattered appearances in film and on video. If you are a novice to collecting his music, The Great Twenty-Eight is available on iTunes and is a great way to get acquainted. And if you are a cinema fan but have never seen Chuck Berry meet up onstage with super-fan Keith Richards in Taylor Hackford’s fantastic 1987 concert documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (filmed during Chuck's 60th birthday celebration), you should get on it right away.

All images in this article: Copyright © 2017 Rik Tod Johnson.


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