Chuck Berry Lives!
David Remnick March 18, 2017
Chuck Berry takes up a lot of square footage in the foundation of rock music. And every musician knows it.PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES / GETTY IMAGES
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Never has the anxiety of influence been captured so openly, and so vividly, as in the standoff between Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, when they rehearsed Berry’s song “Carol” in St. Louis thirty years ago. To watch Berry bully, instruct, and, finally, cajole Richards into getting things right is as unforgettable for the viewer as it was humbling for the veteran of the Rolling Stones. Not that Richards was unaccustomed to the dynamic. Years before, Richards had dared to strum Berry’s guitar—the big Gibson ES-355—when Berry was out of the room. Berry returned and shouted, “No one touches my guitar!” and belted Richards in the mouth. Now Richards was getting the hard-ass treatment, even as he was trying to put together an all-star concert to celebrate Berry’s sixtieth birthday.
“Every time him and me got in contact, whether it’s intentional or not, I end up getting wounded,” Richards said. “Chuck has his own way of showing his appreciation.”
Berry, who died Saturday, at the age of ninety, was a proud and difficult man. He was also a genius. As a player, as a songwriter, and as a performer, he was a master of invention, transforming the rolling rhythms of Louis Jordan and the guitar figures of T-Bone Walker into the rhythmic foundation of half the rock songs you’ve ever heard. Rooted in the blues and with an ear for American country music, Berry blew things up and out with his first hits; he helped to create another form. Chuck Berry was to rock music what Louis Armstrong was to jazz—a foundational figure; if not quite singular, then as close as it gets.
“If you had tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”
Lennon—like Richards, like Bob Dylan, like the Beach Boys—was among the countless second-generation white musicians who understood the immensity of their debt to Chuck Berry. Their music would not have been possible without him. When the Beatles were playing in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg, much of their set was filled with Chuck Berry songs. To this day, it’s what any fledgling kid with a guitar wants to learn: “Little Queenie,” “Nadine,” “Jo Jo Gunne,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” He is in everyone’s ear. Berry inflects nearly all of rock and roll. Sometimes the influence was so obvious that it infuriated Berry, a man inclined as much to irritation as to joy—and, at times, to legal action. He sued the Beach Boys for “Surfin’ U.S.A.”; it was just too close to “Sweet Little Sixteen” for his comfort.
The reason Mick Jagger and Keith Richards struck up their friendship in the first place was because of a mutual adoration of Berry’s music. When Richards was a teen-ager, he wrote a letter to his Aunt Patty, saying, “You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles. But one mornin’ on Dartford Stn . . . I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs y’know came up to me.” Jagger was carrying two records: “The Best of Muddy Waters” and Berry’s “Rockin’ at the Hops.”
Berry developed his act as a kid. He started out on a strange four-string tenor guitar and sang “Confessin’ the Blues” at a high-school talent show. But, unlike the Stones or the Beatles, he had an awful start. When he was eighteen, he was busted for armed robbery and stealing a car, and spent three years in a reformatory, in Jefferson City, where he formed a singing quartet. He worked as a janitor and as a carpenter; he trained to be a hairdresser. Copping some of the riffs and performing moves of T-Bone Walker, he joined various small bands, playing R. & B. songs and even some country.
Berry broke through as a star, in 1955, with “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours.” No musician of consequence comes from nowhere, untouched by influence, and Berry had his predecessors: Charlie Christian, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Carl Hogan. “Maybellene” was a reordering of “Ida Red,” a country song made famous by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. But Berry’s sound, backed by Johnnie Johnson on piano and Ebby Hardy on drums, was something new—the sound of wheels on the open road.
Berry wrote “Carol” in 1958, the same year as “It Don’t Take But a Few Minutes,” “Around and Around,” “Blues for Hawaiians,” and the everlasting “Johnny B. Goode.” When Berry and Richards got together in St. Louis, to perform that song and others, they were joined by an astonishing array of players: Johnnie Johnson, on piano; Eric Clapton and Robert Cray, on guitar; Steve Jordan, on drums. Etta James and Linda Ronstadt sang. But in rehearsal, and in the subsequent film by Taylor Hackford, “Hail, Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” it was the brittle dynamic between Berry and Richards that was the whole story. Time and again, Berry stops Richards and makes him play the famous opening riff his way.
The reason for the tension is not hard to discern. Richards and Jagger had been making a fortune off of Chuck Berry songs—and songs influenced by Berry, as well as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—for a generation. It’s true that Richards called Berry his “numero uno hero.” And, in 1986, when he spoke at Berry’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—its first year in operation—he said, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I lifted every lick he ever played. This is the gentleman who started it all, as far as I’m concerned.” Richards, Lennon, and so many other white musicians paid their obeisance to Berry—they paid it loudly and often—but in the end, they collected the gargantuan checks and the worldwide fame, and that always rankled Berry. He was hardly a pauper, but at times he resented the white eclipse of the British invasion.
Berry started out in a middle-class family—middle-class black, it is important to remember. Racism touched his life all along the way. He was also no angel. Throughout his career, he sidetracked himself with what he blithely called his “naughties.”
“Every fifteen years, in fact, it seems, I made a big mistake,” he wrote in his autobiography. There was the three-year stint in a reformatory as a teen-ager, for armed robbery and auto theft. Then, in 1962, he was sentenced to three years under the Mann Act; he’d had sexual relations with a fourteen-year-old girl and then transported her across state lines. (At first, the ruling was overturned on appeal for the racist remarks of the judge.) And, in 1979, a few days after playing for Jimmy Carter, at the White House, he was sent to Lompoc Prison Camp, for tax evasion. Berry wrote the bulk of his memoir, “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography,” at Lompoc.
It was a complicated life, impossible to capture in brief. Read the book. But first, listen to the songs. They are to rock what Armstrong’s early recordings, the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, were to jazz. Little Richard, James Brown, Ray Charles—they were there, too, at the start, and not to be trifled with, but Chuck Berry takes up a lot of square footage in the foundation of rock music. And every musician knows it.
In the early seventies, Bruce Springsteen was in his twenties and building a reputation with his band, and he got a call from his manager saying that Springsteen was going to open for Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry at a hall in Maryland. By that time, Berry toured on his own, without a band. He showed up at the gig with his Gibson, demanded cash from the promoter, and then played in front of whatever local musicians the promoter had put together. Hearing that, Springsteen said that he and his band would be honored to work behind the great man.
Berry showed up on the appointed night right after Jerry Lee had finished his set, five minutes before he was supposed to go on. He collected eleven thousand dollars—and was obliged to give back a thousand if the band was adequate and the amplifiers worked properly. Meanwhile, Springsteen and his crew sweated through their shirts as they waited for instructions from their idol.
“We were really nervous,” Springsteen recalled in Hackford’s film. “There wasn’t supposed to be an extra guitar player, so I came up to him and I said, ‘Gee, is it okay if I play?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can play.’ And I said, “Well, Chuck . . .’ And he said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘What songs are we going to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’ ”
And so they did: “Carol,” “Little Queenie,” “Roll Over Beethoven.” The band knew the songs, of course, but not in the keys used by Berry. Most bands play those tunes in easier guitar keys—the key of E, the key of A—but Berry preferred B-flat, E-flat, and you were lost if you didn’t pick up on it right away. Thanks to an astute bass player, they survived. Springsteen & Company made it nearly to the end without incident, and with the crowd in hysterics. Suddenly, things came to an abrupt end.
“I think his amp blew up and he just kind of walked right to the side of the stage, and packed his guitar in front of the entire auditorium,” Springsteen said. “They were going crazy, and we were, I guess, doing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by now. We were just playing that rhythm. He waved, and that was it. He walked out. Walked back into his car, and he was gone.”