A couple of weeks have gone by since the passing of Chuck Berry, and I’ve wrestled with what to say or to recommend to you. So many people have commented on his death, his music and his impact. The New York Times alone had several wonderful articles including one about his best hits and another about the songs that influenced several of his hits followed by subsequent recordings that were in turn influenced by those same hits. Frankly, I really had nothing to add.
Then I came across an album that is a compilation of his early blues tracks for Chess Records. It’s called simply:
Chuck Berry Blues
The album features Chuck covering sixteen tunes primarily from the 1940’s and early 1950’s blues canon – tunes like “House of Blue Lights,” “Route 66,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Driftin’ Blues,” “Worried Life Blues” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”
On these cuts, you hear an artist looking for his identity, his own original sound. You hear influences of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Elmore Leonard, but also you hear a performer who wants to innovate rather than duplicate . In this sense the album reminds me of the Sun Sessions compilation by Elvis Presley. Both albums fall short in places, but both tease us with glimpses of what’s to come. Fittingly, the album ends with the strongest evidence that Chuck was evolving into something special, a scintallating version of W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” that breathes sparkling new life into an old chestnut. The riffs and swagger are clearly emerging.
Beyond Berry’s guitar playing and singing, his songwriting, especially his lyrics, is what not only separated Chuck from other artists, but also separated his music from everything that came before. He captured the day to day joy, frustrations, trials and tribulations of young Americans in the mid-fifties – black and white – and put them to an ebullient beat that defied anyone to sit still when they heard it. In doing so, he converted R&B, with a tiny country seasoning, into a music that galvanized a generation. In my not so humble opinion, he along with three others were the alchemists of rock ’n’ roll.
Rock ’N’ Roll’s Mount Rushmore
In 1955, the top selling record for the year was Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was the only rock ‘n’ roll record in the top 30. Just one year later, as an old song goes, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. There were twelve rock ’n’ roll songs in the top 30, five by Elvis who held the top two spots, plus another two by the Platters who were evolving from easy listening to become a precursor of black vocal groups like the Dells and the Temptations. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary the change was at the time. Here’s what a top ten hit sounded like before the earth moved between 1955 and 1956.
I was there, listening to radio and records, when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard hit the scene. Yes, there were earlier artists who planted the seed, and giants like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets were making waves and upsetting the programmers on “Your Hit Parade.” Ray in particular was laying the foundation for what would one day become “Soul” music. But nobody, I mean nobody, generated electricity and heat like Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard.
I’m going to list for your consideration my favorite early record by each of these “big four.” Before I list them for you, however, I first must submit that the greatest record in the history of rock ’n’ roll is by far and away Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Good.” It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record. It wasn’t even Chuck’s first hit. But from the opening riff, its story and the musical way it tells the story define the genre. There’s not even a close second. I’ve heard it at least 1000 times including this very afternoon. Without exception, every time I hear it, I’m over taken with glee; I play air guitar; I pound on the steering wheel if I’m in the car; I jump from my chair if I’m at home; I hop out of my booth and onto the dance floor if I’m at a juke joint; I turn it up, and I sing out loud. Having said that, here are my other personal favorites by the Big Four. When you hear any one of them, you know you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll.
Chuck Berry – “School Days”
Next to “Johnnie B. Good” this tune best defines rock ’n’ roll in a teenager’s life, the cure for the humdrum and anxiety of high school. There was a joint right across the street from my high school, The Varsity Grill, which fits Berry’s description to a “T,” right down to “dropping the coin right into the slot.”
Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel”
This was Elvis’ first release on RCA after departing Sun Records, and it went on to be Billboard’s top selling single record for 1956. It’s a different tempo from most of his early rockers, more bluesy and featuring a tinkling piano along with the guitar. But from the opening line, Elvis’ voice commands your attention, and he never lets go.
Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire”
Jerry Lee only knew one way to play. All out and on fire. Following closely behind Elvis at Sun, he lit up the radio waves with songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless,” but for me “Great Balls of Fire” stamped Jerry Lee and rock ’n’ roll itself as something just a little bit dangerous. Jerry Lee re-recorded the tune for his bio-pic starring Dennis Quaid. Though not the original, this clip from the movie aptly illustrates the mania surrounding early rock ‘n’ roll and recreates a legendary encounter between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Although Jerry Lee got the best of Chuck here, he’s on record quoting his mother as saying, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry.”
Little Richard – “Lucille”
The first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and it was soon followed by the two sided “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” along with “Long Tall Sally.” I give the nod here to “Lucille,” however, based on its almost subversive opening with the distinctively throbbing rhythm contrasted by sparse well placed piano single note key strokes, then Richard’s pleading squeal – “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will.” Little Richard always seemed on the verge of coming completely unglued while pounding his piano and leading his relatively large band. He was early rock ’n’ roll’s most flamboyant showman and set a standard that influenced a wide array of artists from James Brown to Prince, as I think you’ll agree seeing this clip from 1969.
These four records cover the spectrum from day to day teen life to heartbreak to hot new love to pleading for a departed lover to “come back where you belong.” I don’t think anybody can deny that Chuck Berry belongs on rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore of the genre’s founders. Who do you think should be up there with him? What are your favorite songs from the launch years of rock ’n’ roll? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Meanwhile… the one and only Chuck Berry with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still rockin’ and rollin’ forty years later.