Hail! the Poet of Rock and Roll is Dead
"Down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play guitar just like a ringing bell”.
Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry 1957.
Chuck Berry passed away on March 18 2017 aged 90. I was so lucky to have seen him in Vicar Street Dublin in the 1990s and danced with him on stage! I have photos to prove it but I am not posting them here; it was one of the highlights of my life... sad I know. BTW it was before mobile phone cameras so thanks to the gentleman from Cavan who took the photos and posted them to me.
His incredible guitar style and smoothly scanning lyrics created a distinct style at the birth of Rock and Roll. His clever idea of mixing black rhythm and blues with white country music served up a delicious formula of standout youth culture anthems revolving around cars and girls which still permeate today. Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys used the music from Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen and sang lyrics about surfing over it to create their first breakthrough record. Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones said “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I’ve lifted every lick he ever played.” John Lennon said “If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry”. Bob Dylan coined him “the Shakespeare of Rock and Roll”, you can see the similarities between Berry’s “Too much Monkey Business” and Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Did he invent Rock and Roll? No, this single is regarded as the first Rock and Roll record Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (who were actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rythym), it was released in 1951 and you can guess Chuck gave it a few listens!
“I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back,
And started walkin' towards a coffee coloured Cadillac
I was pushin' through the crowd tryin' to get to where she’s at
I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat”
“Nadine”, Chuck Berry 1964.
An important feature in Berry’s career was his musical relationship with boogie woogie piano player Johnny Johnson who hired Berry as a stand-in guitarist for his jazz and blues group the Sir John Trio in 1952. They continued to work together for twenty years. In 2000 Johnson sued Berry for writing credits on some of his early hits but failed to reap any reward, he was inducted into the Sideman category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later.
Berry had a colourful life with a few prison sentences and a gnarly reputation for wanting payment in cash. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll! is a gripping documentary concert celebrating his 60th birthday. It features Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and a host of other huge stars. It’s compulsive watching for how Richards and Berry continuously rub each other the wrong way.
Rest in Peace, the Poet of Rock and Roll.
Chuck’s influences include jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and T-Bone Walker.