Aw man. When rock ‘n roll came kicking and screaming from the womb, Chuck Berry was right there holding the towels and hot water in one hand and a Gibson electric guitar in the other. He was the mother and the father, the granddaddy of them all, the godfather of guitar-based music.
He was the alchemist of The Riff. He was a true poet of popular culture. He was an influence on everyone who ever mattered. Every. One. Answerable to no one and master of all. Fingers longer than the route to the Promised Land itself, they dug the earth, set the foundations and built the house upon which everything followed.
I was at a gig on Saturday night (BMX Bandits. Simply wonderful) and I’d been talking with support act Joe Kane (Google him – he’s worth a feature of his own on here) about the time Chuck played in Irvine.
“That was great, Chuck!” enthused the promoter as Chuck left the stage after barely half an hour. “Fancy going back on for an encore?”
“Sho’ thing, brother,” drawled Chuck, right arm extended, his famous red 335 still hanging freely from his neck. “…………fo’ nutha five hun’red dollars.”
There was no encore.
Five minutes after our conversation, Joe ran through to tell me he’d just heard Chuck Berry had died. A bizarre coincidence.
“If only we’d known an hour or so ago.. ” he continued, genuinely upset, “That would’ve been the set closer sorted.”
Someone else asked in all seriousness, “Chuck Berry? What did he sing again?” Boggle-eyed, I replied;
He sang about love.
Chuck Berry – Nadine
“As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,
I thought I saw my future bride walkin’ up the street
I shouted to the driver, ‘Hey conductor!’ you must
Slow down I think I see her, please let me off the bus
Nadine, honey is that you?”
He sang about life.
Chuck Berry – You Never Can Tell
“They bought a hi-fi phono and boy did they let it blast!
700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz.”
He sang about heartbreak.
Chuck Berry – Maybelline
“Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
You’ve just started doin’ the things you used to do.”
He sang of coolerators and automobiles and girls and goodtimes and made America sound fantastic and wonderful and like the far-off land of all your dreams. In a post-war bombed-out and still shell-shocked Britain, it’s not hard to see why Keith Richards, Jimmy Page et al were totally taken with Chuck.
Chuck Berry – Back In The USA
“Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We just touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.
New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou
Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back in the U. S. A.”
From mods to rockers, glams to punks, Chuck fuelled ’em all. Marc Bolan would go on to steal the vocal adlib of Little Queenie for Get It On. I suspect you knew that already though.
Chuck Berry – Little Queenie
It’s not just what he sang, it’s how he sung it. And it’s not what he played, it’s how he swung it. The DNA of all rock music starts right here;
Chuck Berry – Johnny B Goode.
By all accounts a most unpleasant human being, remember him instead for the most beautiful and perfect two-string riffing, three-chord swinging, six-string rule-breaking, rule-making music.