R.I.P. Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

Chuck Berry, c. 1973

Chuck Berry, c. 1973

The very first concert WC saw in Chicago was Chuck Berry at a small venue – the name of which WC has long since forgotten – on the west side of the Loop, in what was then called the Blues District. Berry was touring in support of his latest album, 1972’s The London Chuck Berry Sessions, which included the unfortunate “My Dig-a-ling,” Berry performed that song twice in his one hour gig.

It was a greatest hits show, with a loose group of local musicians backing him. They were surprisingly ragged at the start of each song. It turned out that was because Berry never told his local backing band the set list, never rehearsed and expected the  musicians to come in on his guitar intro. He did his signature stage hop, a couple of short guitar solos and that was it. Absolutely no patter. The show was disappointing enough WC never troubled himself to see Berry again.

Still, if anyone invented rock and roll, it was probably Chuck Berry. At this induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they said:

While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. It was his particular genius to graft country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis in his very first single, “Maybellene”.

Berry’s hits pretty much ended in the early 1960s, but in a frenetic ten years he gave us songs like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell),” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “No Particular Place To Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Carol.” It’s a pretty impressive songbook.

“Johnny B. Goode” was his biography. “Rock and Roll Music” was his anthem. But they were all variations on “Maybellene,” all driven by the wonderful tension between Berry’s precise vocals and his elegant and energetic renegade guitar riffs.

Off stage, not so much. Multiple felony convictions. Sexual perversion. Tax fraud. Accusations of plagiarism. If Berry was the father of rock and roll, it’s only right that it have a suitably controversial parent. Remember, Bruce Springsteen called him a major influence, and Keith Richards inducted him into the Hall of Fame.

Rest in peace, Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And roll over, Beethoven.


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