With little effort, tapping into those talents that allow me to predict the future, I have been saying this was coming since I realized quite recently that Chuck Berry would be 91 in 2017 – note that Little Richard will be 85 in December. Sadly Chuck didn’t make it to that 91st birthday but his legacy runs long and deep and with all the losses we have suffered in musicland recently, reaching 90 seems like he already outlived expectation.
But what of his legacy? In the fifties he was the man, Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956) , Rock And Roll Music (1957) , Johnny B. Goode (1958). By the end of the fifties he was famous, he had hit singles, popular with black and white audiences, there were Rock And Roll movie appearances and money was pouring in. Then he got arrested and was eventually imprisoned for 18 months for taking a 14 year old Apache girl across state lines.
When he returned he found that up and coming famous bands were recording and hailing his songs. The Beatles recorded Roll Over Beethoven (with George singing) on their second album With The Beatles (1963) and although Berry recorded more hits in the mid-sixtes his appeal as a recording artist had already begun to fade. But by now his earlier songs had become standards, everybody knew the chords, the melodies and the words. Because of the structure of the songs, they allowed easy access for rampant lead guitarists to show off their skills within the frame work of a popular tune. Jimi Hendrix had recorded Johnny B. Goode in 1970 at Berkeley community centre, released on the posthumous live album Hendrix In The West album in 1972 and by now Berry was traveling alone with a guitar, picking up back-up bands wherever he went and ruining his reputation with unrehearsed sloppy versions of his own work.
The tragedy of Chuck Berry for me is that something that was new became old very quickly. Roll Over Beethoven was about new music replacing old music. (See the IDMA post from November 17th below where Beethoven and Chuck share a page). For all the panache with which he played his tunes, how he stood, the duck walk, the cheekiness of it all, through no fault of his own, others, took his innovations into the realms of mediocrity. Whether it be an awful covers band in the pub or one of many famous bands that thought Johnny B.Goode was a simple vibrant encore song, not realizing that they were destroying a precious thing, not realizing that the original guitar tone mattered, misreading what made the song special and overpowering it with bloated guitar histrionics – even Hendrix in his magnificence turned the song into mush.
As a nostalgia act with a difficult reputation, Berry soldiered on, his legend and hero worship from Lennon, Richards, Clapton, Springsteen and many more, guaranteed live audiences everywhere. But one wonders if they were witnessing the legend or actually enjoying the music.
The video clip here is Berry in his heyday from the 1959 movie Go Johnny Go with mostly famous fake mime band: Alan Freed on drums, Dave Brubeck on piano, Jean Reinhart on guitar and Charlie Hayden on bass (Ritchie Valens is sitting at the table).
The real musicians were Johnnie Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Fred Below on drums. Johnnie Johnson later sued Berry saying that he co-wrote a lot of the original songs – the judge ruled that too much time had passed to make a claim.
Little Queenie features the immortal line “She’s too cute to be a minute over 17”. The Stones released a version of the song on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out in 1969 and with the clip below, for me, show that they are one of the only bands in the world that can do a Chuck Berry song justice.
Berry for all his frustrating performances and a seemingly lack of effort or love for his own music did change the world, the problem with an accomplishment of that magnitude is – what do you do next?