Culture

Chuck Berry: ring the bell for America’s greatest rock and roll poet pioneer

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  19 March 2017

In the famous T.A.M.I. Show filmed in October 1964, in the wings of which it is reputed that James Brown said to Mick Jagger “welcome to America, Mr Jagger,” Chuck Berry was on first. An eclectic selection of artists had been assembled in front of a screaming teenage audience, with the whole thing filmed in Electronovision, a then new film technology that gave the footage a crispness and clarity that conventional TV could not manage.

That film was recorded less than a decade after Berry’s first single Maybellene was released but by 1964 Berry already looked out of place, as though the producers knew that he was important – they had invited him, after all – but didn’t know quite what to do with a 38 year-old rock and roll first wave star not long released from prison for the crime of transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. His relevance rested on the renewed interest, and earning power, that came from the British invasion and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones covering his work on their early records. The Beach Boys also stole Sweet Little Sixteen adding new lyrics for their own Surfin’ USA, for which they had to pay him.

On the show an awkward Berry was surrounded by dancers on scaffolding and podiums while he ran through several songs with the house band (the famous Wrecking Crew). Then he had to share a stage with Gerry & the Pacemakers, one of the lamest but most successful of the British beat groups of the time, who proceeded to massacre Maybellene.

Berry looked like a relic. The younger black artists who followed on that T.A.M.I. show – the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye – had taken control, or their managements had, of their presentation and reputation. While Berry had been in prison they had turned performing into a slick operation in which detail mattered. In contrast, Chuck Berry would play anywhere, backed by any pick up band no matter how bad, as long as the promoter paid up front in cash.

James Brown in 1964 in his pomp provided the biggest contrast of all. He was furious that the pale new arrivals the Stones had been booked to go on after him (“nobody goes on after James Brown.”) Unlike Berry, he had no truck with dancers doing cheesy routines, as provided by the producers, and instead with his own band put on a masterclass of movement and melodrama that was a marvellous challenge or rebuke to the Rolling Stones who closed the show. “Just go out there and do your best,” Marvin Gaye is said to have told a worried Jagger watching Brown put on his most intense performance.

Shortly after the passage of civil rights legislation, James Brown stood for a much more assertive and modern blackness. Befitting a man of the strictly segregated 1950s, Berry and his fellow artists of that period, performers such as Little Richard and Bo Diddley, were pioneers but they were compelled by circumstance, for all their rebellion, to play the white man’s game by the white man’s rules. In subsequent decades Berry’s resentment at this state of affairs simmered and boiled over at various points, understandably.

Ironically, the Stones opened their short set that day with a Chuck number, Around and Around. In doing so they acknowledged their debt to Berry, the artist who was their single biggest influence in their early years. They also needed something punchy, a driving boogie, to stand a chance of cutting through after Brown’s performance. It just about worked for the Stones, and then the rest of their set sounded thin and looked anaemic. Jagger was mocked afterwards for dancing like a chicken, not for the first or last time. “Here, you’ve got to come to Richmond to the Station Hotel to see this new band called the Stones,” a friend was told in 1963. “The singer dances around like a f***in’ chicken.”

If the Stones always gave Berry his proper place and accorded him his due, and they issued a statement on Saturday when news broke of his death aged 90, then the same cannot be said of the American music industry, or cultural commentators in the US. Yes, he was recognised as being important (his recordings were sent into space by NASA at one point) but the praise was usually qualified, until in the aftermath of his death there was an outpouring of praise.

In part this distance and doubt must be down to Berry having been a notoriously difficult man with the media, and partly because there was always a suspicion that his spells in prison were only the half of it. They only covered the transgressions for which he had been caught. We can expect a slew of allegations and testimony about Berry’s sexual behaviour thirty to forty years ago now he is gone.

There was another problem, this time artistic. Berry took such a careless attitude to his mighty body of work, trashing it night after night with those pick-up bands provided by promoters. If he could not take his own work seriously then why should the rest of us bother?

The one person who tried to fix the situation was Keith Richards, who in the mid-1980s embarked on Hail, Hail, Rock’n’Roll, a concert film with Berry in which the Stone put together an all-star band including Eric Clapton and Steve Jordan. At moments in the concert it worked, when the famous guitar riffs rang true and in tune. But the rehearsal footage is the best, especially when Richards and Berry have a bust up over Carol, a song the Stones covered to blistering effect on their first album. Chuck gets the very simple chord change wrong and Keith points it out. Berry is not going to be corrected by a white whipper-snapper. He then proceeds to give the grizzled tough guy Richards a guitar lesson: “You wanna get it right? Let’s get it right.” Richards boils with fury and then out of it comes a couple of minutes of the best guitar-playing and singing Berry had managed since the 1950s.

When that film with Richards was released in 1987 there was a typically sour ending. Berry charged the production company for rental of his amplifiers, it is said, even though everyone had been trying to help him make money and put his achievements in proper historical perspective. The experience left Richards deeply disappointed in his hero, who had on an earlier occasion felled him with a single punch in a dressing room. Chuck’s greatest hit, Richards called it.

Another joy in Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll is the reappearance of Johnnie Johnson, the piano player whose band Berry had taken over in the early 1950s and retooled. Johnson’s lyrical playing provided much of the framework (the keys and turnarounds) and quite a few of the licks for the songs that made Berry famous, for which Johnson, a modest man, received little financial reward or recognition. Richards worked to change that, illustrating again his generosity of spirit.

What Johnnie Johnson, or no-one else, could claim a share of the credit for was Berry’s lyric writing. This is, for a Berry fan, one of the great oddities of the entire story. Time and again Bob Dylan a decade after Berry’s appearance is accorded special status for supposedly having been the first to raise popular music and rock, or folk, to the status of poetry. Or Buddy Holly is praised for the innovation of writing his own material.

Several years before them Berry had done it all, producing a run of writing so extraordinary in its quality and scope, so clever in its dissection of American mores, love, consumerism, sex, aspiration, capitalism and race, that it stands as one of the defining achievements of American cultural life in the 20th century.

Not only are the best songs exciting (they gave me a shiver down the spine on first hearing them 34 years ago) because the playing of the band he used at Chess Records in Chicago is so on it, so tight and so rocking. The effect can be baffling to the unconvinced, however. Quite often the arrangements and licks are identical to other Berry songs, to the extent that the uninitiated will say “but this is the same song.” Sure, but it’s one of the greatest ever songs and what elevates it all is the writing, the subject matter, the wit, the playing and the quality of delivery.

Whether or not Berry knew exactly what he was doing is hardly the point (he talked about it hardly at all so it is difficult to know). Nonetheless, he was in that very special category. Whereas most successful writers have had to work at the formula, much more than they admit, and learn form and structure while studying others, all to make invention and innovation appear spontaneous and magical, Berry was one of the rarities. Out of that imperfect, difficult man somehow flowed perfect metre and rhyme, reams of alliteration, wit and observation, all delivered in the mid to late 1950s with vocal performances of exceptional power and precision.

On Too Much Monkey Business, recorded on April 16th 1956, he talks of botheration and taps into the frustration of being young and bossed about, although he was 29 by that point. But the gift for articulating the worldview of newly prosperous young audiences and expressing it in amusing terms meant that he crossed over, appealing to white listeners at a time when pop music was for the most part strictly segregated.

Too much monkey business…

Been to Yokohama been fighting in the war
Army bunk, Army chow, Army clothes, Army car, ahh!

And then…

Working in the filling station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tyres, check the oil, dollar gas, ahh!

On the same day, in the same session, he recorded Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To meet a brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man.

And then Roll Over Beethoven, with a nod to another composer.

You know, my temperature’s risin’
and the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
and my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

All in one day…

On Nadine, recorded in 1963, the simple tale of trying to track down a girlfriend, you get this:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back,
And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac,
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at,
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat.

On Promised Land (1964), the story of a journey west from the US east coast, there’s this:

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way ‘cross Alabam,
And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.

Straight off, I bought me a through train ticket,
Ridin’ cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans.

And Tulane in 1970 is the story of getting busted.

Go back by your father’s, get the money for the bail
And bring it down and bail me out this rotten, funky jail
We gotta get a lawyer in the click of politics
Somebody who can win the thing or get the thing fixed.

Win the thing, or get the thing fixed? It was ever thus…

I will not here add any further encomium, other than to say how much pleasure Chuck Berry’s recorded work has given me, and many others, for decades. He was the man. Not a nice man, it seems, but one of the greatest artists of his generation.


         

         

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