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Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Chuck_Berry_1958

Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

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It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

Buddy Holly still timeless at 75 September 13, 2011

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Last week (September 7, to be exact), marked the would-be 75th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s birth.  In case you have been under a rock, though, for the past 52 years, Buddy Holly has been dead for that long, having died in a plane crash in the wee morning hours in a frozen Iowa cornfield.  It is not uncommon for rock stars to burn briefly but very brightly.  But the degree of brightness to which Buddy Holly shone as a star eclipsed most others in his day, and influenced countless others in the years that followed.

Buddy Holly is rightfully recognized as one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers.”  The most notable of our nation’s Founding Fathers each made their own unique contribution as our nation was born.  Washington, for example, was the most gifted leader and capable administrator.  Adams was one of the leading advocates in Congress for independence.  Jefferson was the philosopher-statesman who was able to articulate the American experience and the rights of all men.  Hamilton was the sharpest financial mind, Madison was the most detail-oriented, and Franklin was the most pragmatic, hence the most practical of an already-practical bunch.

When it comes to the founding generation of rock music, the unique contributions in that field manifest themselves as well.  Some examples would include Bill Haley, who inaugurated the era; Chuck Berry, who combined blues music and folk themes for his own inimitable style; Little Richard, who found the holy grail of rock with his freight train-style tempo; Jerry Lee Lewis, who changed our paradigm of what a piano was meant to do; Carl Perkins, who owned the Rockabilly sub-genre; Elvis, who sang our kind of songs the way we wanted them to be sung; then there’s Buddy Holly, arguably the most timeless artist of a bunch who recorded music that remains timeless after more than five decades, and the most pioneering in a rare group of accomplished pioneers.

The music speaks for itself.  “That’ll Be the Day” — the first record this author ever recalls hearing in his life — was his only Number One hit State-side, but he and his group The Crickets recorded a slew of other songs that helped define the era as well.  In just 18 months, Buddy Holly and the Crickets had 27 Top 40 hits.

Just try to avoid tapping your feet to “Oh Boy,” or joining The Crickets in call-and-response fashion to the lyrics that make up the title.  Same thing goes for “Rock Around with Ollie Vee“, “I’m Looking for Someone to Love” (the flip-side to “That’ll Be the Day,” fyi), with a guitar solo that would even make Ted Nugent proud.

Same thing goes for “Rave On.”  Speaking of which, “Rave On” personifies the “hiccup” vocal style the Holly pioneered (that is, he introduced it to Rock, as it was already long-standing in Country-Western singing).  But that just scratches the surface of Holly’s firsts.  A full decade before Jimi Hendrix made a name for himself playing his Fender Stratocaster, Holly had already given the Fender Strat guitar a mystique all its own.  Compared to the warm tones of most Gibson hollow-bodies, Holly’s Fender Strat had a distinctly piercing tone, which one can readily recognize in Ollie Vee or, better yet, “Blue Days, Black Nights”, both of which were recorded during a session for the Decca label in Nashville in 1956.

As an aside, there is often confusion on the part of many with regard to Buddy Holly vs. “The Crickets.”  “What’s the difference?”, or some variation thereof, is the top FAQ.  The historical evidence on hand does nothing to alleviate that confusion, as the group recorded on two different labels — both Decca subsidiaries at the time — and due to contractual quirks had to essentially split their name in two. Examples are shown below.

Source: author’s personal collection

Despite the separation of names, it was all illusory:  on both labels, the complete group of Buddy Holly & The Crickets were performing the songs.  Speaking of which, it is on that note that Holly’s pioneering is most pronounced.  Putting things into context is the key to understanding this important point, for this was a time when solo artists and groups alike sang songs written and produced by others.  Not Buddy Holly and the boys, though.  They were the most notable first four-piece band (two guitars, a bass and drums) who wrote their own songs, then performed them their own way.  In so doing, they created a template that rock bands of all sub-genres have followed for more than fifty years.

Holly was also one of the most influential artists of all time.  The Beatles not only drew inspiration from Holly and his group, they even drew inspiration from The Crickets’ group name — wanting to follow along the insect-themed name in tribute to their own favorite group.  The band that defined the genre in the 1960s, that ushered in the “British Invasion”, cut their teeth covering Holly’s hits.  Indeed, as one article in particular points out, it was Holly who led an “American Invasion” into Britain in the 1950s.

But that does not even scratch the surface of Holly’s lasting influence.  An excellent LA Times piece puts it in nearly-poetic words:

“Listen to Me” opens with Stevie Nicks happily rocking atop the Bo Diddley beat of “Not Fade Away” and includes the Fray handling “Take Your Time,” Ringo Starr shuffling through “Think It Over,” Chris Isaak crooning “Crying Waiting Hoping” and Cobra Starship reimagining “Peggy Sue.” Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, who said “Buddy Holly’s sweet voice and his trademark hiccup always intrigued me,” layers his signature harmonies into the title track.

Zooey Deschanel sweetly follows in Linda Ronstadt’s footsteps on “It’s So Easy.” That’s one of three Holly songs Ronstadt — with Asher producing — brought back to the radio airwaves in the mid-’70s, a time when it wasn’t universally hip to revisit the ’50s rock canon.”

Keep in mind that Holly accomplished all of this before he died tragically at age twenty-two.  As long as the issue of youth has been mentioned, it is to that very end that notable artists are serious about keeping Holly’s music relevant in the minds of the young people of today.  Such is the reason why this anniversary coincides with a recently-released tribute album to Holly.  Other tributes have coincided with the birthday in question.  Sept. 7 was declared “Buddy Holly Day” in Los Angeles, where he was posthumously given a star on the Walk of Fame.

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Buddy Holly’s star of fame on a sidewalk in Hollywood is, interestingly, right next to the famous Capitol Records studio building. Photo by author, Jan., 2015.

His widow Maria Elena was there to witness the unveiling, along with Don and Phil Everly (a.k.a., the Everly Brothers, who were friends of Holly, as well as fellow performers), and, appropriately, Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying him in The Buddy Holly Story (1978).

Evidence of the timelessness of Buddy Holly’s music is everywhere, not just in recordings such as “Listen to Me” or “Words of Love,” but others as well.  AT&T even used “Every Day” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue”) in one of their recent commercials.

Holly, along with Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, left this world on Feb. 3, 1959, in what became known as “The Day the Music Died” (even his death inspired a number-one hit song – who can forget Don McLean’s “Miss American Pie“?*).  But given Holly’s lasting influence and timelessness, perhaps the name of that fateful date should be seriously called into question.

*For the sake of clarity, “Miss American Pie” was the name of the plane that crashed in 1959, taking the lives of Holly, Valens and Richardson.