So farewell then Chuck Berry. A true pioneer and without doubt – don’t even bother to argue with me – one of the most influential performers, songwriters and guitar players in the second half of the Twentieth Century. No argument at all.
From 1955 to 1964 he wrote and recorded an incredible list of songs that 60 years later we all know and can hum if not sing the actual lyrics. If you ever started a band at school, hell, at any time, the first song you rehearsed was a Chuck Berry song, in my case Roll Over Beethoven, but it could just as well have been Maybelline (his first hit in 1955) or Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis, Tennessee, Promised Land or dozens of others.
They were songs of humour, attitude and no little insight into young teens’ lives. His lyrics deliberately appealed to them by describing exactly what they were interested in: dances, cars, high school life, the opposite sex – all in an exciting new guitar driven sound that has influenced almost every guitar player that came after. Let’s not forget that it was a Chuck Berry record Mick Jagger was carrying when he bumped onto Keith on Dartford railway station in October 1961. The Rolling Stones first single was a Chuck Berry tune and as Keith Richards said when he inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1986: ‘I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.’
He did have a reputation as a VERY difficult man though, embittered by the experiences of his life and career, his mistreatment by the business and the law. When you booked Chuck Berry, he got his cash upfront before he played, always in US Dollars, regardless of where in the world he was playing. One Saturday in Glasgow in January 1973, the promoter hadn’t read the contract carefully enough and tried to pay in Sterling, but after a tongue-lashing from Chuck, headed out into a wintry Glaswegian evening to get it changed into dollars before Chuck would go on, despite the crowd getting, let’s say, ‘restless’ as only Glaswegians can on a Saturday night.
His contract stipulated the exact times he would appear and depart. He would sometimes stand backstage gazing at his watch, waiting to go on at exactly 8, not later, not earlier. He did an hour. Not 61 minutes, not 59 minutes but an hour. And he only played an encore if he was specifically paid to do so.
And you provided the backing band, so all Chuck had to do is turn up with his guitar. The promoter contractually had to provide a Fender Dual Showman amplifier, and if one was not provided, he either walked out or demanded a fine of $2,000 to be paid before the show. He insisted on being met at the airport with a Lincoln Town Car but if a promoter sent a stretch limousine with a driver, he would send it back.
But he did always give the crowd what it wanted. He played all his hits, did his signature duck walk, that knees together-legs bent strut he used to do as a kid to entertain his family, he’d work the crowd and give them what they wanted but when the clock ticked over, he was out of there with his money in cash.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in an entirely segregated – i.e. entirely black – part of St Louis. It was so insulated that Chuck said he didn’t see a white person till he was 3 years old. He saw some white firemen at a blaze and assumed they were so frightened that their faces had turned white from fear of going near the fire. His father told him they were white people, and their skin was always white, day or night.
His very strict middle-class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He played in public for the first time at his all-black High School aged 15 in 1941 and played some boogie-woogie songs for which he got a tremendous ovation. His music career was slightly delayed though, when he and two high school friends decided to drive to California. When they ran out of money, they used a fake pistol to rob a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store. Then their car broke down so they had to steal another car, before being arrested. After 21 minute trial in a predominantly white rural town, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum possible, despite being a first time offender. He served three years.
He was already in his late 20s, married with children, when he started singing in public again, mainly white hillbilly songs but played in a bluesier style by a trio of three black guys. His trick was to sing very clearly, like a white man, and be a hell of a performer, dancing and guitar playing duck-walking around the stage and his showmanship began to attract white audiences to their shows. Emboldened by his minor success, during a club date in Chicago, he collared Muddy Waters and asked him how you got a record made. Muddy said see Chess Records.
He sent them a tape of Maybelline, a rock and roll rewrite of a country tune called Ida Red which Chess invited him to record in May 1955. It had that popular Bill Haley stomping beat, with a chop-chop guitar and the Berry’s unconventional lyrics about him in his cheap Ford chasing his faithless girl, who’s with another guy in a much nicer ride, a Coupe de Ville. It made to Number 5 in the Hot 100 pop singles and by the end of the year, the song had sold a million copies and his earnings went through the roof, from $30 a night to $500 a night
After a couple of misses, he next scored with Roll Over Beethoven. Sixty years later its verses are known to everyone on the planet: Tell Tchaikovsky the news and I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local DJ, It’s a rockin’ rhythm record I want my jockey to play. A long line of hits followed, although you will search in vain though for hits between 1961 and 1964, due to an enforced hiatus when he was sent to prison for three years in prison for offences under the Mann Act, a federal law from 1910 and already an anachronism, which made it a crime to transport a woman or girl from one state to another for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose.
He was on a tour in EL Paso TX , crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande to Cuidad Juarez in Mexico and met Janice Escalanti, a 14 year old schoolgirl of Apache descent who had already been arrested for vagrancy and prostitution as well as public drunkenness but was nonetheless only 14. She left with Chuck and travelled on tour with him all the way back to St Louis. When they fell out, she went to the Police. Chuck was arrested and it probably didn’t help that he was black and she was not and that he already had a conviction for armed robbery.
After a two-week trial in March 1960, the jury took just over two hours to convict him. He was fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum allowable. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him. He won the appeal and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, resulting in another conviction and a three-year prison sentence and $5000 fine. After another appeal failed, Berry served one and one-half years in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963
Released in October 1963 and immediately went back to work – unlike say Jerry Lee Lewis who’d had his own sex scandal whose career was finished – he just picked up where he’d left off. So Nadine (Is It You?), No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell and Promised Land are all from 1964 and 1965, success buoyed by the Chuck Berry tunes popularised by the Beatles and the Stones. The late 60s were a bit lean, but by the early Seventies, there was a bit of a rock and roll revival, a backlash against the heavier and psychedelic rock sounds then in vogue.
Chuck was back but despite the seismic influence of his songs, none of them had ever gone to Number One in US or the Uk. Until My Ding a Ling. How heartbreaking that his biggest ever hit, his only Number One was a smutty novelty song that he didn’t even write, although he claims copyright and was often listed as writer until a law suit from New Orleans songwriter Dave Bartholomew, co-writer of many of Fats Domino’s hits.
My Ding A Ling was recorded live during the Lanchester Polytechnic College Arts Festival at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry, England, on 3 February 1972. His pick-up band included guitarist Onnie McIntyre and drummer Robbie McIntosh from the Average White Band. Onnie reported, when I spoke to him, that the rehearsal was basically Chuck – who arrived an hour before show time in his stage clothes carrying guitar – saying “When I drop the neck of the guitar down, I’ll start and you just follow me. When the neck comes down again, you stop.” That was it, rehearsal over.
But what a showman! He had the audience in the palm of his hand from start to finish. There was the Duck Walk, Cossack dancing and audience participation. At the end unusually he refused to leave the stage, staying beyond even his usual allotted 60 minutes to do Johnny B Goode. Once he’d finished though, he left without saying goodbye to his musicians and got into his car and drove off. The NME said Chuck Berry is no battered old relic being trotted out for a rerun He’s a living master of rock and roll.
Radio stations started playing My Ding a Ling as an album track and pressured Chess into releasing it as a single, although they weren’t keen and expected trouble. It got into the US singles charts so it then got released in the Uk where many radio stations refused to play it. On the BBC, broadcasting legend Alan Fluff Freeman introduced the song by saying “oh Chuck baby, how could you?”. Still, it sold in the millions. Ever the businessman, he toured relentlessly to cash in, his fee back up to $10,000 from $1000.
It proved to be his swan song, failing to trouble chart compliers again despite performing into his late 80s. There were a few more legal scrapes, including 4 months for tax evasion in 1979 when the taking everything in cash caught up with him. And who can forget that curious case of him installing CCTV in the ladies’ toilets at a restaurant he owned in St Louis in 1990. A police raid on his house found videotapes of women using the loo, one of whom was underage, so in order to avoid the child-abuse charges, he agreed to a plea and was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. He also settled with 59 women who sued him for around $1.2 million plus legal fees.
He announced on his 90th birthday last October that a first new studio album since 1979, entitled Chuck, will be released in 2017. It also features his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica and is dedicated to his wife, Themetta, for whom the word long-suffering barely seems adequate, but in the end they were married for 69 years.