I must have been about ten or eleven when I first heard a Chuck Berry song. It was night time and I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was listening to a handheld radio belonging to my brother through an ancient earpiece that had been in the family since way before I was born. It might have been the John Peel show – I certainly listened to him in that manner around the same time – but I can’t be sure. The film Back to the Future had passed me by, thanks to living in a town without a proper cinema and a household without a television, so that night under the covers was the first time I heard Johnny B. Goode or indeed any other Chuck Berry song.
I loved it. I spent the next year or two trying to catch it again on the radio (that was basically what you had to do back then, unless you knew somebody who owned an album; music on demand was another two decades away). A few months later my sister somewhat pointlessly told me the song had just come on but she’d switched station and only after she changed back did she hear the DJ say what it was (she knew I was waiting to hear it again). Listening to music was a very different experience in those days.
At some point in the early ’90s my father went to Dubai for work, at a time when the Emirate was little more than a pirate haven and they’d not even bridged the creek yet. It was known as a place where you could buy knock-off albums on cassette, and my Dad came back with an armful including one calling itself “The Best of Chuck Berry”. I got hold of it in short order and listened to the whole lot in one go, and quickly found there were songs I liked much more than Johnny B. Goode. Two of my favourites were Sweet Little Sixteen, which the Beach Boys effectively copied to make Surfin’ USA; and Sweet Little Rock and Roller. The latter is still one of my favourite songs of all time, mainly because it brings about a feeling of unquenchable optimism. The cascading intro is simply superb.
I also loved Promised Land, a song about a young man making his way coast-to-coast across the USA and overcoming various obstacles while remaining happy and optimistic (there’s that word again), set to the same rhythm (as I found out later) as The Wabash Cannonball. When I first met my now long-term friend from South Carolina in the summer of 2000 as I was idly driving through his neighbourhood, I told he and his friends that I had heard of nearby Rock Hill because it is mentioned in a Chuck Berry song. None of them knew what I was talking about, and they laughed. Elvis Presley covered Promised Land while, ironically, Berry was sat in jail and going precisely nowhere and it is his version which was used in the film Men in Black. There is also a superb version by Johnny Allen with a magnificent accordion solo played by Cajun musician Belton Richard.
There were other songs I liked just as much. I was already extremely familiar with You Never Can Tell by the time Pulp Fiction made it famous; Let It Rock is a wonderful little song about a railroad work crew getting in the way of a train. I was never that much of a fan of his more established songs, such as Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Maybelline, and Too Much Monkey Business; I generally preferred his less well-known stuff.
I remember being somewhat surprised when I was in my early teens to discover Chuck Berry was still alive. If somebody had told me he’d go on for another 25+ years, I’d never have believed them. All of the rock and roll legends belonged to an era so long before my time that they all seemed dead, but Chuck Berry survived. I took the time to read up a little about the man himself, and by all accounts he was a bit of a dick. He did three stints in jail: the first for armed robbery when he was a teenager, then again in 1962 for breaching the Mann Act when he took a 14-year old girl across state lines, then once more in 1979 for tax evasion. Unlike many black musicians of the era, Berry was not from a disadvantaged background. As Wikipedia tells us:
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth child in a family of six. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as The Ville, an area where many middle-class people lived at the time. His father, Henry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church; his mother, Martha, was a certified public school principal. His upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He gave his first public performance in 1941 while still a student at Sumner High School.
He was also a very canny businessman. While other musicians, particularly poor blacks, were being fleeced by their record companies, Berry insisted on money up front and was careful never to sign away all his rights. Given he was working with Leonard Chess, who was known for his ruthless business practices, one must assume that Chuck Berry knew how to look after himself. Unfortunately there was a downside to his penny-watching ways: Berry shunned the use of a professional backing band and would often turn up in a town a day or two before a concert and hire local musicians to accompany him on stage. Some of his live shows are obviously mind-blowing, but all too many of them were compromised by Berry’s unwillingness to take on a proper backing band. Even Berry’s own individual performances suffered: I have a friend who saw him live in Manchester 20 or 30 years ago and he was an embarrassment, dropping notes all over the place and clearly not up to the task. I’ve heard others say similar things about his live performances in his later years.
There is no denying that Chuck Berry was probably the biggest influence on rock and roll music, and without him we might not have had The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and countless more. Everyone will be singing the praises of Chuck Berry following his passing at aged 90 yesterday, and the accolades will be thoroughly deserved. He really was brilliant.
When various music greats died last year – David Bowie, Motorhead’s Lemmy, George Michael – I didn’t say much, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of their music. That’s not the case with Chuck Berry. I’ve been a Chuck Berry fan for as as long as I’ve been listening to music, his upbeat tempos and lyrics providing me with a hope and optimism of a world outside the miserably wet corner of Wales I grew up in, bored senseless. There will be lots of people jumping on the Chuck Berry bandwagon over this next few days: I’m not one of them. I liked his music for real, always did, and always will.
Thanks for the music, Chuck.