Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry
Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry! Today is his 86th birthday. I marked the occasion by watching Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll for about the fifth time. Taylor Hackford’s refreshingly candid documentary was shot 25 years ago, but if Chuck’s appearance at the JFK Library last February was any indication, he's as fit and feisty as ever. Berry was in Boston to accept PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award. He and Leonard Cohen were the first recipients of the honor, and after Elvis Costello paid tribute with “No Particular Place to Go,” Berry treated the assembled to an acoustic guitar rendition of “Johnny B. Goode.”
Berry was born in St. Louis on October 18, 1926. His brother Paul remembers him in youth as “a deep thinker who loved to hear and play the blues.” On his 1973 album Bio, the title song recalled his mid-50’s sojourn to Chicago, “Just to hear Muddy Waters play…I asked him what I could do to make it, and it was he who showed me the way.”
What Muddy showed him was the way to Chess Records, a magnanimous gesture that Deep Blues author Robert Palmer called “cutting his own throat.” Berry’s success, and that of another Muddy protégé, Bo Diddley, quickly minimized the value of the modest success that Waters and other Chicago bluesmen enjoyed in the ‘50’s. Once “Maybelline” began climbing the charts, Leonard and Phil Chess knew they’d finally struck a motherlode, and while they continued to record the bluesmen who’d put them in business, mining Top 40 gold that became the focus of their efforts.
In his classic single “Rock’n’Roll Music,” Berry famously said he “had no kick against modern jazz.” Eric Clapton credits him with creating a “beautiful hybrid” that drew on jazz, calypso, country, and blues. Keith Richards says Berry’s combined skill at songwriting, singing and guitar playing put music “back in the troubadour tradition.” In Berry’s case, however, traditional themes of chivalry and courtly love were superseded by teenage preoccupations with school, cars and crushes, while the adult trickster in Berry subtly laid down boasts about black male sexuality in tunes like “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Too Much Monkey Business.”
In Hail! Hail!, Roy Orbison praises Berry’s lyrics for the way they “roll off the tongue…stab and cut… and lay there with the drum,” while in footage from a decade earlier, John Lennon says he loves “the tremendous meter of his lyricism.” Lennon also proposed the name “Chuck Berry” as a synonym for rock’n’roll. Jerry Lee Lewis, who feuded nastily with Berry for top-billing early in his career, concedes that he’s the true king, “The Hank Williams of rock’n’roll.” As for his guitar playing, Clapton says, “There’s not really any other way to play rock’n’roll guitar other than the way Chuck Berry plays it. He’s really laid down the law.” Richards contends that Berry “adapted” his guitar style in emulation of pianist Johnny Johnson, who’d given Berry his start when he sat in with Johnson’s trio at the Cosmo Club in St. Louis in 1952, then gladly handed over the reins of the group to the “go-getter” Berry.
Richards signed on as music director of Hail! Hail! after he'd inducted Berry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, its inaugural year. Richards said, "It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry 'cause I've lifted every lick he ever played -- this is the gentleman who started it all!" Notwithstanding the flare-ups that Hackford captures between them, Richards carried the project through to completion, though in his memoir, Life, he says Berry "pushed me hard--you can see it in the film. It's very difficult for me to allow myself to be bullied...but I owed it to Chuck to bite the bullet when he was at his most provocative." In 2005, Richards dashed off a fax to Berry that read, "Despite our ups & downs, I love you so! Your work is so precious & beautifully timeless. I'm still in awe."
Berry himself is refreshingly modest on his vaunted role as an inventor. "Making it simple," is how he describes the process of assimilating his influences. "You can call it my music, [but] there's nothing new under the sun."
Who were those influences? He ticked off several near the end of his appearance on The Tonight Show in 1987, beginning with Louis Jordan, who was paramount, guitarists Carl Hogan of the Tympany Five and Charlie Christian of the Benny Goodman Sextet, the singing of Nat King Cole, and concludes with “the soul of Muddy Waters.” He might have mentioned Bob Wills and Bill Monroe, not to mention the gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds credits with introducing "the duck thing." But this was an informal and delightful exchange with Carson, not a musicological cross-examination.
Today is also the birthday of Wynton Marsalis. 14 years ago, when I asked the trumpeter why he didn’t think rock’n’roll should be celebrated, he said, “Because it's like…McDonald's…[But] one thing it did do, it relaxed a lot of the sexual repression, but who knows if that wouldn't have happened anyway. It also destroyed the adult culture of the world, because it became increasingly concerned with getting that exploitable income from teenagers and young adults, so then the aesthetic objectives of the American popular song didn't carry over into rock and roll.”
In recent years, Wynton has come to collaborate with Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson. Is this a sign of maturity, or a ploy to pay the rent at Lincoln Center? I'll go with the former. I came to a personal rapprochement between my measured appreciation for rock and my passion for jazz years ago , though I remain wary of rock's omnivorous impulse to devour everything it finds useful, and the star-making machinery that goes with it. But I agree with Marsalis that it’s had a devastating impact on our appreciation of the Great American Songbook, which today lives almost exclusively through the repertoires of jazz musicians and a handful of cabaret artists. It's rare indeed to meet a Boomer who cherishes the songbook, and I've known people with extensive exposure to jazz and standards who still can't relate emotionally to the sublime music of Tin Pan Alley.
The inevitability of a figure like Berry emerging in the '50's was lost of many cultural arbiters of the time. Berry respected youth's own truth, and his sly brilliance as a lyricist and the hearty self-affirmation that drives his music offered Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, a prototype for rock songwriting. They all knew from, and in some respects drew from Tin Pan Alley, but Berry's ability to lyricize and express so many layers of the personal and social in American life was the key to opening this new chapter in music.
Still, it's Chuck playing one of the old standards that Hackford wisely chose to end the documentary with. In a quiet moment backstage with Johnny Johnson, Berry strums the chords to "A Cottage for Sale," an elegy for lost love that his fellow Missourian Willard Robison composed in 1929. Berry, a "deep thinker,"after all, knows better than most that it often takes more than three chord rock to express what Wynton calls the "aesthetic objectives," and the rest of us know as the longings in our hearts.
- "A little dream castle
- With every dream gone
- It is lonely and silent
- The shades are all drawn
- And my heart is heavy
- As we gaze upon
- A cottage for sale."
Speaking of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band has finally been nominated for membership. I'll post my endorsement here soon. For now, here's Butterfield and guitarist Michael Bloomfield backing Berry on his 1966 Chess single, "It Wasn't Me."