This one hurts. You may have heard that Chuck Berry died earlier today. Of all of the early first generation rockers, those there at the beginning who helped define the genre, he may very well be the most significant. His work certainly was. For starters, he wrote almost all of his own material, far more than his peers. Elvis? Get outta here. Gene Vincent? Uh, no. Little Richard? He wrote a lot, but not nearly as much as Berry. Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't close, and even as prolific as Bo Diddley he wasn't close either. No one was. It would be different if his songs weren't top notch, but the music was pure, unadulterated, un-hyphenated, rock 'n' roll, his lyrics pure poetry. His music was, for many, the template from which they worked. To put it simply, he was rock 'n' roll.
There were missteps along the way. You can't blame him for that shitty novelty song "My Ding-A-Ling" being his biggest hit, he didn't even write it, Dave Bartholomew did. I'm sure he would have rather had it been one of his own songs. And you can poo-poo many of the live dates that he did with pick up bands as being less than top notch. He would show up before gigs and expect bands to just follow his lead, without a set list or a sound check. Bruce Springsteen once described the prep he was given when his band was to back Berry. When he asked what songs they would be playing, Berry answered matter of factly "Chuck Berry songs". But even his practice of playing dates without a touring band was a matter of economics. There were lean years, particularly in the late sixties and early seventies. To wit, my cousin went to see him at a college located just a mile from where she lived. After the show she was thumbing home and a VW bug pulled over. The passenger door opened and there was Chuck Berry, driving. His guitar case was in the back seat. He traveled light.
A novelty hit and ill prepared back up bands are just minor blemishes. There were other more grievous offenses. In 1959 he was arrested for transporting an underage girl across state lines. He was 33 at the time. The biggest dog to get over though was an incident in 1990. He was raided and was popped for weed, but also having in his possession video tapes from a camera that was installed in the women's restroom of his restaurant. He claimed that the camera was there to try to catch a female employee who he thought was stealing from him. C'mon. Not even his best song could have me believing that story. That has always pissed me off. One thing that I just can't get past. So what are you gonna do? Can I still like his music? Well, I guess I can because I do, immensely.
A big part of the reason I love Chuck Berry's music is the effect it has had on my life, particularly in the boys room. Had my brothers and I not been fans of Chuck Berry as early as we had (our mid-teens), we might not have been the young music fiends that we were. And because that was the biggest thing that we shared, our brotherly dynamic may have been very different. I believe in the butterfly effect.
Here's a bunch of Berry related things. Let me say this, particularly to you younger folks. If you don't know anything about Chuck Berry, do some poking around. This is Rock 'n' Roll 101, you should know it. I'd start with a compilation, a more complete one. There are easily forty or fifty songs that should be considered essential. (A link to fifty is below.) Read his autobiography. It's out of print, but there are still copies easily found online. It's good, really good, worth seeking out. His writing (or dictation) in the long form is just as fluid, well constructed and descriptive as his songwriting. It was written in 1989, so the 1990 bust doesn't come up. In fact, forget I ever mentioned it.
~ NOTE: ALL MEDIA IS HOSTED BY THE BLOGS & SITES NAMED BELOW ~Update 3/25/17, first posthumous song released this week:
Chuck Berry - Big Boys (streaming) at YouTube
Chuck Berry - Promised Land mp3 at Archive.org
Chuck Berry - Maybellene mp3 at Rocky 52
Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode mp3 at Tune the Proletariat
Chuck Berry - Downbound Train mp3 at Clumsy and Shy
Chuck Berry - Roll Over Beethoven mp3 Thierry's Official Web Site
Chuck Berry - Memphis mp3 at Taking Over the Internet
Chuck Berry - Back In the USA mp3 at Riddell Family (?)
Chuck Berry - It's My Own Business mp3 at the Rising Storm
Chuck Berry - Duece mp3 at The Rising Storm
Chuck Berry - A Berry Rainy Day mp3 at Basement Rug 30 minute mix, go there to get the song list.
The 50 song comp:
The Chuck Berry Collection at Internet Archive NOTE: In the right column, under "Download options" click on "VBR MP3 Files"
Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode at YouTube From The TAMI Show
Chuck Berry - Roll Over Beethoven at YouTube
Chuck Berry and Keith Richards - Carol (rehearsal) at Vimeo From the film Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll
Chuck Berry and John Lennon - Johnny B Goode at YouTube Interesting juxtaposed with video below.
Chuck Berry and Julian Lennon - Johnny B Goode at YouTube
Chuck Berry Lives! at New Yorker
Chuck Berry Dies at 90; Helped Define Rock ’n’ Roll at NY Times
Chuck Berry Official site
Chuck Berry at Wikipedia
Chuck Berry Song Listings at Songwriters Hall of Fame