Living on Channel Z: B-Sides asks a cadre of local musicians to reminisce about Chuck Berry as he turns 80.
Oct 11 / 2006
By Roy Kasten
In a classic Saturday Night Live skit, Steve Martin announces that the first message from extraterrestrial life has been received and decoded. "Send more Chuck Berry", the aliens say. NASA could have done worse than to cram the grooves of the 1977 Voyager Golden Record with the sounds and words of Charles Edward Anderson Berry. As a songwriter and guitarist, he went where no man had gone before, opening up a universe of possibilities for every rocker to come after him. Berry turns 80 this week, and for his birthday, we asked some of the best musicians in the St. Louis area to pay tribute:
JAY FARRAR, (Son Volt): I often get asked, "What music has come out of St. Louis?" The response is, "Chuck Berry came out of St. Louis". Chuck Berry is a musical point of reference worldwide as well as an indigenous source of inspiration. I think it's Chuck's gift for lyricism that makes him unique. One of Chuck's 60's songs, "Nadine", is still one of his best, with its pounding backbeat. The song I like the most right now, though, is "The Song of My Love", off of Chuck Berry in London. In this song, Chuck shows his depth and versatility by singing most of the song in Spanish!
KIM MASSIE (vocalist): My favorite Chuck song is "My Ding-a-Ling". It's fun! He has a lot of serious songs, and for someone of his prestige and status to do a song like that, it shows a more humorous side. It was never part of my repertoire, but someone made a suggestion once: "Can you do My Ding-a-Ling?" Can I do what? It was such a silly, hokey song, but I remembered every word. I was a teenager when I first heard "Johnny B. Goode". It wasn't the music that kids my age were listening to; I was a little different, you could say. But it was so catchy, so much energy.
CRAIG STRUBINGER (Trip Daddys guitarist-vocalist): For me, Chuck is just 100 percent rock & roll. Elvis and Carl Perkins started out rockabilly, and Bo Diddley is steeped in the blues, but Chuck was always 100 percent rock & roll. He could toss off teeny-bopper hits like "Sweet Little Sixteen", and counter that with very adult themes such as "Memphis" or "Promised Land". Although I love all the first-wave rockers, I don't think any of Chuck's contemporaries ever even considered writing songs like that. Chuck really was and is the full package.
FONTELLA BASS: I like all of Chuck's songs. I first heard "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" from my son, who brought it to me on a record. It's supposed to be him. You know. Brown-eyed, handsome man. And he is a brown-eyed handsome man. I recorded one of Chuck's songs before I knew about him, "Maybelline" back in the '60s. But I've never even sat in a room with Chuck, period. His wife, yes I have.
LOU WHITNEY (Morells bassist): One of the best poets and best dancers in rock & roll. Better than Springsteen. I think Bruce would trade "Born to Run" for "Sweet Little Sixteen". I grew up in the country, and Chuck has that masterful juxtaposition of hillbillies talking and urban talk. You heard these sayings all the time, but you never thought you'd hear them in a song. He'd say words backwards and put the emphasis on the wrong syllables just to make it work.
SCOTT KUHNERT (Scott Kay & the Continentals vocalist/guitarist): When I listen to Chuck and compare his style to other black blues guys/guitarists of his era, Chuck's sound and beat honestly sounds more country than blues-based. It's much more "on the beat" and less "swingy" than the jump-blues of the same era. I honestly think this may have had a lot to do with Chuck's acceptance among white kids and country-music fans. I remember growing up playing a lot of Chuck Berry covers for all-white VFW and Legion Hall country dances. It always amazed me how well it went over — just as well as any of our Ernest Tubb, Hank or Lefty tunes.
BOB REUTER (singer-songwriter): When I first moved out of north St. Louis, I moved to a seedy apartment complex right across from the airport. Since I had no car, I killed a lot of time by walking under the highway 70 overpass and play[ing] pinball in the airport game room. Sometimes I'd just walk down the concourse and watch the planes; sometimes I'd just sit on a bench and watch the people. Once I was sitting there — eighteen years old, shoulder-length hair, sock cap and pea coat — when I saw Chuck Berry walking by, wearing a suit and carrying a coat over his arm. He saw me staring and made a beeline straight for me. "Hi, I'm Chuck Berry", he said as he shook my hand, let it go and kept on walking.
Chuck Berry nears 80th birthday - TV Program Transcript
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Oct 12 / 2006
By Stephen Smith
KERRY O'BRIEN: It was John Lennon who said, "If you tried to give rock'n'roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry". Lennon, of course, is long gone but Berry is still reelin' and rockin' and next week turns 80, a perfect opportunity or so it seemed for Stephen Smith from the BBC's Newsnight program to seek an interview with the man himself in his hometown of St Louis, Missouri.
STEPHEN SMITH: Before there were the Beatles and the Stones, yes, even before Elvis himself, there was Chuck Berry. He made it all look so easy.
CHUCK BERRY: I record from feeling. Sometimes after I record I'm in a different feeling when the record comes out, and then sometimes I'm recording from like it's a job, it's a real chore to record and by the time it comes out I'm really digging it, you know.
STEPHEN SMITH: St. Louis, Missouri is the birthplace of the man seen by many as the creator of rock'n'roll. As well as its original outlaw. It's been the best part of 30 years since Chuck Berry's last album was released. You could be forgiven for thinking he'd gone to that great auditorium in the sky, but he's still playing out at almost 80, still living in his hometown.
JOE EDWARDS: He could easily have a limousine or anyone drive him, but he likes doing it himself. He likes doing everything. He cuts his own grass.
CHARLES BERRY JNR: My father wrote a book 20 years ago and I feel that, I think he thinks that's the interview if anybody wants an interview they can refer to his book.
STEPHEN SMITH: We tracked down Chuck's grown up children, Chuck Berry Junior and his sister Ingrid. They now play in daddy's backing band.
CHARLES BERRY JNR: I guess I was in second grade and, you know, all the kids said, "Well, my dad's a policeman, my dad's a fireman. My dad's a doctor". I said, "Well, my dad's the king of rock'n'roll".
STEPHEN SMITH: That trumps it, doesn't it?
CHARLES BERRY JNR: I got beat up that day.
STEPHEN SMITH: Chuck's children didn't rate our chances of finding their dad, but we went looking for him in his old haunts all the same. Fortunately he'd composed some appropriate music for this. Chuck Berry was raised in one of the poorer neighbours of St Louis and grew up on Goode Street which lent the name to his hit "Johnny B. Goode", but don't look for it now, the road's been renamed (Annie Malone Drive). This was his church. This, his high school.
FAN: Oh gosh, there's no place you'd rather be.
STEPHEN SMITH: Just as we were giving up hope of finding the reclusive rock'n'roller, word reached us he was playing a gig right here in St Louis. Fans were warming up for the night with a screening of a documentary about Chuck Berry, including a favourite stand up row with Keith Richards of the Stones over how to set an amplifier.
CHUCK BERRY: Do you understand?
KEITH RICHARDS: I understand. I understand. Do you know you've got to live with it afterwards?
CHUCK BERRY: I've been living for 60 years with it.
KEITH RICHARDS: I know that.
CHUCK BERRY: Well, realise it!
KEITH RICHARDS: Well, who's it going to be when you're dead and gone? It ain't you and me.
STEPHEN SMITH: At last we were face to face with the old boy himself. He won't be filmed but can't resist a fan with a camera. Does Chuck Berry still have it? Yes, I think he does.
KERRY O' BRIEN: The BBC's Stephen Smith in St Louis, Missouri, with that report.
Chuck Berry At 80
BBC Radio 4
Oct 14 / 2006
By Mark Rickards
Paul Gambaccini celebrates the 80th birthday of a rock'n'roll legend: Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry is an extraordinary figure in musical history. In the words of John Lennon, "if you tried to give rock'n'roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry". And perhaps what is most amazing of all is that Chuck Berry is still playing at the age of 80.
Recorded at Chuck's concert from the Blueberry Hill nightclub in St Louis, the programme promises to be lively, giving listeners a sense of the magical atmosphere. Along with the sounds of St Louis, Paul Gambaccini looks back at Chuck's long career and the highs and lows over many decades. He talks to Chuck's son and daughter, asking Ingrid Berry what it's like to perform on stage with her father.
Born in St Louis on 18 October 1926, Berry had many influences in his life that shaped his musical style. He emulated the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing blues songs from acts such as Muddy Waters. For his first stage performance, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called "Confessin' The Blues". It was at his high school's student musical performance, when the blues was popular but not considered appropriate for such an event. He got thunderous applause for his daring choice and, from then on, Berry had to be on stage.
In a life overshadowed by three prison terms, his own inner demons and the humiliations of racism, Berry's music continues to transcend generations.
Rock'n'roll legend Chuck Berry is still working hard, and duck-walking, at 80
Oct 17 / 2006
By Cheryl Wittenauer
ST. LOUIS - As he turns 80 Wednesday, Chuck Berry could leave the hard work of great music to younger souls, and rest comfortably as the rock'n'roll legend who first made his mark in the 1950s.
But Berry, the duck-walking, guitar-playing rock genius who defined the music's joy and rebellion in such classics as "Johnny B. Goode" "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven", has plenty left to say and play.
He still performs regularly at an intimate nightclub here, his hometown, as well as venues from Las Vegas to London, saying "these shows keep me alive".
Early next year, he'll release a CD of new material, his first commercial release in more than 20 years.
"There's some stuff that will surprise people", his piano player, Robert Lohr, said. "It's Chuck Berry meets Ray Charles, black gospel meets country.
"There's one song, "Big Boys", that is classic top-shelf Chuck Berry".
At his 75th birthday concert here five years ago, Berry was feted by Little Richard on stage, while regards poured in from Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Bo Diddley and other music icons.
The celebration for his 80th will be a more intimate affair - a dinner party with family and close friends, and a late-night performance at Blueberry Hill, where he has given legendary concerts in the "Duck Room" one night a month since 1996.
The concerts draw visitors from around the world, and satisfy Berry's nostalgic yearning for the smaller venues of his earliest $4-a-night gigs in the 1950s, friend and Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards said.
In recent years, Berry's been joined by his guitarist son, Charles Berry Jr, and daughter Ingrid Berry Clay, on vocals and harmonica. Berry treasures performing with his kids, Edwards said.
When he takes the stage Wednesday night, Berry will sling his guitar with an ease belying his age, and scoot across the stage in his famous one-legged hop, his extended leg kicking off the stage.
The old man, still as lean and agile as a teenager, will also surely please the crowd with his signature duck walk, the iconic crouched move he patented in a 1956 performance in New York. It's a move imitated by rockers through all the decades since.
"He intuitively choreographed the first stage moves of the rock era, setting the tone for what a rock performance could be visually as well as through the music", Edwards said. "He used the guitar as a foil on stage, moving it around his back and in front of him. Jimi Hendrix and all that followed got it all from him first".
The only sign of Berry's creeping age on stage is the occasional brain freeze when he can't quite recall a verse he's sung thousands of times. He typically laughs it off, leans on the band to fill in the blank, or offers comical utterances to reassure the audience his mental acuity is still intact.
"He's entitled to that. He's 80 years old", said Jim Marsala, who's been Berry's bassist for 33 years.
Berry, whose father and brother were carpenters, and who seems driven by an incessant work ethic, loves to tinker at Berry Park, a 155-acre property in nearby Wentzville, Mo, where he records and lives when not at his suburban St. Louis home. He relaxes by maintaining Berry Park's buildings, mowing the lawn and splitting wood, said Berry Jr, describing his father as a "regular guy" off stage.
Berry's music and a 1987 autobiography started while he served time in federal prison on tax charges will have to speak for the rock'n'roll genius, who refuses all but the rare interview.
He made an exception following the death - at age 80 - of his longtime friend and collaborator Johnnie Johnson in April 2005. Johnson was the master boogie-woogie piano player who gave Berry his first break.
On New Year's Eve 1952 at the Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis, Johnson called Berry to fill in for an ailing musician in his Sir John's Trio.
The struggling and unknown Berry rushed over, did a hillbilly country number with a bluesy vein that knocked people out, and launched a career.
Berry told reporters in April 2005 he'd miss his friend and his music, but wasn't melancholy.
"My turn is coming very soon", he said. "Would you shed a tear for Chuck? I hope not, because I don't see why one should weep when something inevitable must come".
"At 78, I'm glad to be anywhere, anytime".
Some key dates in the life of Chuck Berry:
Oct 17 / 2006
By Cheryl Wittenauer
Oct. 18, 1926: Born Charles "Chuck" Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis.
Oct. 28, 1948: Marries Themetta Suggs with whom he has four children. The couple is still together.
Dec. 31, 1952: Needing a replacement for an ailing musician for a New Year's Eve show, pianist/bandleader Johnnie Johnson calls acquaintance Berry.
May 21, 1955: Berry records "Maybellene" his version of "Ida Red".
Aug. 1, 1955: "Maybellene" reaches No. 5 on Billboard's Best Sellers chart, goes on to top R&B chart.
June 30, 1956: Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" hits No. 2 on the R&B chart, No. 29 on pop chart.
May 1, 1957: Berry's first album, "After School Session", released.
May 13, 1957: Berry hits top of the R&B chart, No. 3 on pop chart with "School Day".
Feb. 24, 1958: Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" released. Weeks later, reaches No. 2 on Billboard's pop chart and tops the R&B chart.
June 14, 1958: "Johnny B. Goode", his tribute to Johnson, makes the Top Ten.
1962: Convicted of transporting a minor girl across state lines.
June 1, 1966: Berry leaves Chess for Mercury Records. Re-signs with Chess in 1970.
May 1, 1972: "The London Chuck Berry Sessions" released, including novelty song "My Ding-a-Ling". Album becomes Berry's best seller, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard chart.
June 1, 1979: Berry performs at White House at President Carter's request, months before serving several months in prison on tax evasion.
Feb. 26, 1985: Berry given Lifetime Achievement Award at annual Grammy Awards.
January 23, 1986: Berry inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1987: Release of "Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll", the documentary of the Fox Theatre concert in St. Louis to celebrate Berry's 60th birthday.
1989: Woman sues Berry, accusing him of secretly videotaping women using the restroom at his one-time St. Louis-area restaurant.
1996: Chuck Berry begins performing monthly at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room in St. Louis. Concerts continue to this day.
November 2000: Berry sued by Johnnie Johnson, who seeks share of royalties on songs he co-wrote with Berry but were credited to Berry alone.
April 13, 2005: Johnnie Johnson dies following dismissal of lawsuit, resumption of his and Berry's friendship, and a few more concerts together at Blueberry Hill.
2006: Berry works on a CD of new material scheduled for release in 2007.
In praise of ... Chuck Berry
Oct 18 / 2006
Even though only a handful of them have any chance of getting there, fans across the world are hoping that Chuck Berry will choose this evening to play one of his occasional Wednesday gigs at the Blueberry Hill in his native St Louis. For today is the brown-eyed handsome man's 80th birthday, a rare milestone in a musical world in which too many others have died before they got old.
With the release of "Maybellene" in September 1955 Mr. Berry became rock'n'roll's key breakthrough black artist and an unrivalled influence on later performers. One of those, John Lennon, once said that if you had to give rock'n'roll another name you would call it Chuck Berry. That's because he is rock'n'roll's defining guitarist and its greatest songwriter, with a string of classic hits like "Roll Over Beethoven", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and, arguably the most perfect rock'n'roll record of them all, "Johnny B. Goode", the sounds of which still echo across the universe from the Voyager I spacecraft, launched nearly 30 years ago.
After a prison term in the early 1960s, Mr. Berry returned with a second golden phase of his career with songs like "Nadine", "No Particular Place To Go" and "You Never Can Tell". Though he infamously only ever made it to number one in this country with the cringe-making "My Ding-A-Ling", it still all adds up to the most matchless back catalogue of the pre-Beatles era. Even now, when the mood is on him and the money is right, Mr. Berry can still play a better set than many half his age. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry.