Like Ringin’ a Bell
Muddy Waters, the famed bluesman, on his Hard Again album, sang a song entitled “The Blues had a Baby and They called it Rock and Roll.” Indeed. And the father of that baby was Chuck Berry, the singing/songwriting genius who passed away this weekend at age 90. That “singer/songwriter” label is extremely significant because many people will claim Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis were the progenitors of rock and roll, yet Elvis never wrote his own music and, while Lewis wrote some of his songs, he “covered” many other artists (including Berry). Also, when one thinks of rock and roll the instrument that first comes to mind is not the piano, is it? No, guitar slinging Chuck Berry was the father of rock and roll and, while we mourn his passing, there is far more to celebrate about his life.
Like jazz, rock and roll is distinctively American. Its roots are the melding of African-American blues and southern country/western music, generated by those segments of our society that were denied, ignored, disenfranchised, and neglected. Many of Hank Williams’s brilliant songs are only a stone’s throw away from what Chuck Berry presented us with starting in the mid 1950s. While many see the early/mid 1960s as a “turning point” in rock and roll, because the Beatles and Stones and Dylan are composers/performers, we can clearly see that Chuck Berry had been in that game long before the British invasion or Dylan’s “electrification.” There’s no doubt that Berry (and Bo Diddley, who appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1955 but was banned forever because he performed “Bo Diddley” instead of covering Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” as Sullivan wanted) introduced the world to the guitar-slinging, songwriting, hips-wagging rock and roller that every guy who bought a guitar aspired to be from the mid-Fifties on.
Was race a factor? Hmmm, let’s see: a Black man arrives on the scene in what is still apartheid America with a new sound, creating guitar licks never heard before and writing energetic songs about teen age angst --- with a hint of humor and sly double-entendre yet, somehow, isn’t recognized and doesn’t achieve stardom. When those cute white boys from England “covered” his songs (the very first song the Rolling Stones played in their initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was Berry’s “Around and Around”) that was rock and roll! I remember hearing Johnny Rivers’s hit tune “Memphis, Tennessee” in 1964 and thinking, “I’ve heard a better version of this somewhere” before connecting it to Chuck’s version --- which was released back in 1959 as the B-side to “Back in the U.S.A.” Rivers hit #2 on the charts --- Berry’s “Back In the USA” topped out at #37. Of course, when Linda Ronstadt covered that tune in 1979 it reached #11 on CashBox and #16 on BillBoard. But I’m probably just rolling out that “Black Lives Matter” issue again, right?
At any rate, Chuck Berry was a national treasure, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized, inducting him and Bo Diddley in their first “class” in 1986. For anyone not familiar with just how great (and cool) Chuck Berry was, check out this YouTube video of him doing “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958. (A final note on that: Berry changed his lyric “Where lived a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode” to “country boy,” recognizing it would appeal to a larger audience and wouldn’t “offend”)
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