2017/03/21

Chuck Berry, rock’s first singer-songwriter


Remembering a music icon and storyteller
The main guy was Louis Jordan. I wanted to sing like Nat Cole with lyrics like Louis Jordan with the swing of Benny Goodman with Charlie Christian on guitar playing Carl Hogan’s riffs with the soul of Muddy Waters…oh I had it all mixed up.
—Chuck Berry to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show”

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THE honour for having made the first rock’n’roll record is usually given to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats for “Rocket ’88” (1951). Like all musical firsts, this is hotly argued over: landmark singles by Bill Haley, Big Joe Turner, Elvis Presley and Bo Diddley are often considered close rivals. But any doubt about the arrival of true, flat-out rock was extinguished by “Maybellene” (1955), the two-minute ditty by Chuck Berry, who died on March 18th. What distinguishes “Maybellene” from the previous recordings is not so much the lowdown distortion of Mr Berry’s “chitlin’ circuit” lead guitar and the raw sound of his band, but the song’s departure from the swinging R&B polish and inchoate rockabilly naivety of its contemporaries. Chuck Berry was behind the wheel, and though he was headed somewhere new, he knew exactly where. 

When rock’n’roll hit the mainstream, Mr Berry was pushing 30 and had more than a decade of hard luck behind him. It made him a unique rock-n-roller, both showman and businessman; his break came when he recognised a popular trend and focused his imagination on how to best mythologise it. Mr Berry quickly found a middle ground between the smooth music he was raised on and the hell-bent early rumblings of rock. Although the blues is all over Mr Berry’s music, he was not as obviously beholden to it. His lanky fingers could—and did—play longer and wilder solos than Muddy Waters or Scotty Moore. He wrote new, challenging licks for every song he recorded. 

But what made Mr Berry really stand out was that he was, first and foremost, a storyteller. He grew up with the verbose sophistication of the Great American Songbook and the belief that the mark of a true songwriter was a penchant for words, for entertaining a radio audience through imagination. Primitive rock’n’roll wasn’t yet geared toward storytelling, and the turns of phrase championed by Cole Porter. Mr Berry didn’t care; he’d shoehorn them in anyway. It was part of what made him so different from his peers. 

Because Mr Berry’s songs were, at least on paper, simple in structure, their sophistication can slip by unnoticed; like Hank Williams, he delivers “three chords and the truth”. But while Williams stuck with the mournful, Mr Berry’s hits become fast friends through humour. “Maybellene” begins, “As I was motivatin’ over the hill/I caught Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville” as if highway battles between V-8 Fords and Cadillacs were common occurrences. In “You Can’t Catch Me”, Mr Berry’s car, an Airmobile, avoids the state patrol by turning into a plane that takes off in a “cooooool breeze”. Over the course of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Mr Berry takes you from a court room to India, then back 3,000 years in history, then to Venus de Milo losing her arms in a wrestling match, then to a baseball game, all over the course of two minutes. 
Indeed, Mr Berry could take you anywhere, coast to coast and crossing states. In “The Promised Land”, he uses place to make sly allusions to the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights:
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rollin’ ’cross the Georgia state
We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way ’cross Alabam,
And that ’hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham
Straight off, I bought me a through train ticket,
Ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town
There’s people there who care a little ’bout me
And they won’t let the poor boy down
Mr Berry’s doleful songs are some of his best. “Memphis, Tennessee” is a desperate phone dialogue between the singer and Long Distance Information, set against a sad, loping groove. The speaker is trying to find his girl, Marie. The brilliant touch comes in the last verse, as the listener learns that the girl is not the narrator’s girlfriend, but his six-year-old daughter, taken away by her mother. 

Mr Berry’s song-writing waned as he struggled with scandals and personal demons, but his influence did not. A cursory look at the set lists, singles and albums of the British Invasion in the next decade reveals cover after cover of Mr Berry’s songs. Smokey Robinson, the leading force of Motown, owes an obvious debt to Mr Berry’s wordplay and his appropriation of highbrow culture and humour. Even the Beach Boys would have had a much harder time breaking out had Brian Wilson not written new lyrics to “Sweet Little Sixteen” and renamed it “Surfin’ USA”. Chuck Berry was the father of rock’n’roll. He may have duck-walked off this mortal coil, but his music never will.

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