Culture Corner: Chuck Berry and the American Songbook—An Appreciation

By Bernie Langs

Chuck berryI saw Chuck Berry, the founder of the music genre of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, in concert in the midst of my life’s blur of the mid-to-late 1980s at a fairly small New York City concert venue. He was paired up that evening with Ronnie Wood, the second banana guitarist of the Rolling Stones and the man whose presence in that band had rescued it when Mick Taylor quit out of nowhere in the mid-1970s. Berry was the headliner, and as usual, he was famously late. Ronnie announced he’d play while we waited for his sparring partner, and I still remember him struggling to sing the slow Robert Johnson blues masterpiece, “Love in Vain” when suddenly he just spoke into the microphone and announced, “Okay, here’s the point.” At that time on the planetary, Euclidean grid and map of rock history’s great moments, he took his metal slide to his guitar and ripped out a monumental solo of deep emotional joy and pain, which is the signature mixture of the Blues. The Brits, of course, had rearranged and stolen the Blues methods in the 1960s from the African American players of the United States. When Berry arrived at the hall that night, he stole it back, at least for one evening.

Now Ronnie Wood can play a damn fine rock riff, that’s for sure, but that night, when Berry went into his solos (leads), I would stop dead in my tracks, listening in a state of raptured awe, reacting to the way he played around within the blues progressions he had speeded up in the 1950s, and given a jazz kick to, thus creating the new genre. All rock soloists in what is called the 1-4-5 progression are derivative of what Berry created (with some of his inspiration from the riffing of his long-time pianist Johnnie Johnson). But when Berry played his solos, it was like the time I saw Kevin Bacon in Central Park and my friend laughed and said, “I guess we win that six degrees of Kevin Bacon game because he’s the source.” Berry, quite literally, is the hub of the rock ‘n’ roll universe. The buck stops with him. His solos that night had a perfect distortion or dirtiness to them, and his phrasing was utterly original—every single time he took a lead. The feelings powering his music are a complete joy, the bliss of the possibility of youth and of life. The idea that the future doesn’t matter because the present is tinged with excitement, experimentation, and innocence. It was as if Berry was saying, “Well, the heck with it, let’s cruise around in my Malibu.” So I stood on the floor at that concert and I stopped tapping my foot or dancing a bit to the rock ‘n’ roll and stared at him, my mouth slightly open with more than a hint of a peaceful, contented smile.

By the time the film American Graffiti looked back with nostalgia on the 1962 dramas of young people driving around in their automobiles in small town America, it was already an analytical gaze at an era long past. Berry was an oldies act as early as the 1970s when he was still barely middle-aged. I was in high school then and I went to the movie theater to see a concert film called Let the Good Times Roll. Berry headlines the film and at one point he looks out at the happy audience, who for at least that moment were being spared the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes, and he says with a big grin, “All my children…all my children…”

That movie featured Bo Diddley as well, another African-American rock ‘n’ roll player from the 1950s who lived through the decade’s frustration of being treated as a second-class entertainer simply because of his race. When I was in college in Providence, Rhode Island, Diddley would give shows at a great downtown club called Lupo’s. One night, after his set and after many people had left, I saw Diddley sitting at the bar, so I sat next to him. I remember no specifics of our very mellow, slow-paced discussion, but I remember his demeanor and that he had a certain quiet dignity that I could tell he carried with him all the time. He often looked away as we spoke, out at nothing. About five or ten years later, I was given a surprise Chanukah/Christmas gift of a small electric piano for my Brooklyn apartment from my mother. When I asked her how she had picked it out, she told me that the friend she’d sent to buy it had been unsure which to pick and Diddley who was shopping in the store offered to help him make the selection. Some kind of cosmic rock circle had been completed.

There’s another film with both Diddley and Berry, called Hail! Hail! rock ‘n Roll, a 1987 documentary about a homecoming concert Berry is to give in Saint Louis, Missouri. There are extensive interviews with Berry and many other big rock stars, including the concert’s music director, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (first banana to Ronnie Wood). There is a joint interview with Diddley, Berry, and 1950s outrageous performer Little Richard. The three of them are lamenting how they were treated early in their careers because of their race, and the story of how Pat Boone covered Little Richard’s crazy and wild song “Tutti Frutti,” which led to its recognition—not Little Richard’s own recording. A clip is shown of Boone on a 1950s show performing the fast-paced song, smiling broadly like my dad might have at my Bar Mitzvah. It was as strange to hear Pat Boone sing Little Richard as it would be if he were to rap Tupac or Jay Z songs on The Tonight Show. Although I have to admit there’s something endearing about his enthusiasm in belting out the madcap “Tutti Frutti.” When they cut back to Diddley, Berry, and Richards interview, one of them admits that Boone gave their music much needed exposure and his covers opened doors for them.

Berry has never been easy going. It’s obvious that he resented the subsequent fame of Elvis Presley, who never wrote songs or truly played guitar but gave rock ‘n’ roll the white face it needed in America to become a movement. Of course it’s not that simple, because Presley could sing like a demon and had loads of a star power. The greatest interpreter of Berry is Richards, and they’ve had a difficult friendship for decades, culminating in Richards’s lament in his autobiography about Berry’s harshness. Very famously, Richards once saw Berry backstage at a concert and came up behind him to give him a hug. Berry, thinking he was being attacked (or so he explained later) slugged Richards in the face giving him quite the shiner.

Richards plays the hell out of the riffs he learned and expanded on from Berry. The live album that was cut from the performances of the Stones at Madison Garden in 1969 included two songs by Berry, “Carol” and “Little Queenie.” Both of those tracks contain brief moments where rock ‘n’ roll reaches its quintessential heights. During Richards’s second solo in “Little Queenie,” he is about to come out of his phrasing and he bends two strings and stretches them quickly up and down, in Berry fashion, over and over and over again as the band hovers in timeless space and with the expectation and anticipation for him to release them—and all of us—from this mountainous peak of unfettered, impossible ecstasy to resolution and rest. During the performance of “Carol,” Richards peppers the space with Berry riffs between each phrase sung by Mick Jagger. But in one interlude, he joins guitarist, Mick Taylor with power chords instead of notes and it’s like the pumping of a universal, throbbing heart, or a train chugging through the American landscape of our brightest dreams.

Berry is older now and I didn’t want an article I write about him to be an obituary. I come to praise Berry, not bury him. It’s said that Aaron Copland wrote the American Songbook. In the words of Forrest Gump, “Now, I don’t know about that.” Berry’s lyrics and style captured the vibe in America after two wars that had left it tired and empty. His words are about simple concepts of the experience of youth in the United States which would never again be expressed as well. Groups like the Beach Boys and writers like John Mellencamp and Tom Petty extended his ideas. Berry smiles at our innocence while at the same time he’s winking at our playful mischief. Cars, juke boxes, “monkey business,” strumming your guitar by the railroad tracks, Berry was an African American who sang “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA” at a time when Southern restaurants had Jim Crow laws. It’s part of his lesson and part of his legacy: play through the pain and you’ll emerge just fine—just fine—on the other side.

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