Chuck Berry

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Chuck Berry Pencil Portrait
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The restaurenteur opened his new attraction in Wentzville, a move intended to symbolise the end of the Jim Crow South. No more buying meals from the kitchen window, now he owned the food establishment.

Within months of opening, however, the Southern Air would not seem like such a fortuitous business decision as one of his employees allegedly began talking to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, claiming that the owner was hiding large amounts of cocaine in his guitar cases. Courting trouble was nothing new for the businessman. From 1947-1950, he had served two and a half years for armed robbery, an interstate spree, involving the hijacking of a car at gunpoint and hold ups at a gas station and convenience store. In 1979, he had served three months for tax evasion and sandwiched in between, a twenty one month stretch in the early 60’s for violation of the Mann Act.

For the Godfather of rock guitar, trouble was nothing new but perhaps this time, his reputation would be irreparably damaged. More interestingly, whether the man christened Charles Edward Anderson Berry and raised amidst an inferior economic, educational and social strata of society would even care was a moot point.

Childhood experiences brand on the outside and scar on the inside. The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965 that mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in the Southern states ensuring inferior living conditions for African Americans when compared to those provided for their white counterparts. The Jim Crow laws and the high rate of lynchings in the South were major factors in the Great Migration during the first half of the 20th century. Since opportunities were so limited in the South, African Americans moved in great numbers to northern cities to seek better lives, becoming an urbanized population. Charles ‘Chuck’ Berry chose a different route to become rock’n‘roll’s first poet laureatte and the king of the “double stops”.

His legendary prickliness is recalled in the expanded DVD box set of director Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary/concert film Chuck Berry – Hail Hail! rock’n‘Roll.” Recounting their war stories, a picture emerges of a man unprepared to grant concessions to anybody or anything. Whether demanding daily payment in cash on set or refusing to be filmed, he topped all of this with his flagrant lack of social graces by showing up for a dinner meeting at L.A.’s posh Le Dome with a bag of McDonald’s takeout. Hackford’s directorial problems reached their zenith two days before the concert filming, when Berry slipped out of St. Louis to perform in Ohio inexplicably straining his vocal cords beyond short term repair. The birthday concert suffered accordingly and the star’s vocals were subsequently re-dubbed onto the film soundtrack. One cannot help but speculate that had Berry been offered an extra payday in advance he wouldn’t have pulled the stunt.

His obsession with money overrides all other considerations – artistic credibility, showmanship, musical comraderie, it’s a wonder anyone ever makes an effort on his behalf. His wariness of people is understandable to a degree, since his initial success was tempered by the hard reality of showbusiness. The copyright for “Maybellene” contained the names of Alan Freed and Russ Fratto as well as Berry’s and whilst Freed’s name on the song ensured airplay, it also reduced Berry’s royalty payments. Furthermore, Berry discovered that his first road manager, Teddy Reig, was pocketing money from his live appearances. Learning from these initial pitfalls, Berry realized that self-sufficiency and independence were keys to long term survival in the business, and from this point on, he became determined to take charge of his own affairs. Unfortunately, accumulated wealth and the necessary experience to handle his affairs has singularly failed to mellow him. Whilst Keith Richards would refer to the Stones’s involvement with Allen Klein’s management company in the mid 60’s and their subsequent tax problems as the “price of an education”, it is unlikely that Chuck would ever be quite so phlegmatic. It is precisely this perennial “chip on the shoulder” attitude that has antagonised his musical collaborators and audiences for decades despite the obvious irony that many of the english musicians who revere him, contributed greatly to his financial solvency when he was incarcerated in ’62 and ’63. During his touring career, Berry has been heavily criticised for having sub par, mediocre back up bands behind him. He thought that his music was so popular that every musician would know it so a cavalier attitude prevailed in which the maestro would simply travel with his guitar case and rendevouz with each and every pick-up band contractually provided by the venue’s promoter. The results were intermittently both inspired and haphazard but more often than not, disastrous.

On December 1, 1959, while playing a show in El Paso, TX, Berry met Janice Escalanti, a young Native American woman from Yuma, AZ. They discussed the possibility of her working as a hat check girl at Club Bandstand, which she agreed to do. She was terminated after two weeks, and after soliciting for several nights at a local hotel, she called the Yuma police to find a way to get home. The call led to charges of violating the Mann Act — transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. A first trial, in which Berry was found guilty, was overturned after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks; a second trial in October 1961 arrived at the same verdict, however, and Berry was sentenced to 3 years in jail and a $10, 000 fine.

On February 19, 1962 Berry began serving his sentence; his music, however, was not so easily restrained. In March of 1963, The Beach Boys released a note-for-note cover of “Sweet Little Sixteen” which they called “Surfin’ USA.” Meanwhile in England, newcomers The Rolling Stones released their first single, a version of “Come On;” in quick succession, they went on to cover “Carol,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” and “I’m Talkin’ About You.” And just 5 days before his release on October 18, 1963, Beatlemania began to take hold on the world as 15 million viewers watched The Beatles, who had begun their rise to the top with covers of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” perform on ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium.’

During the course of Hackford’s film, Berry confesses that he only took up music full-time because there was more money in it than in housepainting, and a weary, wasted Keith Richards admits that “I was mad to take the gig” but gamely stands up to his idol at every turn; witness their contratemps duing the ‘Carol’rehearsals and a memorable moment during the very first song of the concert, when Chuck attempts to change key in mid-tune and Keith sternly shakes him off.

[Tour programme for Berry’s 1965 visit to Britain.]

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bradford_timeline/sets/72157629661860492/with/7169466286/

It was on one of these dates that Richards would implore Chuck to ‘stay awhile’ backstage after the show, an entreaty that was met by a swift smack in the face. Keef would later admit that he was proud of the fact that he didn’t go down. Recalling that Berry was off into the night accompanied by the inevitable piece of “white tail,” more pressing matters were clearly at hand!

Throughout the years, he has courted trouble and period run-ins with the authorities remind us of the fact that there is a consistent charater trait at work here, and not temporary abberations. In 1990, the duck walker who gave rock’n‘roll a brain to go with its balls added the term “pervert” to his résumé. Sued by several female customers of his St. Louis restaurant, who claimed there was a video-camera setup in the ladies’ bathrooms, he waas compelled to buy their silence with a $1.2m payout. One can only hope for his sake, that ringing the Berry bell with the VHS machine whirring made it all seem financially worthwhile.

His longtime penchant for young white girls suggests a controlling nature, and an aversion to deep meaningful relationships; the resultant domestic situation with his long suffering wife presumably fraught. As for male relationships, he has used his fame and position as added confrontational leverage, and has undoubtedy exploited the reverence in which he is held by more than one generation of guitarists to his own advantage. It’s as much a damning indictment on the capacity of others to indulge his whims without ever bringing him up short, as is his background in explaining so much of his mistrusting persona. If only for tax reasons, I’ve still never been aware of his involvement in any altruistic business ventures, and his fixation with money continues unabated. When the producers of the “Aspel & Co” interview show in England queried his preference for “Memphis Tennessee” rather than “Johnny B. Goode” his riposte was brief and succinct – “If you pay me second rate money then you get a second rate song”.

I’ve seen him in persuasively entertaining mode, as a charming interviewee and a consumate professional. He was way past his prime when I caught him in concert in 1991 and his lighting rig was perfunctory, but there was enough swagger in his movement and sufficient fretboard fire to remind us all of the glory days. The ticket was reasonably priced, and I’m glad I saw him.

There was a sold-out all-star Chuck Berry tribute concert in Cleveland in October 2012. At the pre show press conference, the music pioneer discussed a future he described as “dim.”

“I’m wondering about my future. That’s news,” said Berry amid some chuckles from the few members of the press assembled in a conference room at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum but there was a seriousness to Berry’s words.

“I’ll give you a little piece of poetry. Give you a song, I can’t do that. My singing days have passed. My voice is gone. My throat is worn. And my lungs are going fast,” said Berry, who recently celebrated his 86th birthday.

Still, Berry says has no plans to slow down his duck walking schedule, and that includes his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, which regularly sells out. A cursory glance at his official website indicates the veteran’s ongoing commitment to live appearances in 2013 and for as long as he is capable. Retirement is not on his agenda – “That shall never be as far as I am able to see a little, hear a little and do but a little. I want to perform. It’s in my genes,” said the man with some pep left in his step despite his diminished hearing.

The October 2012 tribute concert Saturday night at Cleveland’s State Theatre at PlayhouseSquare was the culmination of the 17th Annual American Music Masters’ “Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry” weeklong tribute. In musical terms at least, he deserved nothing less.

Recommended listening

After School Session (1957)

Many of the songs originally collected for Berry’s ‘After School Sessions’ represented a large part of his recorded work for Chess Records (circa 1955-56) are as comfortable and familiar to rock ‘n’ roll fans as a well-worn pair of shoes. The astounding success of “School Days,” number one on the R&B chart and number three on the Billboard Hot 100 singles pop chart, led to the release of what was only the second long-playing album from Chess Records. There’s a lot more to this album than the obvious single pulls, “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” like “Deep Feeling,” a surprising instrumental with languid fretwork, New Orleans-styled piano, and an overall laid-back, bluesy vibe.

Berry’s “Wee Wee Hours,” a number ten R&B chart hit, is a smoky blues vamp with shuffling rhythms, tinkling honky-tonk piano courtesy of the great Johnnie Johnson, and the singer’s sultry vocals while “Havana Moon” is a calypso-flavored island romp with syncopated rhythms and an impressive, complex vocal. The quixotic combination of Berry’s languid talking blues delivery and rhythmic metering expands his musical vocabulary whilst “Down Bound Train” is simply one of his best blues songs, a hard-driving tale with locomotive rhythms, Berry’s fast-paced and slightly reverbed vocals, and jagged shards of guitar. The studio band, which included bassist Willie Dixon and pianist Otis Spann, delivers a truly otherworldly vibe behind Berry’s haunting vocals.

“After School Session” is no concept album, merely assembling A and B sides of market-tested seven-inch singles with the addition of bonus tracks to entice fans and newcomers alike. The current compact disc version contains fifteen remastered tracks upgraded to their best-ever sound quality from the 1st generation Mono master tapes by Erick Labson of Universal. This 2008 release costs next to nothing – an essential purchase for students of rock’n‘roll at twice the price.

One Dozen Berries (1958)

The big hits – “Sweet Little Sixteen” (the basis for the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA”), “Reelin’ & Rockin’” and “Rock & Roll Music,” plus “Oh Baby Doll.” Need I say more?

Berry Is On Top (1959)

The first two albums are singles orientated but this collection is Berry’s most influential work to date and boasts a seminal line-up of early rock classics. “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Maybellene” are all first line entries whilst five more compositions,_ “Around And Around,”_ “Almost Grown,” and the troika of lust songs “Carol,” “Sweet Little Rock & Roller” and “Little Queenie” emerge strongly from the rear. For sure, there are some duds, the slide instrumental “Blues for Hawaiians” and “Anthony Boy,” Berry’s stab at Dean Martinesque crooning, but let’s avoid being churlish – this album is crisp, economical, era-defining and mostly brilliant.

It wasn’t all over after this but Chuck’s quality control wavered alarmingly with every subsequent inspired composition drowning in a sea of accompanying mediocrity. Released from prison on October 18, 1963, and wishing to capitalize on his popularity during the British Invasion, Berry and Chess Records fashioned “St louis to liverpool,” an album that boasted four of the five charting singles he enjoyed in 1964, the final year he would have multiple records appearing on the Billboard Hot 100: “No Particular Place to Go;” “You Never Can Tell;” “Promised Land;” and the sequel to “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Little Marie” are complemented by their respective B sides, an additional b-side from 1960 “Our Little Rendezvous,” the 1958 holiday single “Merry Christmas Baby,” an instrumental outtake from a 1950s session, and the recent instrumental “Liverpool Drive.” The flame still burned, but the winds were whipping up and Chuck was destined for the nostalgia of rock’n‘roll revival circuits.

There would be one last financial hurrah, the infantile “My Ding-a-ling” in 1972 – Berry’s paean to male masturbation – which aroused more reaction in the British clean up campaigner Mary Whitehouse than legions of the holy roller’s afficionados. Just don’t get me started on this UK chart topper – the novelty was wearing off weeks before its commercial descent.

Recommended viewing

Chuck Berry – French Tv (1958)

Pure monochrome heaven – Chuck with a first rate live band whipping up some french frenzy. A rollicking ‘Johnny B. Goode’, performed with a modified intro solo and sung in a higher key, ‘Maybellene’ complete with Berry’s dance move repertoire, ‘Roll over Beethoven’ with an extended duckwalk and two other numbers flesh out this mini masterpiece. Available only on bootleg DVDs but viewable on YouTube, there’s madness in Chuck’s eyes and a pompadour to match his mood.

Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock’n’ Roll (1987)

Berry wrote a catalogue’s worth of genre-defining songs, “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and so many others, all of them filled with wit, delightful stories, and poetry. He’s also the guitarist who virtually patented many of rock’s seminal licks, and the showman who attracted some top musicians to celebrate his 60th birthday with a concert in St. Louis, his hometown.

It’s a marvellous film, one of the best of its genre and the expanded four disc version reveals much more; a nostalgic Berry poring over his scrapbook with Robbie Robertson of the Band; some lengthy rehearsal jams with Clapton, Richards, and James, endless hours of convivial conversation with Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and other rock pioneers and most tellingly of all, the production team’s in-house feuds with the prickly star.

Recommended reading

Brown Eyed Handsome Man : The Life & Hard Times Of Chuck Berry (Bruce Pegg) 2002

A competent scissors and paste volume that lifts the lid on Berry’s selective version of events in his 1986 autobiography. Working on the premise that the official story “covers up as much as it reveals”, Pegg digs deep in newspaper files and court records to come up with the most detailed and complete picture of the notoriously private subject yet seen. Unsurprisingly, Berry refused to co-operate on the project and what ultimately emerges is a comprehensive litany of events without any attempt at character analysis. It’s a comparatively expensive paperback but located at a discount and in the absence of a more insightful work, the best overview to date of a complicated man.

The Chuck Berry International Directory: Volumes 1-4 (Morten Reff) 2008-2010

Four volumes for Berry scholars and so completely “over the top” that you have to laugh. The titles, compiled and annotated by world-renowned Norwegian Berry collector and authority, Morten Reff, contain everything the obsessive could ever wish to know about the recultrant star. There are dozens of illustrations of rare record labels and sleeves, previously unpublished photos, etc to avoid the reader being weighed down by the portentiosness of the project.

Chuck Berry (Guitar Recorded Versions) Fred Sokolow

From “Almost Grown” to “Sweet Little Rock’n‘roller”, this definitive Hal Leonard publication features note for note accurate transcriptions of Berry’s recorded parts, both E form rhythm parts and solos.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Sokolow

I’ve been studying Sokolow’s transcriptions for years and he remains one of my all time Youtube inspirations.

For the aspiring guitarist, the following link offers a useful ten point starter for players to begin an appreciation of Chuck’s techniques.

http://www.guitarplayer.com/article/10-things-you-gotta-do-to-play-like-chuck-berry/147595

The recorded key for “Johnny B. Goode” is Bb. The three chords in the 12-bar progression are Bb (I), Eb (IV), and F (V). The Bb Blues-scale is utilised which is the pentatonic scale of the flattened 3rd [D], i.e. Db. Other notes (bend-to, grace, walk-through, etc) are added too, but that’s the starting scale. It’s a piano key and Berry presumably used it to accomodate Johnnie Johnson on keyboards and the R&B rhythm section. Bb is a commonly used key for R&B horn and sax, which is probably why he chose it.

Beginner and intermediate players are advised to drop a semitone and play in the key of A. Commencing on the 6th and 5th frets with the single notes C# 3rd string 6th fret, then the single note E on the 2nd string 5th fret then The single note F# on the 2nd string 7th fret. Then comes the famous 1st and 2nd string 2 note doublestop sliding E and A note held down together with the 1st finger, at the 5th fret. And slide those 2 notes between the 4th and 5th fret.

I love all this technical minutiae but of equal interest is the relative ease with which such analysis can be undermined. Chuck was already thirty at the height of his fame and it is a well known fact that between the recording and mastering stages, his tapes would often be speeded up by as much as a full tone to make his vocals sound more youthful for the teen market; perhaps therefore, we can never be sure what original keys were utilised for all his recordings.

Surfing

Chuck Berry -The Official Site

http://www.chuckberry.com/\

The official site, sanitised and predictable but an obvious starting point.

The Chuck Berry Discography

http://www.crlf.de/ChuckBerry/discography.html\

A collector’s guide to the music of Chuck Berry with an illuminating insight into the protracted filming of his 60th birthday concert.