It’s a matter of luck in the end. You can be a great songwriter and performer but, if you are living in ordinary times, fame may be limited. If, on the other hand, you are living in extraordinary times, you can become a legend. Chuck Berry was a legend. He made the times and the times made him.
The times, the mid to late 1950s, not only provided the crucible in which rock music was formed, they also provided the stirrings that would eventually end the worst evils of segregation in the American South. With hair slicked back, Chuck Berry duck-walked his way to the musical and racial crossroads of his time.
There is a myth that, before Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richard, rock stars did not write their own songs. Untrue. Elvis didn’t write his own songs, but most of the others did, Chuck Berry among them. Unlike most of those songs, apart from Buddy Holly’s, Chuck’s songs have endured. Not only are his original recordings still played, they continue to be recorded and reinterpreted. His music is not just a nostalgic trip, it is alive and well. The list of acts that have covered Chuck Berry songs is a rock ’n’ roll hall of fame.
Chuck first cracked the American charts in August 1955 with Maybellene. That was the harbinger of a great deal to come, because – at the time – the charts were almost entirely white. With the exception of a few cross-over crooners, black artists were played on their own radio stations and featured on their own charts. Music was as segregated as everything else. What was quaintly called “race music” was not played on white stations. If black songwriters wanted national hits, they needed their songs to be covered by white artists. Who could forget Pat Boone’s covers of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally? Everyone, with any luck.
Maybellene bucked the system and, although it took a while for black artists to achieve equal acceptance, this record was the first black toe in the white door of rock. In the days since Chuck’s death, his obituaries have noted that he was never much involved in civil rights activism. But there are many ways to make a difference. Chuck’s way was to stick two fingers up to the status quo and, as far as was possible, to act as if it didn’t exist. He did as much as many others to break down barriers, not by storming them, but by ignoring them.
I turned 11 in 1960, so I missed most of Chuck’s early recordings until I caught up with them later. I heard many of his songs as cover versions, mainly by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. My favourite Chuck Berry songs, however, are not those early and more famous ones, but some of the later ones. Mostly I prefer them when covered by other artists, which perhaps suggests that Chuck’s supreme talent was as a song-writer.
Four of his songs have made their way into my all-time Top 100. (This entirely mythical list consists of about a thousand tracks, varying over time.) Three of them are Buddy Holly’s cover of Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, Emmylou Harris’s cover of You Never Can Tell and Johnny Allan’s cover of The Promised Land. The fourth, and the best, is by Chuck himself – Memphis, Tennessee, a curiously neglected masterpiece, never equalled by any cover version, with one of the most hypnotic riffs in music history.
One of the greatest concerts I have attended featured Chuck Berry. It was at Wembley Stadium on 8 August 1972. Apart from Chuck, the bill included Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & his Comets and Billy Fury. Has a more stellar cast ever been assembled? No, surely: not even for Live Aid.
The promoters had the unenviable task of managing this collection of egos. Right up until the last minute, the concert was in jeopardy because Chuck Berry and Little Richard refused to appear unless they were top of the bill. The face-saving compromise was that Little Richard would get top billing, “with a special guest appearance” by Chuck Berry, who would just happen to come on last. It was the right way round. Little Richard, the penultimate act, squandered most of the goodwill towards him by performing a long and tedious strip-tease that took up much of his time on stage. But Chuck did not disappoint. He duck-walked across the stage, belting out one classic after another. He may never have learned to read or write so well, but he played guitar just like a-ringing a bell.
So another one bites the dust, and there are not many of those early rockers left now. ‘Genius’ and ‘unique’ are two of the most overused words in the language, but Chuck Berry was undoubtedly a genius and perhaps unique as well. I might even break the habit of a lifetime and call him ‘iconic’.
What is there left to say? His own words are best:
Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone
Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line.