Chuck Berry turns 90 today. If we have to pick one figure in American pop to whom the charts have not been kind, my vote likely goes to him.
You certainly know the story of Chuck: born in St. Louis, went to Chicago, cut a few important sides for Chess in the 50s, faded out, made a comeback in the 70s, kept prominent by nostalgia, and never really got the credit he was due. But the placement of Berry’s records on the pop charts is nothing short of criminal. I’ve written – nay, dissertated – on the exclusion and/or suppression of Black artists on local station charts, and it’s probably safe to say that that effect on Berry’s music is notable. That’s not to say that Berry didn’t have his legal issues and scandals. His time in prison for allegedly violating the Mann Act (famously portrayed incorrectly in Cadillac Records was trickier to come back from than, say, Elvis’ time in the Army. Tax issues hounded Berry for years. (A former radio colleague told a story of his station hiring Berry to play a “shower of stars” type concert, and refusing to perform unless he was paid in cash in a brown paper bag before the gig.) But if we are able to separate the misdeeds from the music, what is left is an impressive catalog that somehow only features “My Ding-a-Ling” (1972) as his only Number One hit, proving that life is not fair.
I could craft a pretty decent mixtape of Chuck Berry songs that didn’t make the Top 40.
“No Money Down” (1955)
“Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
“Sweet Little Rock and Roller” (1958)
“Little Queenie” (1959)
“Let It Rock” (1960)
“Come On” (1961)
and, of course, the featured song in this piece, “You Can’t Catch Me.” If we were to extend the list to stuff below 20 on the chart, it’s a solid album.
All that needs to be said about is that the same flattop that is “movin’ up with me” in this record is later “groovin’ up slowly” in the Beatles’ “Come Together.” (Not enough? T. Rex’s “Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin'” from “Bang a Gong” comes from “Little Queenie.”) Berry’s music was an influence on them and many other British musicians. The Stones covered “Come On” at the beginning of their career and made a pilgrimage to Chicago to record at the Chess studios in an attempt to capture the sound of their heroes.
Oldies radio, as it has done with so many artists, hasn’t done Chuck many favors in terms of delving deep into his catalog. But at least it helped to keep some of the music front and center so that when I enter a college classroom in 2016 I don’t get blank looks from students when I mention his name. Maybe Pulp Fiction is to thank for that.
Feel free to crank up a duckwalk-laden “You Can’t Catch Me,” as introduced by Alan Freed, by clicking here.