(Above: The 45 copy of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” which is missing from my collection.)
Within the last six months I wrote about Chuck Berry turning 90 and about Leonard Chess turning 100 (were he still with us). Both of those posts come together today in this obit.
Chuck Berry died today at his home in Missouri. The better sentence to write is “Chuck Berry, who had far more to do with the creation of rock and roll than he is credited with, passed away today after a full life at the age of 90.” Within hours the Rolling Stones, who owe no small debt to Berry, respectfully paid tribute to him, as did Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Huey Lewis, and countless others. John Lennon once suggested that if we “were to rename rock and roll, we might consider calling it Chuck Berry.” Younger readers of this blog may be familiar with the name but not the importance of the role that he played. It’s my duty to try and fix that.
Chuck Berry came to the game late in much the same way that black ballplayers of the 1950s, held out by being relegated to the Negro leagues, came to their game late. Berry was 29 when he first hit the charts with “Maybellene,” which is, for my money, still one of the best rock and roll records ever made. After that, though, rock became a young man’s game: in 1956, when Berry turned 30, Elvis was just 21 and taking the world by storm. Teen idols such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian sold millions of records while the “old man” kept plugging along, trying to achieve the same level of chart success his more accepted counterparts were boosted to through copious TV appearances.
Still not sure of Berry’s place in history? Allow me to cite some musical examples.
-In 1956 alone, Chuck Berry created three tremendous records: “Roll Over Beethoven,” the only one to chart on the Top 40 at #29, “Too Much Monkey Business,” which was an R&B hit, and “You Can’t Catch Me,” which I wrote about earlier.
-In 1957 and 1958, Berry hit the top of the R&B chart three times, with “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Those weren’t big crossover hits, unless you consider that a) Berry had his name added as a composer to “Surfin’ USA,” since it essentially IS “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and b) when they launched the Voyager probe into space in 1979, the solid-gold phonograph disc that represented humankind’s musical creation included ONE rock and roll record, and it was “Johnny B. Goode.”
-While most of what Berry released wasn’t successful from a chart standpoint, the music influenced millions of young musicians. Songs like “Little Queenie” turned up in T. Rex lyrics (“Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’) and “Bye Bye Johnnie” influenced a young Bruce Springsteen to write “Johnnie Bye Bye.” Even the records that were successful in their day fell to obscurity until later turning up in film (1964’s “You Never Can Tell” is more famous from inclusion in Pulp Fiction than as a #14 pop hit.)
To say that Chuck Berry had his issues would be putting it mildly. His legal problems, even if wrongly stated in Cadillac Records, are well documented. His IRS problems were such that it was well known on the Oldies circuit that if you hired Chuck for a show, you were paying him in cash, in a paper bag, before he took the stage. But I would argue that far bigger stars committed far greater misgivings, and the effect on their chart performance was not as adversely affected as was Berry’s. Because the charts are simply unfair, the biggest hit that Chuck Berry ever had was the #1 “My Ding-A-Ling” – his only pop chart-topper – in 1972.
The song of Chuck Berry’s that I always loved was “Come On.” It sounds very thrown together, complete with distortion on the guitar solo in the bridge that sounds more like a bad amplifier than an intentional musical choice. But the record, with Martha Berry singing along with him, is essentially perfect. In typical Berry fashion, he sets the stage in the first line: “Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted.” There’s a conflict, and we’re going to get a resolution through rock and roll. The job is bad, and the car is in such poor shape that “I wish someone would come along and run into it and wreck it.” Who can’t relate? It’s such a perfect record that the Rolling Stones chose to cover it as their first song in 1963. Sadly, it never charted, but it’s worth seeking out all the same.
The loss of Chuck Berry is a loss for our popular culture, and I don’t think that that is overstating it one bit. Students of the culture unaware of Berry’s contribution to it have some listening to do, and I think they will be pleasantly surprised with what they discover.
See how your life compares to the bad day that Chuck Berry had in 1961. To hear “Come On,” click here.
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