“ADR (all due respect), and I know he was one of the people that started rock & roll, but really, why all the fuss about Chuck Berry?” asked one of the young ‘uns in the Music Department here at MassCommons World Headquarters earlier this week.
From today’s vantage point, Billboard’s 1955 pop chart looks like a record of a passing era. It’s filled with groups like the McGuire Sisters, the Four Aces, and the Chordettes, and solo acts like Roger Williams, Joan Weber and Bill Hayes who’ve left virtually no impression on subsequent pop music.
It’s a different story on the R&B chart: Etta James, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, the Penguins and the Drifters are just some of the artists with their first #1 hits that year.
And towering above them all, with an unmatched 11 consecutive weeks at #1 that year, was Chuck Berry with “Maybellene”. A country song with a blues backbeat and what we now think of as rock & roll guitar leads (because they’re Chuck Berry guitar leads), “Maybellene’s” combination of fast cars, sex, danger and excitement proved irresistible to audiences and record buyers across the country.
Something like rock & roll was going to emerge in the mid-1950s. (Just look at Bill Haley & the Comets at the top of the 1955 pop charts for 8 weeks with “Rock Around The Clock”.) What did emerge sounded more like Chuck Berry than Bill Haley (ADR)…or pretty much anyone else. That’s what all the fuss is about.
With “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” Chuck Berry did more in less time (2:19) to upend white supremacy than…well…than anybody else before or since has done in under three minutes.
Released in 1956, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” predates (among others) “The Times They Are A-Changing” (1964), “Say It Loud – I’m Black & I’m Proud” (1968), “To Be Young, Gifted & Black” (1969), and none of them would be the same without it. In other words, earnest folkies, hard-living funkmasters, and avant-garde Black Arts songstresses all walked a path first paved by Chuck Berry.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is epic in its ambitions—taking on the racist US criminal justice system, Eurocentrism in world history and art, and Major League Baseball (less than a decade after Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier, and the year after Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers won their first and only World Series)—and irresistible in its composition. It’s witty, bold, mind-stretching, ear-catching, dance-making music of the highest order…and it was written by a brown-eyed handsome man.
It’s not that virtually all popular music over the past two generations wouldn’t exist without Chuck Berry; it’s that it 1) wouldn’t be the same, and 2) wouldn’t be as good.
Take rappers and singer-songwriters, for example. All those angry young black men from the city spitting verses and all those daydreaming young white kids with their acoustic guitars may not appear to have much in common…but they all draw inspiration from “Nadine”.
“Nadine” was the first song Berry recorded when he got out of prison (for the second time) in 1963, and it has a verbal flow some rappers still strive to match. At the same time, you can’t get to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from, say, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” without “Nadine”.
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back,
And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac;
I was pushin’ through the crowd tryna get to where she’s at,
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat.
As Charlie Pierce wrote in his appreciation of Berry’s work, “There are not five better lyrics in all of American music better than that verse. Hell, I’m not entirely sure if I can come up with five better verses in all of English poetry if you spotted me Mr. Yeats and the entire Oxford Anthology.“
On a Monday morning it doesn’t pay to overthink things. Chuck Berry died over the weekend and if there’s one song he’ll be remembered for—heck, if there’s one rock & roll song from the 20th century that will be remembered at all—it’s “Johnny B. Goode”.
It’s the song NASA chose to send on the Voyager I spacecraft to represent all of rock & roll. It’s the song that was covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to the Sex Pistols, Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix, Peter Tosh to Judas Priest. It’s the song that was sampled by everyone from LL Cool J to Ed Sheeran to Bob Seger to Jive Bunny & The Mastermixer.
Louis Armstrong was the most influential musician of the first half of the 20th century. With “Johnny B. Goode” Chuck Berry staked his claim to the title of most influential musician of the second half of the 20th century.
If you’re wondering why the Chicago Mass Choir takes 7 minutes to sing a song that has one verse and a chorus, think of it as a zen koan, or as one of those stories about a venerable monk who refused to teach a novice the secrets of meditation until he first learned how to close a door or to wash dishes properly.
Point being, if you can’t (or won’t, or don’t) do the simple things right, then you need to learn that first and learn it right. And rule #1 for accessing the “Holy Ghost Power” is, as Jesus put it (Mark 6:31), “Come away for a while to a deserted place and rest for awhile“. Until you learn that spiritual discipline, it will remain all too easy for the demons of this world to overtake your mind and spirit.
Or, as Lemmie Battles sings,
Do you want it? (the Holy Ghost power)…
Go back to the altar,
Get down on your knees,
Stay there ’til you get the Holy Ghost power.
“Very Syrian Business”: a phrase when used here that means something like Melba Liston and her band of trombonists cutting loose with all the energy and verve of a Middle Eastern bazaar.