"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Music Tuesday: Chuck Berry, In Memoriam

These In Memoriam posts are usually too late.  If you’ve heard of rock ‘n roll, by now you’ve heard that Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90.  If you think rock ‘n roll is special, then Chuck Berry is the most consequential pop musician of the last 65 years.  Chuck passed away on Saturday, March 18th at a ripe old age.  From Billboard:

Chuck Berry, the singer, songwriter and guitar great who practically defined rock music with his impeccably twangy hits “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis,” “My Ding-a-Ling” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” has died. He was 90.

The singer/songwriter, whose classic “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with Voyager in 1977, died Saturday afternoon, St. Charles County Police Department confirmed. The cause of death was not revealed.

During his 60-plus years in show business, Berry in 1986 became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He entered The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in ’85 and that year also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

He performed in 1979 for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, landed at No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and trademarked his stage showmanship with his famous “duck walk.” 

John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” He paved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sex Pistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.

Every single Rock band can trace their roots to Berry.  He was idolized by the Beatles and the Stones and I can’t think of a Rock musician who didn’t revere him.  Let’s start his retrospective with a song that shows all the elements of Berry’s music, “Maybelline.”  

First listen to that introductory guitar lick.  It’s neither pretentious nor gaudy, simple and yet distinct.  From there the guitar moves right into the melody over a thumping blend of rhythm and blues beat and country western intonation.  The guitar riff is his signature contribution.  Add his poetic use of diction and deft articulation—here the verse at twice the tempo of the chorus—and you have Chuck Berry.  Here you have Rock and Roll at its purist form.  One can see how he took America by storm.  He crossed all sorts of racial and musical boundaries.  And he was prototypical American and proud of it.  I still get patriotic fervor when I hear “Back in the USA.” .

The lyrics of this one are just too good to not post:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U.S.A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.

Looking hard for a drive in, searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.

Chuck Berry - Back In The Usa Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now that was big for a black man in pre-civil rights America to say he was glad about living in our country.  Skyscrapers, Delaware Bay, California coast, hamburgers, and juke box.  He captures the America of his day.

Another thing that made Berry so popular was that he sang to the hearts of the young just when the youth culture was rising in strength.  Whether this was coincidence or his insight I don’t know.  So much of his music has a dance element to it, a youthful dance step.  One of my all-time favorites is “Carol.”  

“I got my eyes on you baby, 'cause you dance so good/Oh Carol, don't let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”  I remember wishing as a teen I had a girlfriend named Carol just because of that song.

And then there is this little gem.  I picked a clip with the lyrics because I wanted to showcase Berry’s skillful storytelling.  “Memphis, Tennessee” is not exactly what it seems if you’re just casually listening.  It’s about a broken home and trying to connect with a daughter. 

Both R&B and County Western music have a history of song subjects on broken relationships.  If “Memphis, Tennessee” is about a broken family, “30 Days” is about attempting to reconstitute the family. 

Here’s a song that’s probably not as well know, but it’s one of my Berry favorites, “Down the Road Apiece.”

The lyrics are so good here, you just have to read along.

Now if you wanna hear some boogie like I'm gonna play
It's just an old piano and a knockout bass
The drummer man's a cat they call Kickin' McCoy
You know, remember that rubber-legged boy?
Mama's cookin' chicken fried and bacon grease
Come on along boys it's just down the road apiece

Well, there's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

There's a place you really get your kicks
It's open every night about twelve to six
Now if you wanna hear some boogie you can get your fill
And shove and sting like an old steam drill
Come on along you can lose your lead
Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece

Chuck Berry - Down The Road A Piece Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now if you listen to the instrumentation, you can hear that beautiful, lyrical piano accompanying Berry’s equally lyrical guitar riffs.  That piano player is Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s long time pianist.  I would venture to say that the Chuck Berry sound and style would not have been what it was without Johnson.  While Berry took songwriting credits, Johnson ultimately disputed that it was solely Berry.  My guess is Johnson contributed immensely. 

How about live clip of “Nadineto show off Berry’s showmanship and classic duck step with the guitar.  Keith Richards, who adored Berry, is playing rhythm in back and that’s Bobby Keys on sax. 

Chuck played with that energy and work ethic up to 90 years of age. 

Finally, you can’t have a Chuck Berry retrospective without his classic, “Johnnie B.Goode.”  

Louisiana woods, New Orleans, country boy, log cabin, electric guitar, name in lights, this is such an American song.  The lyrics are just classic.

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell

Go go
Go Johnny go

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play

Go go
Go Johnny go

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight."

Go go
Go Johnny go

Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Now here’s the wonderful news to go along with the sad news of Berry’s passing.  Chuck had just finished recording a new album, the first with original material in decades.  

ST. LOUIS, MO – OCTOBER 18, 2016 — Chuck Berry, the artist who codified the
sound, rhythm and language of rock and roll, celebrated his 90 th birthday today
with the surprise announcement that he will release a new album – titled simply
‘CHUCK’ – in 2017 on Dualtone Records (an Entertainment One Company).

Comprised primarily of new, original songs written, recorded and produced by the
founding rock and roll legend, ‘CHUCK’ is Berry’s first new album in thirty-eight
years. It was recorded in various studios around St. Louis and features Berry’s
longtime hometown backing group – including his children Charles Berry Jr.
(guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica), plus Jimmy Marsala (Berry’s bassist of
forty years), Robert Lohr (piano), and Keith Robinson (drums) – which has
supported him for over two decades on over two hundred residency shows at the
famed Blueberry Hill club. More details about ‘CHUCK’ and other Berry-related
events will be revealed in the coming weeks.

“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry, referring to his wife
of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this
record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

Isn’t that wonderful!  I can’t wait until it’s released. 

Eternal light shine on Mr. Berry.  You gave us so much pleasure.


  1. A wonderful musician and singer. RIP.

    Why did you not feature My Ding-a-Ling?

    God bless.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane Manny.

    Back in the old days I thought that Chuck Berry could have also been a country singer... Long story short, while I listened to "Thirty Days", it reminded me of an old friend who use to sing that song with a band during the mid late sixties. Long story short, decades later, I was surprised to see his name on our Country Music "Wall of Honor" in our City.

    Truth be known, the only thing that me and Chuck Berry have in comment is that, in 1970 ... we both had a Gibson Guitar... Don't tell Victor #1 that I was here. :)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaEC-lWSlmI LOL!?

    God Bless

  3. I have to admit to both of you, I hate "My Ding-a-Ling." I love Chuck Berry's music, but that song is just crude.

    Nice to see you both.

  4. Hi Manny,

    At last, KINDLE version of "Much Ado About Laughter" is now available. See link on my Blog.

    This book is better than any play or sonnet Shakespeare may have written. I just bought a copy and can't wait to read it.

    God bless.

  5. Thank you again for your comment on my Blog - re. St Joseph. I only just got to it right now.

    I am sorry I gave you the wrong impression of me. I have responded there.

    God bless you.

    1. Oh I did not have a bad impression. Let me go over and check your book out.