Tributes from across the world have been paid to Chuck Berry, who died on Saturday aged 90. Famous for Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven and Sweet Little Sixteen, he was hailed by many as perhaps the main creator of rock ’n’ roll. He celebrated his birthday in October with news he was releasing his first album since 1979. Berry was found by his caretaker in his Missouri home. He’d recently had pneumonia. The star leaves his wife Themetta and four adult children. Ray Connolly looks back at his life…
Chuck Berry didn’t just write, sing and play rock and roll songs. Lots of people do that. He was one of the founding fathers of rock, the first poet of that music, and a brilliantly inventive lyricist who described cultural Americana in the Fifties — with all its hopes, triumphs, frustrations and, not least, car obsessions.
And as we woke yesterday to news of his death at 90, there were sad but grateful remembrances from the biggest names in rock — Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards among them, almost representatives of the hundreds of thousands of little bands around the world who learned to play, as they did, by listening to early Chuck Berry records.
Copying those rhythm and blues narrative songs was how the Rolling Stones started playing. The Beatles covered his records, too. After duetting with Berry on a TV show in New York in 1972, an elated John Lennon suggested: ‘If you tried to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.’
Berry was that influential, with those immediately identifiable guitar breaks that did, indeed, sound, as he sang in Johnny B. Goode, ‘just like a-ringing a bell’.
But it was the sheer breadth and wittiness of his lyrics that elevated him above all rivals.
Who else but Chuck Berry could include in a rock song an explanation of how the statue of Venus de Milo lost both its arms?
In his version, Venus was ‘a beautiful lass who had the world in the palm of her hand, she lost both her arms in a wrestling match to meet a brown-eyed handsome man’.
What is astonishing is how he could make the metre to so many words work in a song lyric.
Record-buyers first became aware of him in the mid-Fifties when most of his songs were about cars and incidents in teenage life — teenagers then being a recently discovered demographic. There was the pop-mad girl in Sweet Little Sixteen, for instance.
And then there was the transformation of a dull day studying ‘American history and practical math’ in School Days, when ‘Ring, ring goes the bell’ releases the kids to go and play the juke box. ‘Hail, hail rock and roll,’ Berry sang, and who could possibly argue?
For years, Berry’s music has been an established part of the music of America, with a copy of his record Johnny B. Goode — his tale of a guitar-playing country boy — now millions of miles out in space on board the NASA spacecraft Voyager 1, sent in 1977, a gift for any aliens who might happen across it.
But, as well as being a brilliant songsmith, who exactly was Chuck Berry? What kind of man was he?
Well, he was complex and flawed. A lifetime teetotaller, he was, unlike most rock stars, unfailingly prompt and could be charming, especially with women.
He was also suspicious, frugal, pedantic, arrogant and, if his autobiography is anything to go by, sex-mad.
At least he was when he wrote it 30 years ago. Sex may not have been quite so important to him in the last couple of years.
And he was, for good as well as for bad, a product of his times.
One of the black poor boys about whom he so often sang, he grew up on Goode Avenue, in St Louis, Missouri, during times of racial segregation. Despite success, he never got over the reversals he encountered early in life.
In one interview he told how as a boy, he had never gone to bed at night without wishing he could wake up white the next morning.
And whether his story of his father being refused admission when he took 11-year-old Chuck (then known as Charles) to a whites-only cinema in St Louis was true, he always smouldered from the injustice of such situations.
As a blues-loving teenager, he used a guitar chord book to learn the hits of the time. At 15, he performed on stage at a high school review a cover of Jay McShann’s Confessin’ The Blues, receiving what he described as an ‘unforgettable standing ovation’.
Unfortunately, although he was probably sometimes as much sinned against as sinning, from time to time he tended to make things worse for himself.
At the age of 17 he was jailed for armed robbery after a youthful escapade went wrong.
His family — stalwart, upwardly mobile Baptists — must have been appalled. According to his autobiography, what he seems to have missed most during his incarceration was the company of women, and, on getting out of prison on his 21st birthday in 1947, he was soon married to Themetta Suggs, whom he called Toddy.
She must have been a long-suffering woman, but the album he was making when he died, his first in decades, is dedicated to Toddy, now his widow.
Always a good provider for her and their growing family, Berry soon began to supplement his earnings as a beautician and then at a car assembly plant, by playing guitar in little clubs for $6 a night. Then, one day, a mild-mannered pianist called Johnnie Johnson invited him to join his band.
Quickly, Johnson helped him create the Chuck Berry style — though soon it would become Chuck Berry’s band — before an encounter with blues guitarist Muddy Waters led Berry to a meeting with the head of a small record label, Leonard Chess, in 1955.
Within a week he had written and made his first record, Maybellene — the lyrics of which showed the way his mind was working: ‘As I was motorvatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville.’
Three months later it was No 1 in America. With a boogie shuffle of guitar, piano and drums, he and Johnson had distilled the sound of the moment. But, just as importantly, Chuck Berry had found his voice as a writer.
He was a rock and roll story-teller, whose lyrics applied to white teenagers as much as black ones. The fans didn’t know, or care what colour he was.
This was at a time before the Sixties’ Civil Rights movement had broken down segregation. When he began touring outside St Louis, he found that in some Southern towns he and his band could only be served food through a window at the back of the restaurant.
There was racism, too, in the bookings he was getting, something he partly solved by over-exposing photographs of himself so that he looked vaguely Spanish or even Hawaiian rather than black in publicity pictures.
If there was sometimes no room for him at an ‘all white’ inn, he slept in his car. That saved money, too. All his life, he claimed to remember every dollar paid to him and every cent spent.
But there were other problems. Before he knew it he had, he claimed, been cheated out of some of the songwriting royalties of Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven and Rock And Roll Music.
It took him 30 years to get the publishing agreement on Maybellene reversed, but in the meantime he took to managing himself. ‘You don’t let the same dog bite you twice,’ was his view of managers.
By the end of the Fifties his life must have seemed complete. He was a huge star. Over and over again he demonstrated his ability to write rock and roll standards —songs like Memphis Tennessee, the story of a divorced man trying to get in touch with his six-year-old daughter by telephone. It wasn’t a hit for him, but hundreds of other bands recorded it.
Then, in 1959, by now the owner of a grand house and his own nightclub, the law caught up with him. He was arrested for carrying a girl across a state border for the purposes of sex, although he claimed he had never slept with her. He was jailed again.
He did like women, that’s for sure. (Keith Richards claimed Berry had two TVs on in his living room, one tuned to the Discovery Channel and the other showing videos of naked women throwing pies in each other’s faces.)
He quickly set about making jail help him and was soon making up for the schooling he missed with courses in typing, law, business management and accountancy.
He also wrote one of his biggest hits while in jail. After begging the prison library to let him have a road atlas so that he might describe a trip from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles in song, he came up with Promised Land. The prison officers had at first assumed he was planning a break out.
It was a brilliant piece of writing, the story of a black boy who crosses America to find work, the song ending with a call to the long distance operator, asking her to ‘tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land calling and the poor boy is on the line’.
The music world had changed by the time he was released, and the guilty verdict reversed, 18 months later.
Although he had another hit with No Particular Place To Go, he was now viewed as an elder statesman of rock.
There was however a plus side to being middle-aged. Everywhere he went younger bands were paying homage to him.
From then on, he hardly stopped touring, usually travelling alone and relying on local bands to accompany him — much cheaper than having his own band.
It was in this way that Bruce Springsteen first met him at the beginning of his career. ‘Five minutes before the show started, in Chuck came carrying his guitar case,’ Springsteen said later. ‘We were nervous and I said: “What songs are we going to do?” And he just said: “Chuck Berry songs”.
‘So we got out on stage, and all I hear is da-na-na-na, na-na-na on his guitar. We were in a state of total panic, trying to figure out what song we were playing.’
So they played with Chuck, a great night in their young lives. And, at the end, Berry just walked out, never knowing nor caring who the band had been.
For years he toured like this, a serious, perhaps lonely man, always demanding his money up front. Promoter Don Arden said he once had to push £10 notes under Berry’s dressing room door until he agreed to perform.
But then, of course, Berry would put on a wonderful show, with his famous hopping duck-walk across the stage, knowing exactly how to play an audience. Indeed, it was such a show in the early Seventies in Coventry that would produce one of his biggest hits, a silly song called My Ding-A-Ling.
In a performance recorded live, he got the girls in the audience to sing the chorus: ‘I want you to play with . . .’ followed by the boys with ‘. . . my Ding-A-Ling,’ Campaigner Mary Whitehouse was horrified, but the recording reached No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
The world Chuck Berry died in is — with its attitudes towards race — a different place from the one he was born into.
He would, no doubt, have been be the first to admit he’d never been a saint, but there aren’t many of us who, in one way or another, he didn’t entertain at some time.
And it’s fair to say some of the most famous rock musicians of all might even owe him their careers.