John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Endless Impact of Chuck Berry

As guitarist, singer and songwriter, he did more than anyone to invent rock’n’roll.

By - Mar 20th, 2017 04:51 pm
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Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

First of all, bad move universe. You take Chuck Berry away and still can’t seem to do anything about Washington. This is not right — you owe us big time.

This particular punch to the gut is mitigated ever so slightly by the fact Chuck was 90. Though I would have still begged to wait a few more years. How important was Chuck Berry to Rock and Roll? Are you kidding? People who say he invented it get no argument from me. A triple genius as a guitarist, singer and wordsmith of the first order, his talent was undeniable.

His influence was immediate. Soon after his ferocious breakthrough, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording his songs. As good as the The King and The Killer were, they didn’t write, they performed. Chuck also had that skill down. You only have to watch him duckwalk once to know he could put on a fine show. When The Beatles and Rolling Stones invaded and performed CPR on our increasingly sappy culture, they did it by harking back to the man who had done so much to create it. They both covered and emulated Chuck. Although I don’t remember Bob Dylan covering him, his electric breakthrough wouldn’t have included that first brilliant shot across the bow, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” without the influence of Berry. It would be easier to drive across the country without crossing the Rockies than to talk Rock and Roll and not mention this towering figure.

To pick a single song to focus on is a ridiculous task. There are so many great ones it would be a crime to not mention them all. Throw a dart at his catalog and it’s always a bullseye. Here is a list off the top of my head:

“Maybelene” His first hit in 1955. A furious rewrite of a Bob Wills tune called “Ida Red.” It’s not the first Rock and Roll song, officially. That term had already been out there, but this song put the danger, speed and abandon into rock. After Maybelene all hell broke loose.

“Too Much Monkey Business” A hilarious laundry list of frustration, it made both Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance.” possible. Fast paced, wise and hip, the cherry on top is the when he slips in what can only now be called a Berry-ism, the amazing word ‘botheration.”

“Memphis” A short story so succinct and perfect any writer would love to claim it. Four verses that end with a reveal of sorts and creatively renames tears ‘hurry home drops.’ The song you had to know and when you added Lonnie Mack’s solo and outro, other musicians in the crowd will nod in acknowledgement.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” A clever and sneaky swipe at race relations — substitute skin for eyes in the lyrics and watch with glee as the judge’s wife says to free him! How this flew under the radar is a mystery to me, but there it was, an early commentary on things that weren’t supposed to be mentioned back then. (this live version is from Berry’s 60th birthday salute. It features Robert Cray, Keith Richards, Joey Spampinato, Steve Jordan and Johnny Johnson.)

“No Particular Place To Go” An entertaining indictment of seat belts that is another example of his specialty, the poetry of frustration. The stop start, call and response structure was pure Chuck and when he gets to the chorus in this song and most, it’s big and joyous.

“You Never Can Tell” For people immediately turned off by the tale of a teenage wedding, remember he was a product of his time and place. He also had a keen sense of commerce and snuck the word “teen” into songs every chance he got. Then go ahead and enjoy everything from the character’s names, Pierre and The Mademoiselle, to his all time coolest invention, the coolerator.

“Back In The USA” My patriotism isn’t triggered by flags or bald eagle decals, but it goes into hyper-drive when I hear this song. It’s not just the content of the lyrics, it’s the wonderful fact that this guy was as American as they come.

“The Promised Land” A travelogue that has similarities to the song above and elicits that same national pride when I hear it, it’s chuck full (pun intended) of wonderful detail.

“Johnny B Goode” His origin story of Rock and Roll, it could, make that should, be a movie.The sequel would be his answer, “Bye Bye Johnny.”

“You Can’t Catch Me” You’ll recognize the the first lines of The Beatles “Come Together” in this high flying romp. Chuck’s car flies in this one, it’s an airmobile, specifically a Flight Deville. That’s not only surreal, it years before pop artists even thought of surreal as a thing. Tell me this didn’t influence Dylan and John Lennon.

“School Days” Berry was in his late twenties when he finally broke through. In many songs he’d have you believe that, like Bart Simpson, he never grew up. This day in the life of a young rock and roller ends in one one of his many salutes to the overwhelming power of music.

“Roll Over Beethoven” As if he had to write any more great ones… this one could be the pinnacle if I was forced to choose. It announces the enormous sea change that was sweeping the country and gave it an unforgettable anthem. Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

The list  goes on and on: “Carol,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Almost Grown,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and even a great Christmas song “Run Rudolph Run.” There is a man behind this all who was justifiably angry and guarded. His personal life wasn’t pretty and he had more bristle than a hedgehog. He came by it honestly, though, having been railroaded for a crime that would have been winked at had he been white. He spent a year and a half in prison and came out to a different world. His music had conquered all, but he was less necessary. Still, some of his greatest songs were written after his release, including one I completely forgot, “Nadine.” An update of his his first seminal hit, “Maybelene,” it draws from his infinite supply of killer lines — so many I can’t even pick out the best ones, you’ll have do that yourself.

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,
I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street,
I shouted to the driver hey conductor, you must slow down
I think I see her please let me off this bus

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine
Honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I see you
Darling you got something else to do

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 to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine
Honey, where are you?
Seems like every time I catch up with you
You are up to something new

Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine
Honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I catch up with you
You are up to something new

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 to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat

She move around like a wave of summer breeze,
Go, driver, go go, catch ‘er for me please
Moving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier
Leaning out the taxi window trying to make her hear

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine
Honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I see you
Darling are up to something new

© Chuck Berry

If Rock and Roll had a Shakespeare, it was undoubtedly this man. Eminently and endlessly quotable, his sonnets rocked roadhouses and juke boxes from Maine to Mexico. A duckwalking dervish, with that wicked grin, he was a pulsar of joy. His energy is still out there in the universe — that’s not just a metaphor: Johnny B Goode is one of the songs the Voyager space capsule included to let other life forms know what it means to be human. Click on any of these songs and you’ll know too.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Endless Impact of Chuck Berry”

  1. Chris M says:

    John, thanks for your fine appreciation of Mr. Berry. The joy that he shared through his recordings will forever inspire us.

  2. After hearing the Beatles Come Together for the first time…I was just waiting for Mr. Berry to sue them. Never happened…maybe he figured they’d already paid up with the royalties to all of his songs they covered.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Riding And Playing The Radio (with no particular place to go) reminds me of a DVD interview I once saw with Chuck Berry where he said that he intentionally wanted to write songs that people would buy, and so he wrote songs like this one based on cars and girls, which young boys would want to buy. Thanks for this great article! I love all of the information and agree with you about Chuck Berry!

  4. “… It would be easier to drive across the country without crossing the Rockies than to talk Rock and Roll and not mention this towering figure…”
    you got it, as usual, John—
    & I’ll add ‘Havana Moon’ to the list

  5. Terry Vittone says:

    Hey John,

    Thanks for your fine piece on Chuck.

    I’m not sure if you did it with the R&B Cadets or it was Paul and the Milwaukeeans who used to cover “It Don’t Take But a Few Minutes” but hearing that song sent me back for a really deep listen to Chuck. One of the less heard tracks after his Mann Act bust, “Have Mercy Judge,” has maybe one of his warmest and most moving stanzas: “Ow! Have mercy on my little Tulane./She’s too alive to try to live alone,/And I know her needs./And although she loves me,/She’s going to try to make it/While the poor boy’s gone.”

    I had the chance to see Chuck in the late 80’s at the Chanhassen Dinner theater outside Minneapolis. The great news was that an ace R&B group led by Curtiss A was Chuck’s pick-up band that night, and they knew his catalog cold. After the first two songs, Chuck turned and looked at each musician, shook his head, and proceeded to tear it up, including not only his well known hits but a lot of blues, including a stellar cover of “It Hurts Me Too,” in which he changed the lyric “He loves another woman/And I love you,/But you love him,/And stick to him like glue.” to “but you cling to him/like the morning dew.” It was another example of the poetry in the man.

    We’ll all be living a little more alone now. Goodbye, Chuck.

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