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Hail, Hail Chuck Berry
Oct. 18, 2006: The man who invented Rock & Roll turns 80. 
(New: Oct. 26, 2006. Video links updated, Mar. 2009)

On this page -- some Chuck Berry notes, plus:
 -  "Too Much Monkey Business": inspiring Dylan ("Goin' to the pearl hop, Lookin' at the middle der" ????)
 -  A few great videos: duckwalking, Newport Jazz, scrapping with Keith Richards
 -  Chuck & Me

Photo and lyrics, Chuck Berry c/o CMG Worldwide

 
 

Well, perhaps he didn't invent Rock & Roll, but but he may as well have.

For more details on Berry, see Wikipedia, the Rolling Stone bio or his offical website.
 

About Chuck Berry

Chuck's guitar became the basis of classic rock & roll guitar riffs for many years. He was the first -- and for a long time -- virtually the only guitarist to develop this relatively new instrument to this even newer music.

His guitar playing was unique and striking enough that a recent discussion on Charlie Gillett's (BBC) listener forum about the greatest African guitarists compared Berry to the superb, late Congolese guitarist Franco. (Scroll down to the item posted Oct. 9, 9:25am)

But, equivalent in importance to his guitar and rhythm was his word artistry. "The first rock poet" is a common description of Chuck, but that misses the sense of wonder, joy, literacy and "what-the-hell-this-sounds-right" freedom Berry brought to a musical era and genre that had little of any of those qualities.

(Click here for lyrics to a few of his hits)


Motorvatin' & the Brown-Eyed Handsome Man
His first recording ("Maybellene") in 1955 came out at the very beginning of the new musical era. Even within the context of what turned out to a revolution in popular music, it was clear from the very first line ("As I was motorvatin' over the hill") that here was a unique voice and sound.

What other 50's rock & roller could broach, even indirectly, racial & social issues ("Arrested on charges of unemployment..." from "Brown Eyed Handsome Man": "brown eyed" being as close as anyone could come to a racial identification)? Who else could call out to his girl by "campaign shouting like a southern diplomat"? ("Nadine"). Heck, who else could be flying on a plane while "workin' on a steak a la carty"? (From the fabulous, driving "Promised Land")?

His singles over the next couple of years generally represented the hip, street-wise Chuck. "You Can't Catch Me", "Thirty Days", "No Money Down" (Chuck loved cars: this was his ultimate vehicle), "Too Much Monkey Business", and "Roll Over Beethoven". They all made the top 10 in the R&B charts, but after Maybellene, the only one to make the pop charts was "Beethoven".

That determined Chuck's next direction. While he certainly had soul, rhythm, and smarts, he also had a real head for money -- as did Leonard Chess, the owner of his record company. The "brown-eyed handsome man" took a back seat, and Chuck became the ultimate chronicler of rock & roll music & teen life.
 

School Days ... & Prison Days
His next songs all hit the top 10, and remain, 50 years later, true rock and generational classics. "School Days" ("Drop the coin right into the slot / You've gotta hear something that's really hot... Hail, hail rock & roll, Deliver me from the days of old"); "Rock & Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen", Johnny B. Goode") -- became huge pop hits.

The early 60's found Chuck doing time in prison. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last. During that time, the original rock & roll rhythm seemed to fade away, but he got out just in time for a revival in interest in his music, courtesy of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others, and he had a few more hits.
 

1970's
The early 70's marked Chuck's last wide popular impact. "Rock & Roll Revivals" (including the legendary concert at Toronto's Varsity Stadium with John Lennon, Eric Clapton, The Doors, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and more). Improbably, Berry received his only gold record for the silly (to be polite), "My Ding-a-Ling" in 1972. It was taken from the album, the London Chuck Berry Sessions. Three songs (one side of the record) were recorded live at a concert in Coventry. They remain a superb snapshot of the kind of excitement he could deliver.

The early songs during the concert had the audience drowning out Berry's voice by singing his songs louder than he was. He introduced "Reelin' & Rockin" -- the "raunchy" version ("I looked at my watch / It was a quarter to ten / She looked at me / And said, "Chuck do it again") -- by saying "I might be able to sing this one". He closed out with "Bye Bye Johnny" -- the follow-up to "Johnny B. Goode" -- but the audience wanted the original. The instant he finished the first verse, the crowd took over, as one, singing the chorus to "Johnny B. Goode".

"Now bye..."
Chuck started on the chorus of "Bye Bye Johnny", but he was stopped:
"Go Johnny go, go!" the crowd sang back to him...

"Look at 'em... Look at 'em!"  Chuck cried in amazement.
"Go Johnny go, go", the crowd kept going
Chuck: "Look at them!"
Crowd: "Go Johnny go!"

"Sing... sing children!" ... "Go Johnny go!";
"Oh yeah!"...
"...Johnny B. Goode" the crowd's chorus finished.

Chuck had no choice, but to switch to the original. He didn't miss a beat:
"He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack..."

The song ends with the audience in a frenzy, and the promoters pleading for quiet. "Please... please! He's already overrun 15 minutes... The Pink Floyd [sic] is coming on...", but the audience keeps clapping and calling for more. "Hail, hail" indeed.

 

 

 
Too Much! Monkey Business...
... anticipating Dylan, or making a big bap with you

The Beach Boys took the tune of Chuck's "Sweet Little Sixteen" note for note as the basis of their first hit, "Surfin' USA", but Bob Dylan took the entire essence of Chuck's 1956 "Too Much Monkey Business", as the inspiration for his first electric single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

"Monkey Business" is a classic -- Berry's delight in language is clear, and his verbal brilliance and cadence are at their peak: concise, vivid, and powerful. (The "Ahhh!" at the end of each verse captures perfectly the dismissive disgust at the hassles of life).

However, Chuck's song stays in my memory most clearly because of The Kinks' recording of the song -- specifically the Japanese pressing of the double The History of the Kinks, which I bought in Japan in 1972. Japanese record companies in those days usually printed English lyrics on foreign rock albums, whether or not the original included them, and obviously, whether or not the transcriber had any familiarity with English.

 
  The original.

Runnin' to-and-fro
Hard workin' at the mill.
Never fail in the mail
Yet come a rotten bill! Ahhh!

Chorus:
Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
For me to be involved in!

Salesman talkin' to me, tryin' to run me up a creek.
Says you can buy it
Go on try it
You can pay me next week Ahhh!

chorus

Blonde haired, good lookin'
Tryin' to get me hooked.
Want me to marry, get a home
Settle down, write a book! Ahhh!

chorus

Same thing every day
Gettin' up, goin' to school
No need'a me complainin'
My objections overruled! Ahhh!

chorus

Pay phone. Somethin' wrong
Dime gone. Will mail
I oughta sue the operator
For telling me a tale! Ahhh!

chorus

Been to Yokohama
Been fightin' in the war
Army bunk, army chow
Army clothes, army car! Ahhh!

chorus

Workin' in the fillin' station
Too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires
Check the oil - dollar gas! - Ahhh!

Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
Don't want your botheration
Get away, leave me!

 

As printed with the Kinks' recording:

Goin' to the pearl hop
Lookin' at the middle der
Filled up the middle
He ain't comin' round the bend.

Chorus:
Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
To make a big bap with you.

Seven o'clock devil tried to
Love me up to greet you
Goodbye, too cold to try
You can pay me next week

chorus

Hi ther, good lookin,
Tried to get me into a game
I could get it wholesale
Down by the brook

chorus

Same thing every day
Gettin' up, goin' to school.
What a thing we complain'
Objection over ruled

chorus

Leopold says nothin's wrong
I'm goin' to the wheel man
Out threw the operator
<words erased on page> me a tale.

chorus

Pretty Yokohama baby
Fightin' in the war
I'm a truck. I'm a chou
I'm a clother. I'm a car.

chorus

Workin' in the fillin' station
Come in a check up
Window check, the oil check
The cars out of gas

chorus

 

Was that great or what?

 
 


Chuck videos, from You Tube

Lip-synching, dancing-legs Chuck
Two videos, introduced by DJ Alan Freed. (Aside: Freed was the man who "invented" the term rock & roll. He took an old blues expression, put it on white radio by changing its meaning from sex to music. He "earned" royalties for supposedly co-writing Berry's first hit, "Maybellene", and later was the biggest catch in the payola scandal)

  • "You Can't Catch Me": the song was recorded in 1955. Chuck duck walks, and shows off a whole lot of other moves as he acts out the whole song (his car has wings), right down to smooching with "my baby" (his guitar substituted for the girl). This clip is from DJ Alan Freed's movie, Rock,Rock, Rock

  • "Oh Baby Doll". Less acting, more leg work.

 

"Really live" at Newport Jazz Festival... more Dylan connections
It's rare to find "real" live film of early rockers. Most of the footage, is TV lip-sync'd scenes (e.g. American Bandstand), sanitized (Ed Sullivan), or utterly artificial (the 50's rock movies).

This clip however is of Chuck playing live at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, taken from the movie Jazz on a Summer's Day. It isn't exactly a rock & roll band behind him, but that doesn't stop him, or some dancers. The music may be off somewhat, given the setting and unfamiliarity between Chuck and the band, but the energy of the night is clear.

Chuck's set apparently had something in common with a later famous Newport performance. The reaction to Dylan's electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is legendary, but according to one of Berry's biographers, Bruce Pegg in Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, Chuck caused his own controversy.

The legendary producer John Hammond had booked artists like Berry, Joe Turner, Big Maybelle, Ray Charles and others, on the bill to show the links between jazz, blues and rock. He should have known better. Jazz cognoscenti were just as purist as the 1965 folkies.

Variety reported that "some of the jazz fans were appalled" (although Chuck was a huge hit with the "younger set" -- clear from the film clip), but Hammond later wrote that a riot nearly broke out. Police were called, and several people were "hauled away" to Newport jail.

 

Mid-60's TV: Chuck A Go-Go
Chuck on Hullaballoo, playing "Go, Johnny Go...", and the go-go dancers are go-go'ing like they don't go anymore. A bit of nice duck walking too. (That's Trini Lopez introducing him).
 


1986: He may be 60, but don't mess with Chuck
Chuck gets more worked up in some classic scenes with Keith Richards on the set of Hail Rock & Roll -- the movie made for Berry's 60th birthday. Richards was one of the movers behind the movie and its centrepiece concert, but nobody tells Chuck what to do -- not even a Rolling Stone. There's a clip (now removed from YouTube) with the two of them shouting at each other. Then....
Some stops and starts (and lectures)
They finally get it going

And, from the same film, don't miss the great Etta James belting out "Rock & Roll Music.
 

In another setting (the Montreux Jazz Festival), T-Bone Walker and Chuck play "Every Day I Have the Blues"
 


 
 
  Chuck & me - a very brief "memoir"

I met Chuck Berry twice -- both very brief moments.

In January of 1970, following a Berry concert at Convocation Hall in Toronto, a friend and I were hitchhiking home. A car pulled over, and as I hopped in, the driver had to move his guitar case to make room for us. However, it was when I noticed the sideburns that I realized I was getting a ride home from my very first music idol.

Now Chuck has a reputation of being a man of few words, and he was just that. Pleasant, but reserved. And although I used to hitchhike around town often in those days, this turned out to be the shortest ride I ever had -- from Wellesley and Queen's Park to his hotel (Park Plaza). Google Maps describes the route as 0.7 km (about 55 seconds). Thank goodness he spun his car around in a complete 360 degree spin in the snow at the top of the circle (whether on purpose or not, I had no idea)... it gave me a few extra moments with the Great Chuck Berry.

The next year, I saw him again in Hamilton. This time, before the show, another friend and I ran into him. He was looking for a cigarette (luckily for this occasion, I smoked in those days). He was again pretty reserved, but he had been having another of his not-infrequent clashes with the night's promoter. My friend still has the butt of the cigarette Chuck lit for her.