Let It Rock : Chuck Berry (Part Two)2008JCMarion


In early 1958 "Rock 'n Roll Music" continues to be a big seller in pop markets as well as R & B . Alan Freed sets up for a spring show at the Brooklyn Paramount in New York with Chuck Berry as the headliner. Others on the bill will be Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Frankie Lymon, The Diamonds, Chantels, Billy & Lillie, The Pastels, Screamin Jay Hawkins, Jo Ann Campbell, and Larry Williams. In February Chess releases "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Reelin And Rockin" on # 1683. By March the record is another top seller for Berry and Chess Records. Chuck goes back to the well one more time with "Sixteen" a jumping tune depicting a typical teenage girl's infatuation with rock 'n roll music and its teen idols, and what it means to her. Once again his song transcends any marginalized group whether by race, region, or trends. Berry once again uses the jump stop technique, but in a faster tempo then on "Schoolday". The flip side is a bit different from the slow blues often used on his 'B' sides. This time it is another jump tune with a modified jump stop and a clever continual reference to time. "Music" becomes million seller number five for Berry and is his (and Chess) biggest hit ever. It is kept out of the number one spot in the country only by "Get A Job" by The Silhouettes In March Chuck headlines a big show at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia presented by Georgie Woods. By late March "Reelin And Rockin" seems to be the favored side in the South in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, while "Sixteen" tops the charts in most Northern urban areas. Chess releases their second LP album by Chuck called "One Dozen Berrys" and features "Sweet Little Sixteen". It moves to the top of the LP charts in the R & B markets. In April Chuck Berry records "Johnny B. Goode" and "Around And Around" on # 1691. Berry signs to part of a so-called "Blues Night" at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5th. It is the first time that rock 'n roll musicians will appear at the event. "Johnny B. Goode", a supposedly semi autobiographical song looks like it could be another huge seller. Beside the usual excellence in lyrics, the guitar work is historic blasting out the most famous and identifying riff ever recorded, one that every future guitarist will copy and master. Chess and Chuck Berry have a sixth gold record for one million plus in sales and a top ten pop music seller. In May Alan Freed presents Chuck Berry at Chicago's Opera House. In late June "Beautiful Delilah" and "Vacation Time" are out on Chess # 1697. Berry goes on Freed's television show which originally seen only in New York City, is now being syndicated in many areas of the country. "Delilah" does not come anywhere near matching some of Chuck Berry's previous hits in sales or airplay. After four consecutive huge blockbusters, Berry comes back to earth for a time. Alan Freed signs up Berry to his Labor Day week show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. Bill Haley & The Comets and the Everly Brothers head the bill. In mid August "Carol" and "Hey Pedro" are paired on Chess # 1700. "Carol" is a great dance tune reprising the famous Berry riff from "Johnny B. Goode", and tells of a night out dancing to the music. It returns Chuck Berry back to the top selling artists in the country as the song makes it well into the top ten in the nation. In mid October Freed again signs Berry for a holiday show for Christmas week at the Loew's State Theater in New York City. In early November "Sweet Little Rock And Roller" and "Jo Jo Gunn" are issued by Chess on # 1709. Sales are slower on both sides but they pick up through the month with "Jo Jo" big in Texas and the South and "Sweet Little Rock 'n Roller" a hit in St. Louis, and the Midwest. While that record was chugging along "Run Rudolph Run" and "Merry Christmas Baby" in time for the season is released on Chess # 1714. "Merry" is pushed by Chess as the 'A' side but the Berry guitar magic propels "Rudolph" to the lead. The signature Berry guitar riff starts it off and one of the most insistent thumping beats drives the cutesy lyrics that capture the fun of the season. It remains at the top of the list of the best seasonal Christmas songs ever recorded by a rock era artist.

As the last year of the decade dawned, the world of pop, rock 'n roll, and R & B, all seemed to intertwine into one sweeping and far ranging mixture that was a far cry form just three years before. Massive governmental investigations had put an end to the practice of radio hosts accepting gifts (cash and otherwise) to feature just released records and to "push" them for public consumption. This practice commonly known as "payola" came down hard on many of the top dj's, among them Alan Freed and Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls in New York. Now the record industry heads who thought they knew what the public wanted, took over the impetus and top forty radio was born. It was the music that suffered as top hit makers such as Chuck Berry had to be in competition with lesser talents, teen idols, and more industry interference. Berry soldiered on with a January release of "Anthony Boy" and "That's My Desire" on Chess # 1719. The same month Berry opened a nightclub of his own called Club Bandstand in the St. Louis area. He also built his own recording studio there. In March Chuck receives two awards for song composition from BMI in a reception at the Hotel Pierre in New York City. The latest record by Berry gets a good reception at first, but sales and airplay drop off within two weeks and hopes are up for the latest record out in March of "Little Queenie" and "Almost Grown" on # 1722. Both sides are genuine rockers with "Queenie" a throwback sound from some of his earlier sides. Both sides sell in different areas of the country with "Grown" getting into the top thirty sellers. Chuck travels to Hollywood for another motion picture deal with Alan Freed, this time his role will be more than just a musical performer. In June "Back In The USA" and "Memphis, Tennessee" is released on Chess # 1729 and "Back" is a dent seller on the pop charts. In late July the new movie called "Go Johnny Go" is ready for theaters and will play all Loew's theaters in the East. In August Berry appears at the Hippodrome in Nashville on a show presented by Bill "Hoss" Allen. In September Berry plays the Armory in Patterson, New Jersey. In September "Childhood Sweetheart" and "Broken Arrow" on Chess #1737 is issued. For the first time, a new record by Chuck Berry is almost ignored by the record buying public and radio listeners, but not in New Orleans where "Sweetheart" does some business. At year's end Berry does a number of one nighters in the South, Chess issues a new LP album called "Berry's On Top" and reissues "Merry Christmas Baby".

In the beginning of the new decade many far reaching and important changes would take place in the music and attitudes by the young and young at heart. But before those events would impact on the music of Chuck Berry there would be a number of legal problems that would befall rock 'n roll's number one singer-songwriter. Berry was accused of violating the Mann Act which prohibited the taking of a woman (a minor at that) across state lines for acts considered immoral. The woman in question had worked at Berry's Club Bandstand for a short time and then turned to working the streets in St. Louis. Berry survived the first trial but was convicted in the second one and was sentenced to three years in prison (he served from January 1962 until October, 1963) . During this time Chess released a few Berry singles, none of which was a success. "Let It Rock" / "Too Pooped To Pop" on # 1747, "Worried Life Blues" / the probable sequel called "Bye Bye Johnny" on # 1754, and "Mad Lad" and "I've Got To Find My Baby" on # 171763. Now it was thought that Chuck Berry's music would be a dim memory, but that was not the case. The Beach Boys classic California lifestyle song "Surfing USA" was a barely disguised version of "Sweet Little Sixteen". After the record shot to the top of the charts Capitol Records and the group did the right thing by giving Berry publishing rights along with Brian Wilson. The next year as Berry's prison term was ending the British Invasion had landed and the top musical groups from England wasted little time demonstrating their influences and helping America to re-discover its own music. The Rolling Stones, especially, did some great covers of Berry's songs and lead guitarist Keith Richards had Chuck's riffs perfected. In the Summer of 1963 Chess released an album called "Chuck Berry On Stage" (# 1480) which was in reality a studio record with an audience dubbed over the songs. Because of the influence noted by Britain's top bands interest in Chuck Berry was high in the U.K. In late February of 1964 Chuck was back in the Chess Records studio in Chicago and recorded "Nadine" and O.Rangutang" on # 1883. By April of the year "Nadine" had proven to be a solid hit, a top twenty seller bucking Beatlemania and the rest of the British bands. During the summer "No Particular Place To Go" was paired with "You Two" on # 1898. This provided Berry with his biggest hit in six years as "No Particular Place To Go" once again registered with American teens. They rewarded Berry with a top ten seller for Chess. Late in the summer of 1964 "You Never Can Tell" and "Brenda Lee" was released on # 1906, and "Tell" was a solid top fifteen seller. By all reasoning 1964 was a banner year for Chuck Berry with three solid hit records. He also appeared in the landmark motion picture "The T.A.M.I. Show" showcasing British and American rock performers. In Wentzville, Missouri, west of St. Louis, came Berry Park and a restaurant called Southern-Aire. But-it would not be until the next decade that Berry would experience the hit parade again. In 1966 he left Chess after a dozen years and signed with Mercury Records which was a disaster. The first single was "Club Nitty Gritty" and "Laugh And Cry" on Mercury # 72643. There was also "It's Dark In There" and "Good Looking Woman" on # 72963. Mercury albums included "Golden Hits" on # 21103 (re-recordings); "In Memphis" on # 21123; "Live At The Fillmore" with the Steve Miller Band on # 21138; "From St. Louie To Frisco" on # 261176; and "Concerto In B. Goode" on # 61223. In the late sixties he began to appear at shows featuring performers from rock 'n roll's past (the "oldies" circuit) as well as on his own as a true innovator. Two examples of this time was a show at Madison Square Garden's theater venue (then called the Felt Forum in honor of promoter Irving Felt) with radio personality Murray "The K" (Kaufman). When they tried to hurry Chuck off the stage to make time for some other lesser entity, Berry stopped and announced to the crowd that he had been given the "cut" sign. Murray rushed out on stage and back pedaling at one hundred miles an hour told Chuck to continue, pacifying the crowd somewhat. Berry was accorded much greater respect when he appeared at the Fillmore East Theater also in 1969. Bill Graham in his introduction said simply "Without this man none of us would be here tonight". Truer words were never spoken as at that moment. Chuck went out and outperformed the headline act that night The Who. Peter Townshend even said that Chuck Berry was a hard act to follow. In September of 1969 Berry appeared at John and Yoko's Live Peace In Toronto. This show was the first true rock revival show with Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis along with the Plastic Ono Band with Eric Clapton. The film from D.A. Pennebaker was shown once in its entirety at Carnegie Hall in New York before all the legal actions started flying back and forth. Chuck Berry's portion of the show was recorded and released on a number of rare labels including Everest, Magnum, and Carrere.

He returned to Chess again in 1970 with a single of "Tulane" and "Have Mercy Judge" on # 2090 which was followed by an album called "Back Home" on # 1550. In 1971 the album "San Francisco Dues" was issued on # 50008. In 1972 "The London Chuck Berry Sessions" was released by Chess on # 60020. One side was a live recording in England including a double entendre tune called "My Ding-A-Ling" which was released as a single on Chess # 2131. It provided a stranger than fiction aspect to his career that this lame sophomoric tune became the only number one seller in his entire history, bypassing all the great songs that he wrote. Chuck had one more turn on the best seller charts with another live recording from the London Sessions album. "Reelin And Rockin" on # 2136 had a short stay as a top twenty five seller. In 1972 Chuck made an appearance on the Mike Douglas TV show notable for John and Yoko as co-hosts for the week. John joined Chuck for a couple of his well known songs. In 1975 the last Chess album was a self titled LP on # 60032. In 1978 Berry appeared as himself in the film "American Hot Wax" directed by Floyd Mutrux. The fictionalized story of Alan Freed's rise to fame gave Chuck Berry another stage to present his music. In 1979 Berry recorded an album for Atlantic called "Rockit" and a single "California" and "Oh What A Thrill" on Atco # 7203. . That same year it was legal problems again, this time the IRS nailed Chuck on tax charges which resulted in four months in prison and community service. In the mid eighties, thenewly established Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland chose Berry as one of its first members. In 1987 "Hail Hail Rock And Roll" a documentary film of Chuck Berry's 60th birthday celebration with an all star concert in St. Louis is presented to the public. In a poignant prolog, Berry tells how the theater where the very concert would take place ( the St. Louis Fox Theater) would not allow him to enter as a child because of his race. Another interesting moment is when he shows an old tour bus that he kept on the grounds of Berry Park. The destination sign on the front simply says "Rock And Roll". Chuck Berry continued to tour by himself, using local pick up groups wherever he played. His backing musicians included everyone from local rock wannabees, to veteran players, to some like a young and untested Bruce Springsteen. Through the new millennium Berry now in his seventies, made appearances now and then keeping his music alive to new generations learning where it all came from. Whether it is Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or the "next big thing" on guitar, they all trace their lineage back to the fountainhead - Chuck Berry.

Available music on cd from Chuck Berry can be concisely listed. So many of his songs that were top hits are so widely known that most music buyers understand what they are looking for. For a compilation of his top songs there are two versions. The original "Great 28" from MCA in 1990 is back in print. These are the original studio recordings as released. The remastered version with two additional songs is called "The Definitive Chuck Berry" for Chess in 2006. Most listeners like the remastering job on these songs contending that it brings out the guitar work and Johnny Johnson's piano work better than the original studio versions. Remember-these are remastered, not re-recorded. For the listener that wants the whole enchilada, there is the 4cd one hundred two tracks on "Chuck Berry : The Complete Chess Recordings" just released in 2008 on Hip-O. The title says it all. Those would be the top choices. However there are other cds that fall in between those collections. They include : "The Chess Box" with 71 tracks on 3 cds; "The Ultimate Chuck Berry" on UMVD with 56 tracks on 3 cds; "Chuck Berry : Gold" from Geffen 2005 with 50 tracks remastered on 2 cds; and "Anthology" on Chess from 2000 with 50 tracks on 2 cds. Unfortunately most of the lesser collections do not include "Run Rudolph Run" one of the greatest rocking Christmas records ever. There is one more cd that may be of interest to Chuck Berry fans. That is the cd version of the 1964 album "St. Louis To Liverpool" on Chess in 2004. It was Chuck's last blast, taking on the British invasion first hand with 15 great tracks including three that made the pop charts with most of the songs in true stereo.

What else is there to say ? Rock for the ages by its foremost practitioner during the music's first decade. The foundation had been established, and now it was a time when all others would try to measure up. Not too many succeeded which is a further testament to the sheer artistry and brilliance of the great innovator from St. Louis. Hail Hail Rock and Roll, indeed !

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