Chuck Berry: The Grand Father of Rock

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… Johnny B. Goode

As my living room resonated with that peppy Rock N Roll number in Chuck Berry’s joyous voice, accompanied by emotion-rousing guitar licks wafting from the micro grooves of a black record, my young daughter happily enacted the delightful scene of playing the imaginary guitar, rocking her head to the fast beat of the all-time great number. She is five. But that song Johnnie B. Goode is 55 years old! So what if she has no clue, which those song lines are against racism?  The guitar music of the black boy Johnny B. Goode who is living in the dark green plains of Louisiana is going to be written up in multi-hued lights all over the world, breaking all racial barriers! The song’s beat and peppiness will not fail to attract the listeners into its captivating fold.

For some time now I had taken to hearing music from black discs. Do not run away with the idea that music is now released in new black CDs. I am referring to Vinyl records. After listening to music over the last thirty years, starting from Audio Cassettes to Compact Discs, Super Audio Compact Discs, Digital Video Disc – Audio, Computer, various media players, iPod, iPad and many such media turn by turn, I have come to the considered opinion that no medium has that extraordinary high quality high fidelity sound clarity and separation which a well produced vinyl record can unfold!

But where do we get such records today? The last vinyl record in Tamil language was that of film songs of Kizhakku Cheemaiyile by A R Rahman released in 1993. The last records produced in India belonged to the period 1990-93. Thereafter all the factories producing copies of vinyl records in India closed down. A few copies of records were produced abroad for the Hindi film Dil To Paagal Hain in 1998 and Veer Zara in 2004 for release and distribution in India. Today, on demand, hundred or two hundred copies per title have begun to be released in India. These are now available in Indian markets for film music, ghazals and classical music. But these records sold only through select music store or two in big cities of India. Last year an album of some Malayalam film songs of Yesudas of the period 1995-2005 was released as a vinyl record by the valiant efforts of my friend Shijo Manuel, a die hard  record fan and the Music Manager of a Malayalam FM radio station.

But the price of these vinyl records produced in Germany, Netherlands or England and distributed here ranges from Rs.800/- to Rs.2500/-! Vinyl records of international labels, which are sold only through a few music stores like Rhythm House of Mumbai, carry price tags of Rs.1000/- to Rs.5000/-! How can one afford such listening experience? The records that I now listen to are from my old collections as well as ones borrowed from music friends from all over India. Fortunately, a few extremely rare records of Chuck Berry, who is known as the creator of Rock N Roll have been part of my collection since long time.

When we talk of popular forms of Western music, two forms stand out. One is Pop music and the other is Rock music. Pop is short for popular. It means that pop music is the form popular among people.  But what about Rock? The meaning that comes to mind when we say Rock is of stones, boulders, etc. What is the relationship between these hard materials and music? But Rock also means shake or move or as in rocking the cradle. English language has for hundreds of years used the word rock in that sense. But its entry in the dictionary of music is merely sixty years old.

But the word Rock did not enter the world of music alone. It first entered the music along with Roll, as Rock & Roll. Roll can mean rotation, Roll as in roll up or roll on the ground, continuing roll of sound, continuing beat of drums or stream of words. Thus Rock & Roll became a new form of music meant for fast dance numbers. This new form took shape with Chuck Berry’s song ‘Maybelline’.  Later, Chuck Berry took this form of music to worldwide fame through his two songs ‘Rock & Roll Music’ and ‘School Days’. Chuck Berry raised his clarion call worldwide through the lines of his song ‘School Days’: ‘Hail, hail Rock and Roll, Deliver Me from the days of old ’.

Gospel music has slow beat but has high note elaborations and it became popular among American black people in the 1930s and 1940s. Another form of music that was the forte of American black people for a long time was Blues which deeply reflected their sad life and mental stresses set to a slow beat. From this was born the Rhythm & Blues form of music which appealed to the tastes of young so much that it became very popular. But it was still the music of black people.

During this same period Country, Pop, Jazz and Swing remained exclusively the music of the whites in America. Hillbilly and Bluegrass were forms of country music with a fast beat that were mostly popular among whites for dinner time dances. But none of these soft forms of music had the virility or excitement to reach large masses. It was the age when blacks did not look at the forms of music of the whites and whites would not look at the forms of music of the blacks! It was a terrible age when racial hatred had totally segregated the popular music.

In such a time of deep divide, a roughly 30 years old black young man from Missouri, then considered an unimportant state of United States of America, changed the scene and brought both the blacks and whites together under the sway of his unique form of music. He created his new form of music by fusing the lyrics of Blues that touched the heart, the excitement of  Rhythm & Blues, the high pitched appeal of the Gospel music, fast paced piano movements of Jazz and Swing, Guitar dominance of the Country music, the dance appeal of the Hillbilly and ‘I don’t care’ attitude of Blue Grass.

When he proclaimed through this new form of music ‘Deliver us from the days of old’ the world of music was stunned. It became the national anthem of young people between the ages of 15 and 50 coming from diverse communities and races. That was how Rock, popular to this day, was born.  And with it the racial divide in music began to disappear slowly.

Chuck Berry chucked out the acoustic guitar sound of Country music and brought electric guitar into his music. Not only the lead guitar but also the bass guitar and rhythm guitars became electronic. He soon changed the way the popular guitar was used and improvised many new playing techniques. He replaced the soft piano movements with faster plays of jazz techniques. Snare drum became the leader of drums in beat. He also gave great importance to the vibrant kick base.

He greatly toned down the importance of Harmony and made the solo singer the centre of his music. He made the accompanying instruments complete the Harmony. He laid emphasis on simple but musical lyrics. He kept aside the problems of race, poverty and politics and played up in his lyrics love, sex, infatuation with girls, different models of new cars that were part of teenage dreams, wine and rebelling against controls and conventions. When he sang like ‘Roll over Beethoven, I’m taking a bit of your space, and you tell Tchaikovsky I said so’, it greatly excited the younger generation who hated the conventions of classical music.

Chuck Berry, with his lean 6’ 2” frame, burnt black complexion and skinny cheeks, always looked twenty years older than he really was. It will surprise no one, if at first sight, you guessed him to be a poor farmer from countryside shriveled by the sun or a small town butchery shop owner. In 1950s, even a few of black girls had commented that he was ‘kind of ugly’! But those who had heard him only on the Radio or from a gramophone record, thought of him as a very handsome man. And those who saw him in his stage avatar gaped open-mouthed at his sky high self- confidence, his highly entertaining showmanship and unfailing sense of humour!

He developed a stage dance movement called Duck Walk to suit his songs that started unexpectedly and ended quickly. If there is a dance move to equal it in this world, it is Moon Walk alone, created by Michael Jackson!  Chuck Berry’s Duck Walk was unique where he played his difficult guitar notes, performed his dance steps to the beat bending at knees like a duck or ostrich moving his neck back and forth. To this day nobody has succeeded in copying this style of dance! Chuck Berry’s singing and dancing on the stage as he played his guitar gave him a superhuman feel. Even his unhandsome looks added notches to his attractive stage persona. He sang and danced in dripping sweat even in the cool environs of air-conditioned halls and even in cold winter months!

He created many world-wide hit numbers  like ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Memphis Tennessee’, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’, ‘Let It Rock’, ‘Promised Land’, ‘You Never Can’t Tell’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’, ‘Carol’, ‘Thirty Days’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ and so on. Just as Rock music started from his songs, it can be said that Rap or Hip Hop too evolved from his songs. His song ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was a forerunner to Rap music.

Chuck Berry had always stayed on the Top Ten List of Music Artistes and All-time Great Guitar Players of World. Without the distinction of black or white, there are very few great musicians of the world who had not copied Chuck Berry’s songs or remixed them. Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, Elton John, Conway Twitty, Uriah Heap, Bruce Springsteen, Simon Garfunkel, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Van Helen, AC/DC, Paul Anka and David Bowie have all done it. It will be difficult to find any Rock Guitarist who is not influenced by his guitar techniques. Jerry Lewis had once remarked: “Elvis and I are great, but we are not Chuck Berry!” John Lennon had said: “If there is another name for Rock & Roll, it must be Chuck Berry.”

Chuck Berry’s life reads like a strange fiction book filled with crimes, confusions and countless unexpected twists in tale. Born in 1926 as Charles Edward Anderson Berry, one of the six children of the part-time pastor of a church in St.Louis, Missouri, he became famous as Chuck Berry. In those days, blacks did not have the right to buy land or house in their name in many parts of America. Though they did have that right in the area where Chuck Berry’s family lived, they owned neither a house nor anything particularly valuable.

His father also worked as a carpenter. His mother was a part-time teacher. She sang well as well. In their deeply religious home, the church choir conducted regular music rehearsals. These were Chuck Berry’s initial experiences in music. He started participating in them from the age of six. In the very beginning of teens he took up the guitar. Without knowing anything much about it he played it and sang in a school event. It was liked by all. Very soon and in short order he learnt the basics of guitar. Between school hours, to earn money, he worked as an assistant at Hair Dresser’s shop.

Is it a must that children brought up in a deeply religious way should grow up as good persons as well? At 17 Chuck Berry got down to stealing at the streets with a few friends. They looted three shops in Kansas City with an old revolver that did not work. Later, when they tried to escape in a car they had stolen at gun point, they were caught by the Police. They were sentenced to three years in Jail. He sang by forming a group of four in that Juveniles Correctional Facility.

When Chuck Berry came out of Jail on his 21st birthday, his family compelled him into a marriage. His first child was born the next year. Chuck Berry worked as a daily labourer in an automobile workshop, as a sweeper in his housing colony and as a night watchman. He was willing to do any job that fetched him money. With money thus earned and saved, in 1950 he bought a small house that was forty years old in a locality where only poor blacks lived. It was from this house that he created the immortal songs like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll over Beethoven’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’. Today the government has registered this house, where he lived till 1958 as a place of historical importance.

Whether he was a bird in Jail or a watchman outside it, he never gave up on his music. In all these places he spent his time playing on his guitar and singing. Soon, he started working with the music groups there. Then one day the lead singer of the music band of Johnny Johnson, a great pianist himself, took ill. Not having any alternative he invited Chuck Berry, still a greenhorn with his guitar to perform at the New Year Eve Event of 1952. But with his uncanny feel for entertaining and unique singing style, Chuck Berry made the event an unprecedented celebration! None too soon Johnny Johnson’s band became Chuck Berry’s band!

In those early days, Chuck Berry was mostly concentrating on Blues. He borrowed the entertaining stage techniques of T. Bone Walker who had created a few famous Blues songs by then. Chuck Berry was an ardent fan of the then dominant music personality with the funny name of Muddy Waters who had created the runaway all-time hit Blues numbers like ‘Hoochi Coochie Man’ and ‘My Home in Delta’. Chuck Berry also regarded the singing style of Nat King Cole, who was practically the history of Jazz and Swing music styles, as his ideal.

All these three were blacks and their music reached only black people. Chuck Berry thought that if he combined the singing and stage styles of these three great men with the Country music of whites the resultant new style music will reach both blacks as well as whites. Chuck Berry decided that his lyrics should not have, in the language or pronunciation, anything that reminded of blacks. Later it was this fusion music that was celebrated equally by blacks and whites that took Chuck Berry to the heights of fame.

In 1955, Chuck Berry went to meet his idol Muddy Waters in Chicago with the desire to release a music record, a desire that had animated him for long. There ensued the strangest of dialogues lasting a bare three minutes that can be said to have catapulted Chuck Berry to an international status of a cult star. The dialogue went like this:
            “Good Morning, Sir!”
            “What do you want?”
            “I am your great fan!”
            “Come to the point!”
            “I am a singer, poet and composer!”
            “I am one, too. So?”
            “I want my music record released.”
            “Go right ahead.”
            “Which firm can be ………”
            “Go to Chess Records. See Leonard Chess.”
            “Thank you, Sir. May I sing a song of mine? I have the guitar.”
            “I have the piano itself here. Spare me. Just leave!”

Chuck Berry put in his attendance the very next day at the office of Chess Records. He cited the name of Muddy Waters to gain entry. He sang a few of his Blues style songs for the benefit of Leonard Chess, plucking his guitar. But none of his songs impressed Leonard. Heart-broken, before leaving, he sang his own version of the old Country music song Ida Red. Leonard Chess was impressed and a recording agreement was signed immediately. In the next few days that song was recorded with many changes titled ‘Maybelline’. A completely bluesy number ‘Wee Wee Hours’ was placed on the B side of the record. That record sold nearly a million copies! What followed is the happy history of Rock & Roll music.

Most of Chuck Berry’s songs became super hits. He made money hand over fist and fame played his tune. His investments in orchards, houses, agricultural lands, restaurants and motels, night dance halls, etc. flourished. Chuck Berry became the idol to follow for millions of music lovers and thousands of famous musicians as well. But his music alone was the ideal to follow!

In 1959, at the height of his fame as a world-wide super star, he was arrested by the Police for the crime of raping a fourteen years old Red Indian girl. Brought in from Texas, she was a bag checker in his dance floors at night. By day she was apparently soliciting secretly. Chuck Berry was sentenced to five years in jail for bringing a minor girl from another state and forcing her into prostitution. Two appeals reduced the sentence to two years of jail. Chuck Berry was in jail during the years 1962-63. But that was also the period when his songs were sung by world-famous music stars and became famous in nooks and corners of the world.

Chuck Berry who came out of jail was an embittered man unwilling to trust anyone. He disbanded his music troupe. He snapped his relations with Chess Records and shifted to Mercury Records. He undertook his music tours alone, with just his guitar for company. He earned much notoriety by holding music events with substandard local bands without any rehearsal. Short temper and unsociable habits became his calling cards. He refused to sing a song on the stage more than once, however persistent the fans’ requests for encores were! During this period he released many songs, but only a few like ‘Nadine’ succeeded. But none of them brought in the kind of money he expected.

Chastened, he returned to Chess Records. ‘My Dinga Linga Ling’ released by Chess in 1972 was the number that sold maximum number of records during the chequered music career of Chuck Berry. This tasteless song of below par music secured the kind of success which many of the great musical creations of Chuck Berry, the creator of Rock & Roll music, did not receive. The reason was not far to seek, it was the double entendre in the narration of lyrics, the kind that even an adolescent student will shy away from.

When I was a little biddy boy
My grandma bought me a cute little toy
Two Silver bells on a string
She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling

My Ding-A-Ling My Ding-A-Ling won't you play with My Ding-A-Ling
My Ding-A-Ling My Ding-A-Ling won't you play with My Ding-A-Ling

When I was little boy In Grammar school
Always went by the very best rule
But every time the bell would ring
You'd catch me playing with my ding-a-ling

Once while climbing the garden wall,
Slipped and fell had a very bad fall
I fell so hard I heard birds sing,
But I held on to My ding-a-ling

Once while swimming cross turtle creek
Man them snappers right at my feet
Sure was hard swimming cross that thing
with both hands holding my ding-a-ling

Though happy at the way money came pouring in, Chuck Berry was confused by the success of this absurd song. He did not record a single song for the next two years. He appeared set against recording another song.  But pressures of contract made him consent to release a few songs. With that he came out of Chess Records, once and for all. The song ‘Rock It’ released through the music label Atco, four years later, was Chuck Berry’s last recorded song.

He continued with his music tours, all alone. He kept performing with any indifferent troupe that came his way, with disastrous consequences to his reputation! Still, the crowds of fans kept storming his events to just get a glimpse of this super star of international fame. It is said that he had always resorted to every trick of trade to collect money and not let it go out.

He had held a huge musical event in White House in 1979 at the request of President Jimmy Carter, who was his ardent fan. Within a few days of this event he was arrested again. This was for cheating the Government of Income Tax that was not paid for many years. He was sentenced to 4 months in prison and additionally 45 days of social service. During this period of social service Government arranged for over ten musical events. The proceeds of these events were appropriated by the Government towards the penal amount due from Chuck Berry! Chuck Berry continued to hold over 100 music events every year banking on the fame of his songs.

In 1990, it was discovered that the women’s toilets in the restaurants owned by Chuck Berry were fitted with hidden cameras. 59 affected women went to court against Chuck Berry. But they were not able to prove that he did it. But he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay compensation to those women to mitigate this new blemish in his reputation. An obscene video was put on sale everywhere with the claim that he performed in it! But it was never proved that it was he who was on tape.

In a subsequent sudden raid by the Police Department on Chuck Berry’s residence they found a little grass and drugs, some weapons and obscene video tapes of young girls below the age of seventeen. He was sentenced again and a fine of 5000 dollars was levied as well.

In the year 2000, Johnny Johnson, who was the first one to get Chuck Berry to sing and who later served in Chuck Berry’s troupe as a pianist, went to court against him. He advanced the argument that he too had worked in the creation of over 50 songs of Chuck Berry like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and that he had received neither money nor credit for it. But he could adduce no proof for his claims. Court dismissed the claim ruling that there was no basis for the claim raised after 40-50 years of the event. Johnny Johnson passed away within two years after that.

Every person lives with his very personal and secret thoughts.  Who else can tell what he had thought or done in his secret and personal moments?  Psychology says that criminality is a human trait. Man escapes indulging his criminal thoughts because of the social and personal obstructions that happen on a day to day basis. Chuck Berry has spoken very little in his public life. He has never spoken about the dark recesses of his mind. He had neither shown excessive pride in his successes nor publicly displayed his disappointment over his failures. He made no effort to deny or justify the charges leveled against him before the people!

He had remarked, just once: “I am not a very great person. Money was always important to me. My dreams were always about land, home and valuable possessions. But whatever I did, I made the effort to be whole-hearted. I might have failed in the effort many times. I had no part in many of the crimes I am supposed to have committed after I became popular. When millions loved me, it is quite possible that a few thousands hated me intensely.” Chuck Berry’s obsession with money and possessions must have been reflections of his early life where he had no right to anything.

At the ripe age of 82 he undertook a music tour of many European nations. Fans flocked to his events to see him even though he was in no great shape to sing. He fell, tired, on the stage during a New Year Eve’s show. Today, at 86 he still performs a few nights every month in a night club named Blueberry Mountain in his native place. Nobody has to pay money to listen him singing now! Chuck Berry, weighed down and fatigued by his age plays on his guitar and makes the effort to sing in a low sunken pitch.
Go Johnny go… Johnny be good!