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Chuck Berry in Perspective: A Rock History


Chuck Berry is a figure who is central to the whole meaning of rock 'n' roll, but what do we really know about what made him so important? With the release of Berry's entire recorded output from the 1950s in a four-disc set from Hip-O-Select, Ed Ward takes a close look at Berry's early career.

(Soundbite of "Johnny B. Goode")

Mr. CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana 'cross the New Orleans...

Mr. ED WARD: Say the words "rock 'n' roll," and the notes we just heard seem to play in a lot of heads automatically. They were played on January 6th, 1958, by a 33-year-old black man who was a licensed cosmetician as well as a convicted car thief. He was two-and-a-half years into a career of one of the top popular musicians in the United States, and had already written a body of songs which defined the teenage American experience: "You Can't Touch Me," "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little 16" and "Reelin' and Rockin'."

Despite his age and experience, his songs resonated with people half his age, and sold significantly better to white audiences. The closer you look at Chuck Berry, the odder he seems. He recorded for Chicago blues label Chess, to which he'd been brought by none other than Muddy Waters, hardly someone you would go to if you were looking for a white teenage market. The one thing Muddy Waters understood was guitar playing; and as competitive as he was, he probably realized immediately that not only was this guy good, but he didn't represent a threat to Muddy's command of Chicago blues. Which isn't to say that Chuck wasn't a demon when it came to slide guitar playing.

(Soundbite of "Deep Feeling")

Mr. WARD: "Deep Feeling" is, as far as I know, the only recording we have of Chuck Berry playing a Hawaiian steel guitar instead of his trademark Gibson ES-350T, and it's breathtaking. Nor is it particularly obscure; it was the B-side of "School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," so there were plenty of copies sold. Chess was apparently in awe of Berry's guitar playing, so much so that they recorded loads of instrumentals, possibly with the aim of using them as B-sides. Many of them remained unreleased for years.

One thing that struck me about the early Chuck Berry recordings was how conservative they were. He recorded a lot of straight urban blues, as if he wanted a safety net if this whole teenage thing didn't work out.

(Soundbite of "I've Changed")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I have changed I'm nothing like I used to be I have changed, darling Nothing like I used to be When I cared so much for you Was love blind, and I couldn't see

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: That could just as easily be Johnny Moore's Three Blazers from 1953, the sound still popular in black cocktail lounges when Berry recorded "I've Changed" in December 1955.

But from the sound of things, the teenage thing was working out.

(Soundbite of "Roll Over Beethoven (Live)")

(Soundbite of cheering, clapping)

Unidentified Man: Take back your life with "Roll Over Beethoven"!

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Well, I'm a write a little letter Gonna mail it to my local deejay It's a rockin' rhythm record I want my jockey to play Roll over, Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today

Well, temperature risin', Jukebox blowing a fuse Well, my heart a beatin' rhythm And my soul keeps singin' the blues Roll over, Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: In fact--and maybe it's just listening to this from today's perspective--the obsession with teenagers--teenage girls, in particular--is a little unnerving coming from a guy in his 30s.

(Soundbite of "Little Queenie")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I got lumps in my throat When I saw her coming down the aisle I got the wiggles in my knees When she looked at me and sweetly smiled

There she is again standing over by the record machine Lookin' like a model on the cover of a magazine She's too cute to be a minute over 17

Meanwhile, I's thinking... She's in the mood, no need 'n' break it I got a chance, I ought to take it If she'll dance, then we can make it Come on, Queenie, let's shake it

Go, go, go...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: But as we're constantly reminded, those were more innocent days, and it was likely that near everyone missed any hint of impropriety in lyrics like these. And it was the lyrics--literate, funny, tricky and enunciated very clearly--that endeared Chuck Berry to a lot of his audience.

(Soundbite of "Back in the U.S.A.")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Well, oh, well, oh, well, I feel so good today

Unidentified Backup Singers: (Singing in unison) Uh-huh, oh, yeah

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) We just touched ground on an international runway

Singers: (Singing) Uh-huh, oh, yeah

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Jet propelled back home from overseas to the USA

Singers: (Singing) Oh, yeah, oh, yeah

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearn for you

Singers: (Singing) Uh-huh, huh

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Detroit, Chicago...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: This patriotic number, with backup singers including Etta James and a young Marvin Gaye, is still one of Berry's best lyrics, recorded early in 1959. He probably didn't see what was coming next. Later that year, he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. What exactly happened has never been cleared up, although the charge was almost certainly exaggerated. He was eventually found guilty, and the man who'd helped define American teenage culture, rewritten the rules of the electric guitar and written songs which are still played today almost as he wrote them, was sentenced to 20 months prison in early 1962.

BIANCULLI: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings," is on Hip-O-Select. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

MusicFresh Air
Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.