Chuck Berry: B Goode for­ever

Nelson Mail - - WORLD DIGEST -

UNITED STATES: Chuck Berry, who duck-walked his way into the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll pi­o­neers as one of its most in­flu­en­tial gui­tarists and as the cre­ator of rau­cous an­thems that de­fined the genre’s early sound and heart­beat, died yes­ter­day at his Mis­souri home. He was 90.

Po­lice in St Charles County, out­side St Louis, said they were called to Berry’s home by a care­taker who re­ported he had fallen ill, and emer­gency re­spon­ders found the per­former un­con­scious. Emer­gency medical tech­ni­cians tried to re­vive him with car­diopul­monary re­sus­ci­ta­tion, to no avail, and Berry was pro­nounced dead at 1.26pm lo­cal time, po­lice said.

Al­though Elvis Pres­ley was called the king of rock ‘n’ roll, that crown would have fit just as well on the care­fully sculpted pom­padour of Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry. He was present in rock’s in­fancy in the 1950s and emerged as its first star gui­tarist and lyri­cist.

Berry hits such as Johnny B Goode, May­bel­lene and Mem­phis melded el­e­ments of blues, rock­a­billy and jazz into some of Amer­ica’s most time­less pop songs of the 20th cen­tury.

He was a mon­u­men­tal in­flu­ence on just about any kid who picked up a gui­tar with rock star as­pi­ra­tions – Keith Richards, Paul McCart­ney, John Len­non and Bruce Spring­steen among them.

Bob Dy­lan called Berry ‘‘the Shake­speare of rock ‘n’ roll’’, and he was one of the first pop­u­lar acts to write as well as per­form his own songs. They fo­cused on youth, ro­mance, cars and good times, with lyrics that were com­plex, hu­mor­ous and some­times a lit­tle raunchy.

Both the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Beach Boys and scores of other acts – even Elvis – cov­ered Berry’s songs.

‘‘If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll an­other name,’’ Len­non once said, ‘‘you might call it Chuck Berry.’’

When Richards in­ducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he said: ‘‘It’s very dif­fi­cult for me to talk about Chuck Berry be­cause I’ve lifted ev­ery lick he ever played. This is the gen­tle­man who started it all.’’ Berry’s legacy as one of rock’s founders was tar­nished by his rep­u­ta­tion as a prickly penny-pincher, and runins with the law, in­clud­ing sexre­lated of­fences af­ter he achieved star­dom.

Mark­ing his 90th birth­day in 2016 by an­nounc­ing he would re­lease his first al­bum in 38 years, Berry listed T-Bone Walker, Carl Ho­gan of Louis Jor­dan’s band and Char­lie Chris­tian from Benny Good­man’s band as his gui­tar in­flu­ences but his lyri­cal style was all his own. Punchy word­play and youth-ori­ented sub­ject mat­ter earned him the nick­name ‘‘the eter­nal teenager’’ early in his ca­reer.

Berry came along at a time when much of the US re­mained racially seg­re­gated but it was hard for young au­di­ences of any colour to re­sist a per­former who de­liv­ered such a pow­er­ful beat with so much en­ergy and show­man­ship. Berry said he per­formed his sig­na­ture bent-knee, head­bob­bing ‘‘duck-walk’’ across more than 4000 con­cert stages. He said he in­vented the move as a child in or­der to make his mother laugh.

Some crit­ics sug­gested it was his for­mer pi­anist, John­nie John­son, who com­posed the tunes while Berry only penned the lyrics. John­son sued Berry in 2000 for song roy­al­ties, say­ing they were equal col­lab­o­ra­tors on many of the hits but the case was dis­missed on grounds that the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had ex­pired.

It was with John­son that Berry first made his mark, play­ing at black clubs in the St Louis area at the mu­si­cally ripe age of 27. Berry started out fill­ing in with John­son’s group, known as Sir John’s Trio, in 1953, and John­son eventu- ally ac­knowl­edged Berry’s tal­ent, charisma and busi­ness acu­men by al­low­ing the group to evolve into the Chuck Berry Trio.

At the sug­ges­tion of blues leg­end Muddy Waters, Berry au­di­tioned for Chess Records, the white-owned Chicago la­bel that put out scores of blues hits. The re­sult was the rock­a­billy tune Ida Red, which be­came a hit af­ter it was reti­tled May­bel­lene and dis­cov­ered by white au­di­ences.

When the record came out, Berry said he was stunned to see that pi­o­neer­ing rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey Alan Freed and an­other man he had never met, Russ Fratto, were listed as co-writ­ers of May­bel­lene. The shared cred­its de­prived him of some roy­alty pay­ments but Berry dis­missed it at the time as part of the ‘‘pay­ola’’ sys­tem that de­ter­mined which records got ra­dio play in the 1950s. He later regained all the rights to his com­po­si­tions.

Berry and John­son col­lab­o­rated for some 30 years on such rock an­thems as School Days, Roll Over Beethoven, Back in the USA, Reelin’ and Rockin’, Rock & Roll Mu­sic, No Par­tic­u­lar Place to Go, Mem­phis and Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen. But Berry’s only num­ber 1 hit was My Ding-a-Ling, a throw­away nov­elty song that seemed to be a ju­ve­nile sex ref­er­ence.

Berry’s rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing greedy and grouchy was ev­i­dent in the 1987 doc­u­men­tary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, which fo­cused on a 60th-birth­day con­cert that Keith Richards or­gan­ised for him. The movie’s mak­ers said Berry re­fused to show up for film­ing each day un­less given a bag of cash.

‘‘He was an oddly cheap char­ac­ter in some ways,’’ Rolling Stones singer Mick Jag­ger told Mojo mag­a­zine. ‘‘He ... was al­ways rude to ev­ery­one. He be­came too much of a par­ody of him­self.’’

Berry was born on Oc­to­ber 18, 1926, the third of six chil­dren whose fa­ther was a con­trac­tor and church dea­con and whose mother was a teacher. They lived in a rel­a­tively pros­per­ous black sec­tion of St Louis known as the Ville.

In the first of his brushes with the law, Berry was sent to a re­for­ma­tory as a teenager for armed rob­bery. Af­ter his re­lease at age 21, he worked in an auto plant and as a pho­tog­ra­pher and trained tic­u­lar Place to Go.

Berry had more trou­ble in 1979 when he was con­victed of tax eva­sion, serv­ing four months in prison, and in the 1990s when a num­ber of women ac­cused him of video­tap­ing them in the bath­rooms of his restau­rant-club in Wentzville, Mis­souri.

While the hits did not keep com­ing for Berry, the tributes never stopped, and he con­tin­ued play­ing a monthly show at a St Louis night­club into his late 80s. He re­ceived a Grammy award for life­time achieve­ment in 1984 and his 1986 in­duc­tion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made him part of the in­au­gu­ral class.

Il­lus­trat­ing his in­flu­ence, a record­ing of Johnny B Goode was in­cluded in a col­lec­tion of mu­sic sent into space aboard the un­manned 1977 Voy­ager I probe to give aliens a taste of Earth cul­ture. – Reuters

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

Chuck Berry per­forms his trade­mark duck­walk move dur­ing a show in the East Vil­lage in 1966 in New York City.

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