Obit­u­ary 31

Rock’n’roll pi­o­neer whose songs and stage pres­ence in­spired count­less mu­si­cians

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Chuck Berry (Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry), guitarist, singer and song­writer, born 18 Oc­to­ber 1926; died 18 March 2017 Berry do­ing the fa­mous duck walk in 1980. He broke through pop bar­ri­ers with his won­der­fully lively, per­fect fit of street-talk to musi

Chuck Berry, who has died aged 90, was rock’n’roll’s first gui­tar hero and poet. Never wild, but al­ways savvy, Berry helped de­fine the mu­sic. His ma­te­rial fused in­sis­tent tunes with dis­tinc­tive lyrics that cel­e­brated with deft wit and lov­ing de­tail the glo­ries of 1950s US teen con­sumerism. His first sin­gle, May­bel­lene, be­gan life as “coun­try mu­sic”, by which Berry meant coun­try blues, but was re­vamped on the great post­war Chicago la­bel Chess in 1955. It was not only rock’n’roll but the per­fect in­di­ca­tor of just what riches its singer-song­writer would bring to the form. Start­ing with a race be­tween a Cadil­lac and a Ford, told from the Ford owner’s, and there­fore the un­der­dog’s, view­point, this in­flu­en­tial de­but record fea­tured one of the most fa­mous open­ing verses in pop­u­lar mu­sic: “As I was mo­tor­vatin’ over the hill / I saw May­bel­lene in a Coupe de Ville ...”

Here was the en­tic­ing com­bi­na­tion of an in­stantly recog­nis­able, fresh gui­tar (“just like a-ringin’ the bell,” as he would soon put it), a blow-by-blow nar­ra­tive, a rel­ish of brand-name de­tail and a slyly in­no­cent joy at be­ing so au fait with such de­tail. These would be the hall­marks of al­most all Berry’s best work.

So would the seam­less match of words to melodic line. This tech­ni­cal panache was part of his hu­mour. Take the open­ing lines of Nadine (1964): “As I got on a city bus and found a va­cant seat / I thought I saw my fu­ture bride walkin’ up the street / I shouted to the driver, ‘Hey con­duc­tor! you must / Slow down, I think I see her: please, let me off this bus!’ / ‘Nadine! Honey, is that you? ...” The won­der­fully lively, per­fect fit of street-talk to mu­sic avoids mere au­to­matic chug-a-chug-a-chug, show­ing off the true poet’s touch as the rhythm en­acts the plea that “you must [pause] slow down ...”

Here, right from the out­set, was an artist with wit, the very qual­ity sup­posed to be­long only to the mu­sic that rock’n’roll dis­placed. And Berry never pa­raded clev­er­ness for its own sake but al­ways in en­er­getic cel­e­bra­tion of life. The Everly Broth­ers would mas­ter teenage-bed­room angst, but Berry pro­claimed the up­side of mod­ern ado­les­cence – although he was al­ready 19 by the end of sec­ond world war, and turn­ing 30 by the time he be­gan singing about high-school ro­mance.

Berry’s mu­sic was, as the critic Tom Zito ob­served, “not so much black as Amer­i­can”. Yet sto­ries such as May­bel­lene were cer­tainly in the spirit of Stag­ger Lee and the other speedy su­per­heroes of black folk tra­di­tion, while Brown-Eyed Hand­some Man (1956) as­serted that black was beau­ti­ful ahead of its time – the ti­tle’s un­der­state­ment adroitly set against the ex­trav­a­gant word­play of the verses: “De Milo’s Venus was a beau­ti­ful lass / She had the world in the palm of her hand / But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match / To meet a brown-eyed hand­some man.”

Berry’s songs ranged far beyond ado­les­cence. Ha­vana Moon (1956) is a vivid drama of lovers’ lost op­por­tu­nity, as af­fect­ing as Brief En­counter, but funky and told in three min­utes; You Never Can Tell (1964) smiles at new­ly­weds, as do “the old folks” in­side the song; Mem­phis, Ten­nessee (1959) laments the pain of di­vorce as the nar­ra­tor sings of his miss­ing six-year-old daugh­ter, Marie, last seen “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks that trick­led from her eye ...”

This was some­thing Berry knew about. He was born in St Louis, Mis­souri, one of six chil­dren of choir-singing par­ents, Martha (nee Banks) and Henry Berry. “My child­hood was not so good,” he said. “My par­ents were get­ting di­vorced.”

His first gui­tar was a sec­ond-hand Span­ish acous­tic, but by 1952, in­flu­enced by the 40s guitarist Char­lie Chris­tian, blues singer Tampa Red and the Nat King Cole trio, he had gone elec­tric and semi-pro, work­ing east St Louis clubs in the pi­anist John­nie John­son’s trio, re­named the Chuck Berry Combo when Chess re­leased May­bel­lene to such in­stant suc­cess.

His gui­tar-driven clas­sics in the pro­lific years that fol­lowed were the an­thems ev­ery lo­cal group played ev­ery week­end ever af­ter. They in­cluded Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Mon­key Busi­ness, Oh Baby Doll, Rock & Roll Mu­sic, Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen, Johnny B Goode, Carol, Lit­tle Quee­nie, Back in the USA, Bye Bye Johnny, Come On, No Par­tic­u­lar Place to Go, Reelin’ and Rockin’ and The Promised Land.

Through them all, Berry of­fered a bold and cap­ti­vat­ing use of cars, planes, high­ways, re­frig­er­a­tors and sky­scrapers, and also the ac­com­pa­ny­ing de­tails: seat­belts, bus con­duc­tors, gin­ger ale and ter­mi­nal gates. And he brought all this into his love songs. He put love in an ev­ery­day me­trop­o­lis, fast and clut­tered, as no one had done be­fore him. In Berry’s cities, real peo­ple strug­gled and fret­ted and gave vent to ironic per­cep­tions. Berry also spe­cialised in place names, as no one else has done be­fore or since. His songs re­lease the power of ro­mance in each one, fly­ing with rel­ish through a part of the Amer­i­can dream.

In the midst of these hits, Berry was im­pris­oned. At 18 he had been jailed for three years for petty rob­bery, and in 1959 held for try­ing to date a white woman in Mis­sis­sippi. In 1960, mar­ried with four chil­dren, he was found guilty of tak­ing a 14-year-old girl across a state line. Berry protested that she only went to the po­lice af­ter he fired her from his night­club, and that any­way he had thought she was 20. He was jailed again un­til late 1963. He served his time hon­ing his song­writ­ing, and his records of 1964 were at least as good as the ear­lier hits.

In 1972 came My Ding-A-Ling, a smutty song wholly lack­ing Berry’s usual artistry. He topped the charts at last, at the age of 46. By then Berry’s eu­lo­gies of Amer­i­cana (“I’m so glad I’m liv­ing in the USA ... Where ham­burg­ers siz­zle on an open grid­dle night and day ... Any­thing you want they got it right here in the USA”) had long been deeply un­fash­ion­able, as the Bea­tles had noted with their sar­donic Back in the USSR.

Yet Berry’s huge in­flu­ence – out of all pro­por­tion to the mod­est chart plac­ings of his cru­cial records – re­mained tan­gi­ble through­out the 60s and beyond, both gen­er­ally and in par­tic­u­lar, as upon the Beach Boys (Surfin’ USA), the Bea­tles (Get Back), the Rolling Stones (Come On was their first sin­gle, May­bel­lene the vo­cal model for Jag­ger), Bob Dy­lan (Too Much Mon­key Busi­ness en­gen­dered Sub­ter­ranean Home­sick Blues) and through to rap.

Berry left Chess for Mer­cury in 1966 but soon came back, and though his 1973 al­bum Bio used John Len­non’s band Ele­phant’s Mem­ory, the ma­te­rial looked back to pre-rock days. Mo­tor­vatin’ was a UK Top 10 al­bum in 1977. Berry con­tin­ued to per­form live, ei­ther side of an­other prison term in 1979 (four months for in­come tax eva­sion), fa­mously de­mand­ing cash up­front, ar­riv­ing at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment, us­ing lo­cal back­ing groups with whom he de­clined to sound­check and of­ten show­ing tru­cu­lence on stage.

This no­to­ri­ety mis­led, as the 1987 doc­u­men­tary film Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll! proved. More than 30 years af­ter his film de­but in Rock, Rock, Rock!, he was still oblig­ing with his trade­mark duck walk and coax­ing those lazily bent notes from his beau­ti­ful scar­let Gib­son gui­tar, his alert grace in­tact. And some in­dif­fer­ent con­certs were the price paid for gen­uinely spon­ta­neous per­for­mance that on other nights yielded mo­ments of mag­i­cal rein­ven­tion and cre­ative mu­si­cian­ship.

His 1987 book Chuck Berry: The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy re­vealed a man with no need of a ghost­writer, no self-serv­ing whinges and a strong sense of black his­tory.

He con­tin­ued to age re­mark­ably well, de­spite re­cur­rent ill-health. Per­form­ing in front of 10,000 peo­ple at the age of 83 at the 2010 Viva Las Ve­gas open-air con­cert, he was lithe, chal­leng­ing his back-up mu­si­cians with a spon­ta­neous re­shap­ing of the pace and de­liv­ery of his clas­sic songs, and giv­ing good value to the au­di­ence, some of whom were young enough to be his great-grand­chil­dren.

He per­formed once a month at a restau­rant in St Louis, Blue­berry Hill, un­til 2014, the year in which he was awarded the Po­lar mu­sic prize, and in­ter­mit­tently there­after. Among other hon­ours, he re­ceived a Grammy life­time achieve­ment award in 1984, and a Kennedy Cen­ter Honor in 2000.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, whom he mar­ried in 1948, and four chil­dren, In­grid, Chuck Jr, Aloha and Melody.

He put love in an ev­ery­day me­trop­o­lis, fast and clut­tered, as no one had done be­fore him

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.