“May­bel­lene,” “Johnny B. Goode” among 100-song legacy

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ter­ence McAr­dle

Chuck Berry, the per­pet­ual wild man of rock mu­sic who helped de­fine its re­bel­lious spirit in the 1950s and was the sly poet lau­re­ate of songs about girls, cars, school and even the “any old way you choose it” vi­tal­ity of the mu­sic it­self, died Satur­day at his home in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90.

St. Charles County po­lice an­nounced of­fi­cers re­sponded to a med­i­cal emer­gency at Berry’s home, ad­min­is­tered life­sav­ing tech­niques but could not re­vive him.

“While no in­di­vid­ual can be said to have in­vented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the clos­est of any sin­gle fig­ure to be­ing the one who put all the es­sen­tial pieces to­gether,” reads Berry’s in­duc­tion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

A sem­i­nal fig­ure in early rock mu­sic, he was all the rarer still for writ­ing, singing and play­ing his own mu­sic. His songs and the bois­ter­ous per­for­mance stan­dards he set di­rectly in­flu­enced the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones and later Bruce Spring­steen and Bob Seger.

In 2003, Rolling Stone mag­a­zine named him No. 6 on its list of the great­est gui­tarists of all time. Berry so em­bod­ied the Amer­i­can rock tra­di­tion that his record­ing of “Johnny B. Goode” was in­cluded on a disc launched into space on the Voy­ager 1 space­craft in 1977.

Be­sides Berry, mem­bers of the rock hall of fame’s in­au­gu­ral class in­cluded Elvis Pres­ley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lit­tle Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Of those he sur­vived, Berry re­mained the most in­de­fati­ga­ble and ac­claimed per­former, play­ing con­certs all over the world well into his 80s.

De­spite John Len­non’s oft-quoted quip — “If you tried to give rock-and-roll an­other name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’ “— Berry was an un­likely idol for a bur­geon­ing teen sub­cul­ture that he sang about at the dawn of the rock era.

He was 30, mar­ried and the fa­ther of two when he made his first record­ing, “May­bel­lene” in 1955. The song — a story of a man in a Ford V8 chas­ing his un­faith­ful girl­friend in a Cadil­lac Coupe de Ville — charted No. 1 on Bill­board’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No.5 on the pop mu­sic charts.

It was soon fol­lowed by “Rock and Roll Mu­sic” (”it’s got a back­beat, you can’t lose it”) and “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen,” whose as­tute ref­er­ence to the teen-ori­ented TV show “Amer­i­can Band­stand” (”Well, they’ll be rockin’ on Band­stand, Philadel­phia, P.A.”) helped him con­nect to ado­les­cent record-buy­ers.

With his lithe, ath­letic body, high cheek­bones and per­fectly po­maded hair, Berry per­son­i­fied the dan­ger­ous ap­peal of rock. He’d grin sala­ciously and then shoot across the stage, un­leash­ing a stac­cato burst of bright, blar­ing gui­tar notes.

When he went into his sig­na­ture “duck walk,” his legs seemed to be made of rub­ber, and his whole body moved with clock­like pre­ci­sion — the vis­ual state­ment of his mu­sic’s ki­netic en­ergy.

He once told The Wash­ing­ton Post that he ini­ti­ated the duck walk at the Brook­lyn Para­mount theater in 1956, based on a pose he some­times struck as a child.

“I had noth­ing else to do dur­ing the in­stru­men­tal part of the song,” he said. “I did it, and here comes the ap­plause. Well, I knew to coin any­thing that was that en­ter­tain­ing, so I kept it up.”

Berry penned more than 100 songs, the best known of which used care­fully crafted rhymes and of­fered tightly writ­ten vi­gnettes about Amer­i­can life.

“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959), later cov­ered by Linda Ron­stadt, de­lighted in an Amer­ica where “ham­burg­ers siz­zle on an open grill night and day.” And “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” (1957), writ­ten about the over-crowded St. Louis schools of Berry’s youth, be­came an an­them for bored, rest­less kids ev­ery­where.

The Beach Boys had a hit record with “Surfin’ USA” (1963), its melody bor­rowed with­out credit from “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen.” The Bea­tles be­gan their first U.S. con­cert, at the Wash­ing­ton Coli­seum, with “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), whose nar­ra­tor, in the throes of “the rockin’ pneu­mo­nia,” is­sues the fevered com­mand: “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

Per­haps the most per­formed of his songs was “Johnny B. Goode” (1957). Its sto­ry­line em­bod­ied Berry’s ex­pe­ri­ence as an African-Amer­i­can born into se­gre­ga­tion who lived to see “his name in lights:”

Charles Ed­ward An­der­son Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis.

Al­though his par­ents and three of his sis­ters sang in a Bap­tist choir, Berry’s own youth­ful tastes grav­i­tated to more sec­u­lar pop mu­sic, in­clud­ing blues singer Muddy Wa­ters, the jump blues sax­o­phon­ist and singer Louis Jor­dan, and big bands of Benny Good­man and Duke Elling­ton.

He was 14 when he be­gan per­form­ing at par­ties, but that was in­ter­rupted by a three­year stint in re­form school for his role in a bun­gled armed rob­bery.

At the urg­ing of Muddy Wa­ters, Berry took his demo tapes to Chess Records. La­bel owner Leonard Chess was im­pressed by “Ida May,” a coun­try-and-west­ern-styled tune, and said he would al­low Berry to record it if he would change the name to “May­bel­lene.”

Le­gendary U.S. rock and roll singer and gui­tarist Chuck Berry per­forms in Bur­gos, Spain Nov. 25, 2007 dur­ing Euro­pean tour. As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

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