Lennon, Dylan, Simon, Clapton, Jagger, Prine and others on the one true king of Rock & Roll
“If you had to give Rock & Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” – John Lennon
“Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock & roll writer who ever lived.” – Bruce Springsteen
Born on this day, October 18, in 1926 in St. Louis, Chuck Berry would have turned 94 today. Not only one of the first and greatest purveyors of that brave new music known as “rock and roll,” he remains one of the most influential songwriters and guitarists of all time.
His influence is so pervasive, surpassing that of almost all his peers to this day, that his impact on the arc of songwriting itself is profound. As many in the know have said, rock & roll as we know it would not have been the same without his lyrically rocking impact.
“In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable,” said Bob Dylan. “When I first heard him, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock & roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.”
Jimi Hendrix said Chuck Berry was his favorite artist. He recorded “Johnny B Goode,” and often played it live. As always, he occupied the song entirely. That famous riff in his hands becomes something electrically alive. Nobody else sounded like Hendrix ever, as this live version affirms. The man is on fire.
The first song that The Beatles performed in America, 1964 in Washington D.C. was a Chuck Berry song, “Roll Over Beethoven.” From their first shows in 1957 through to 1966, The Beatles included more Chuck Berry songs in their show than songs by any others.
They recorded “Roll Over Beethoven’ in 1963 on With The Beatles, and on Beatles for Sale, they covered “’Rock And Roll Music.”
Lennon, and the other lads, recognized early on that Chuck was one of the first to do something that would soon do in a huge way, expand the lyrical content of rock and roll.
“[He] is one of the all-time great poets,” Lennon said, “a rock poet you could say. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan. In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible meter to his lyrics.”
Lennon famously based “Come Together” on Chuck’s 1956 hit, “You Can’t Catch Me.”
“‘Come Together,” Lennon said, “is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in, ‘Here comes old flat-top’. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on Earth.”
Lennon was sued by publisher Morris Levy for this adaptation of Chuck’s song, maintaining it was plagiarism. To settle the case, Lennon agreed to record three songs Morris owned, including “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Angel Baby.”
The Stones also were great lovers of all things Chuck Berry. Their debut single in 1963 was Chuck’s song “Come On.”
Dismayed by Chuck’s habit of performing with cheap, often mediocre back-up bands he’d hire in different cities, never even rehearsing with them prior to a show, Keith Richards wanted to provide his hero with the kind of band he deserved. So he put one together himself, a challenge which is preserved in the great film “Hail Hail Rock & Roll.” Although Chuck and Keith get into some serious squabbles the love remained, and Keith’s vision of Chuck Berry preserved with a great band is a reality.
Eric Clapton said Chuck Berry built and paved the road that all rockers after him drove on every day.
“If you want to play rock & roll,” Clapton said, “or any kind of upbeat music, and you want to take a guitar ride, you would end up playing like Chuck. Cause there is very little actual other choice.
“You know all those double-string leads I do when I solo?” he asked. “Those are all from Chuck. If I am playing a rock and roll solo and I start playing single lines, it doesn’t sound right. It sounds thin. Or too fiddly. It just doesn’t sound right. To me, anyway, so he’s really laid the law down for playing that kind of music.”
Sure, we know famous rockers, such as Clapton or Keith Richards, have proclaimed their allegiance to Chuck for decades. And it makes perfect sense, as Chuck was a master at making his guitar talk – or sing – or scream He also was a genius at creating the perfect rock and roll song: both simple and sophisticated at the same time, with visceral blues-based music, usually no more than three chords, and sometimes even less, as in the classic “You Never Can Tell,” which has two.
But the magnitude of his greatness, and the prodigious impact it had on the songwriting artistry of so many who came in his wake, has to do with the “crucial balance,” so named by Paul Simon, of words and music. It’s one thing to rock, but it’s another thing to rock while telling a richly detailed, exquisitely phrased and measured narrative which delivers the great fullness of a story in less than three minutes.
His songs, such as “You Never Can Tell” pack so much genuine humanity into this short span of time, yet with no wasted words, wed perfectly to the shape of the tune, that to this day they seem somewhat miraculous. All that language, so artfully and effortlessly propelled by that compelling, visceral bluesy tune, written all those years before Lennon, Dylan and others expanded the content of songs, is still somewhat staggering to confront. Where did that come from?
It’s the very distinction that first ignited John Prine’s songwriting flame – which soon grew into a mighty fire – back when he was still growing up in Maywood, Illinois. . It was a surprising revelation at first for us Prine lovers to accept. Stylistically it seemed a stretch at first, as Chuck was the essence of rock and roll, while Prine came from the acoustic world of folk. But it wasn’t Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly who spoke to his soul the way Chuck Berry did.
“Because he told a story in less than three minutes,” John said. “And he had a syllable for every beat… Some people stretch the words like a mask to fit the melody. Whereas guys who are really good lyricists, have a meter so that the melody is almost already there.”
Now we accept it as part of Prine’s persona, this rocking reverence for Chuck Berry. But back in 1975, when he recorded a delightfully funky and hip “You Never Can Tell’ on his 1975 album Common Sense, all doubt vanished. Any question prior to that about if John Prine could sing rock & roll authentically was forever answered.
Prine’s younger though much taller brother Billy Prine confirmed in a recent interview that he turned John onto Chuck Berry.
“This was back in the ’70s,” said Prine. “I bought this double Chuck Berry collection, okay? It had all the hits. And I had never heard `You Never Can Tell’ before, but I heard it, I went, “Man! This is such a great song. I’ve got to play this for John.”
John heard it, and he goes, “I forgot all about that song!” Then he ends up putting it on the Common Sense record. John always loved Chuck Berry.”
Paul Simon, too, was thoroughly in the sway of Chuck Berry – his words, music and style – when he started to write songs, and to think in terms of songwriting.
“I would say no songwriter influenced my generation to a greater degree than Chuck Berry: ‘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.’”
“For me,” Simon said, “it was like a magical place to hear about this description of rural America. It’s like Zora Neale Hurston territory — an amazing bit of writing for the ’50s and something that left a powerful impression with me, when I was just beginning to play guitar.”
Simon paid his respects to Chuck by performing the classic “Maybellene” at the famous 1981 Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Central Park, where they linked it with the solo Simon hit, “Kodachrome,” showing the world from which this duo emerged. Check out their happy embrace of Chuck’s signature fast phrased genius lyrics, in perfectly phrased and pitched harmony.
Mick Jagger said he was inspired by Chuck Berry on many levels.
“He lit up our teenage years,” Jagger said, “and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American Dream. His music is engraved inside us forever.”
Stevie Wonder was one of the first to give Chuck his due acclaim as the instigator, the progenitor, the chief architect of rock and roll. He emphasized that, although others often wore the crown and claimed the rock and roll throne, it belonged to Chuck Berry.
“There’s only one true king of rock & roll,” said Stevie. “His name is Chuck Berry.”
Chuck Berry hated giving encores and rarely ever did. It was about the music in the show, not after, for him. He also hated giving interviews. When asked why, he said it was because no matter what he said, the writers wrote what they wanted.
He did consent, however, to a rare interview in 1987 with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. Hilburn asked him several questions which could have provoked him, such as one about how Elvis, The Stones and others received much more acclaim and money doing his songs than he did. Yet Chuck didn’t take that bait, and fulfill the role often projected on him, the bitter rock & roll legend.
Instead he kept returning to a positive perspective.
“I remember the Rolling Stones,” he said, “getting $50,000 in Miami on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ and I was making $500 a night and they were playing my song … but (I thought) about the $500 that was coming every night. In 100 nights, I’d have $50,000.”
Chuck opened up more when Hilburn asked questions about his music: “If you had room for only three or four Chuck Berry songs on your jukebox,” Hilburn asked, “which ones would you put?”
“For rhythm and lyrics,” Chuck said, “it would be ‘Back to Memphis.’ I think it is a heck of a story … a fellow went up north to make it and (finds) there is no place like home. It is the grown boy talking to his mother rather than little ‘Johnny B. Goode.’
“For heart-throbbing, tear-dropping,” he continued, “it is ‘Memphis, Tenn.,’ which is the tenderest. For novelty, it is ‘No Money Down.’”
“For teachings,” he said, “it is ‘Downbound Train,’ because it is spiritual and it shows if you really need to do well, you will do well.”
“I could say my father, in many ways, really wrote the foundation for ‘Downbound Train’ in his constant preaching of the horrors of hell once you’ve missed the blessings of salvation and heaven,” he wrote in his autobiography. “So let it be known that I’m not alone to reap what I’ve sown in fire and brimstone because of my own bad traits that I’ve shown.” He added that he still got a chill when he heard the song.
Chuck Berry was the first to celebrate rock & roll in rock & roll songs, which he did several times, including the classic “Johnny B. Goode,” about the rocker who had a knack, like Chuck, of making that guitar talk to people so intimately it was undeniable, as he put it, “like ringing a bell.”
The character of Johnny B. Goode, he told Rolling Stone, was real. It was him. Though he had to temper the language a bit so radio would play it.
The original, autobiographical line was “That little colored boy could play.” He changed it to “That little country boy could play.” Although it was unfortunate that this was required, that one word change ensured the song became a classic, Without that revision, radio would have never touched it.
Instead it became one of the most famous songs of all time, deemed so universally loved that it was included on the 1977 Voyager spaceship, place there for potential aliens wanting to experience the real rocking vibe of life on earth.
Many scientists and one music writer have said this inclusion was probably the main reason earth became a favorite destination for aliens from every corner of the galaxy and beyond. It was all about our songs. Evidently, there are no songs anywhere in the universe that can hold a candle to our classics.
Happy Birthday Chuck Berry. Thank you for rock & roll.