Home   Guitar Lesson Reviews   Rock God Reviews   Shred Licks   Sweep Licks   Legato Licks   Contact Dave   $$$Got Licks$$$

 

Chuck Berry

 

Chuck Berry wrote and played the song that sits atop Rolling Stone�s list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of all times. Johnny B. Goode was first released in 1958 and probably contains the most familiar guitar intro ever written. A whole new generation of teens enjoyed the song when it played a pivotal role in the 1985 movie, Back to the Future. Remember the scene where Marty McFly tells the band members at the high school dance to �watch me for the changes and try to keep up?� The students in attendance are thrilled with the music and Chuck Berry�s �cousin� Marvin calls him on the phone to let him listen to the �new sound he has been looking for.� It�s a great movie moment.
 
But, that is not the only place that Johnny B. Goode has found a place in American culture. More than fifty other artists ranging in style from Buck Owens to Jimi Hendrix have covered it. It has been used as background in so many TV shows and movies that it is impossible to list them all here. It was chosen as one of only three popular American songs to be included on the Voyager Golden Record, which was sent into space on the Voyager Spacecraft to represent life on Earth in 1977. Both John Kerry and John McCain have used the piece as a theme song at their Presidential campaign events. Kids of the 21st century are being exposed to Johnny B. while playing the video game Guitar Hero 2. So, who is Chuck Berry? How did he come to write such an innovative and enduring piece, to say nothing of his large body of other works?  His story is an interesting one that reads like part dream-come-true and part nightmare.
 
Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis, Missouri in 1926. His father was a contractor, his mother a school principal, and the family lived in a middle class neighborhood. Chuck�s dad was a Deacon at a local Baptist Church and young Berry sang in the choir there from the time he was six years old. Because the family was more affluent than many African-Americans at the time, Chuck had the means to pursue his interest in music throughout his growing-up years.
 
He first felt the thrill of performing for an audience when he participated in a school musical revue as a high schooler in 1941. He sang, �Confessin� the Blues� by Jay McShann, which was frowned upon by school authorities as being inappropriate for the occasion, but wildly applauded by the teen-aged crowd. After this great success, his partner in the performance urged Chuck to learn to play the guitar, and he readily agreed. A local barber consented to give him some lessons beginning with instruction on a four-string tenor guitar. He soon advanced to a regulation six string. He quickly learned the blues chord progressions and rhythmic strums that made up most of the popular songs of the times. He was delighted to be able to play along with tunes on the radio within just a few weeks. Chuck admired blues artists T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters and tried to emulate their guitar riffs as well as their showy presence on stage.
 
While still in high school Chuck had a run-in with the law when he was convicted of armed robbery for highjacking a car with a group of friends. In his book: Chuck Berry: The Autobiography he explains the incident by saying that his own car had broken down and he used a nonfunctioning pistol as a prop to wave down another vehicle. Whatever the circumstances, Berry was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men in Jefferson City, Missouri and kept there until he was 21 years old. During that time he continued with his music training by joining a gospel-singing group.
 
When he rejoined society in 1947, Chuck worked as a janitor, an assembly plant worker, a freelance photographer, and a trained and licensed beautician. Regardless of the way he earned his living, he always performed with his guitar at small clubs and gatherings, and started developing a reputation around St. Louis. In 1952, Chuck began his professional career as a musician. His first major paying gig was as a member of the Sir John Trio, the house band at a famous club, The Cosmopolitan. The leader of the group was its pianist Johnnie Johnson, who was an innovator of boogie-style piano riffs that greatly influenced Chuck Berry�s approach to the guitar.
 
The audience at the Cosmopolitan lived up to the club�s name and enjoyed a wide variety of music forms. Berry dedicated himself to learning whatever would please his fans and soon became adept at performing country riffs, calypso rhythms, hillbilly songs, and ballads, as well as the blues. He became a true showman who would add facial expressions and body language to enhance the lyrics of the songs he sang. He also used his talent for poetry and composing on the fly to make up large numbers of new verses to fit old country tunes. Since the white residents of St. Louis at the time were fond of country music, they began attending shows at the Cosmo as word spread about Berry�s unique country/blues/hillbilly sound. By 1954 he had taken over leadership of the trio and at times the audience was nearly 40% white, an astounding fact in the era of segregation.
 
While on a trip to Chicago in 1955, Berry had a chance to see his idol Muddy Waters perform. He asked Muddy for the name of someone who could help him cut his first record and was directed to producer Leonard Chess. Chuck auditioned for Chess and brought some sample recordings of his songs to the interview. To his surprise, it was the hillbilly-style pieces that interested the producer most. Chess�s record label was almost exclusively devoted to rhythm-and-blues artists and he had seen sales begin to shrink. He thought that the songs he was hearing from Chuck Berry might give his studio new life.
 
Chuck signed with Chess Records and immediately recorded one of his hillbilly tunes called �Ida May.� The name was changed to Maybellene and it featured Chuck�s old pal Johnny Johnson on the keyboard, Jerome Green of Bo Diddley�s band on maracas, Jasper Thomas on drums, and renowned bass player Willie Dixon. It reached #5 on the Pop Billboard charts and #1 on the R&B lists by the summer of 1955. Much of the reason for its popularity was the blazing speed of the guitar solo in the interlude of the song, as well as the thumping rhythms and clever lyrics. Elvis Presley added it to his stage show a whole year before he became nationally known. Chuck Berry was on his way to becoming a star and Chess Records was moving into the mainstream.
 
Chuck�s early career was helped immeasurably by a New York DJ called Alan Freed. He not only gave his records lots of air time, he also included Berry in the live Rock and Roll shows that he sponsored at the Paramount and Brooklyn Fox Theaters in New York, which attracted mainly white audiences. In a little over a year, Chuck Berry went from a guitar guy in a local club in St. Louis who would earn about $15 a night, to a nationally known performer making many times as much money.
 
Between 1956 and 1959, Chuck and his dark red Gibson ES-355 churned out several hits including Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, and the unforgettable Johnny B Goode. Berry befriended a young Buddy Holly and entered a competitive rivalry with Jerry Lee Lewis. He toured almost non-stop and despite the fact that he was in his 30�s and black, seemed to have an uncanny knack for connecting with white teenagers. At his concerts he developed the famous �duckwalk� during which he bounced across the stage on one foot while aiming his guitar straight ahead like a dog on point. The move never failed to bring screams from the girls in the audience.
 
In 1959, Berry tangled with legal authorities once more when he brought a girl home to St. Louis with him from Texas to be a hat check girl at his club. They later had a disagreement, he fired her, and she went to the police saying she was 14 and had been working as a prostitute. After two trials, and seemingly unending legal wrangling, Chuck was sent to prison for �transporting a female across state lines for immoral purposes.�
 
After two years of incarceration, Berry returned to the stage, but his era had largely passed. He had made his mark though, as evidenced by the fact that lots of kids around the world, including a couple of Brits named Mick Jagger and John Lennon, had been listening to his music and learning from it while Chuck himself was out of the spotlight. He did produce a few songs that made it to the top 100 during the sixties including No Particular Place to Go, but it wasn�t until 1972 that he had his first #1 hit�the novelty tune My Ding-a-Ling.
 
As the years pass they only reconfirm that Chuck Berry�s creativity and uniqueness have influenced rock and roll and guitar players like no one else. As John Lennon is quoted as saying, �If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you could call it Chuck Berry.�

     

Eddie Van Halen
Joe Satriani
Eric Johnson
Steve Vai
Paul Gilbert
Jimmy Page
Randy Rhoads
Kurt Cobain
Kirk Hammett
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Yngwie Malmsteen
Slash
Robert Johnson
Pete Townsend
Jerry Garcia
Bo Diddley
Jeff Beck
Duane Allman
Jimmy Hendrix
BB King
John Frusciante
Joe Perry
George Harrison
Santana
Chuck Berry
Eric Clapton
Dimebag Darrell
 
 
 
 
Home   Guitar Lesson Reviews   Rock God Reviews   Shred Licks   Sweep Licks   Legato Licks   Contact Dave   $$$Got Licks$$$