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‘Bye Bye Johnny’ – Chuck Berry checks out at 90

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This Feb. 26, 2012 file photo, musician Chuck Berry plays "Johnny B. Goode" at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Berry will be honored this fall by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its American Music Masters series. This Feb. 26, 2012 file photo, musician Chuck Berry plays "Johnny B. Goode" at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Berry will be honored this fall by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of its American Music Masters series. (AP File Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Last October, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Chuck Berry’s social media accounts released an image of the man, based on a 1969 photograph by Jim Marshall, announcing his first newly-recorded album in nearly four decades. I had hoped Chuck would still be with us when the album was eventually released this year, but it wasn’t meant to be. 

Rock’s true pioneer has left us. 

This one hurts. Even though we knew it was coming eventually. I can’t bring myself to read any of the articles related to Chuck’s passing which were circulating in the minutes and hours following the announcement. I assume that the bulk of those stories cite his many career highlights, accomplishments and controversies; they’ve probably been sitting on a hard-drive for months or years, just waiting to be pulled by an editor, updated with dates and slapped onto a website.

There is no need to read any of those accounts when we can find the real story of Chuck Berry in the songs that he left us.

Musicologists will probably never stop debating the topic of authorship regarding Berry’s songs. The elegantly-crafted lyrics are pure poetry and were clearly written by Chuck. But did he also write all of the music, as the songwriting credits on his records indicate?

In the revealing 1987 Taylor Hackford documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Rolling Stone Keith Richards, in a laudable move which served as part tribute and part penance, put together what might have been Berry’s best-ever band for a guest-filled 60th birthday concert filmed in Chuck’s hometown of St. Louis. The film allows us to see the real Chuck Berry, his fiery temperament never far from the lens.

Challenging Berry’s longtime anti-rehearsal ethos, Richards put the legend through his paces, the two nearly coming to blows in front of the cameras.

“He’s the only guy who ever hit me that I never got back,” Richards says later on camera, referring to an earlier incident when Berry clocked the Rolling Stone for touching his guitar.

The brilliant pianist on Chuck Berry’s classic 50s and 60s Chess recordings was a jazz and blues player named Johnnie Johnson. Noting that Chuck’s guitar-based songs were written mostly in piano keys, Richards surmised that Johnson’s contribution to the music was much more significant than Chuck ever admitted. Richards found Johnson driving a bus in St. Louis and convinced him to play in Chuck’s band again, a move which brought much deserved recognition for Johnson, who returned from obscurity and was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his own right. 

In all likelihood, Berry and Johnson collaborated on most of those legendary Chess recordings, including “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Reelin’ & Rockin,’” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Carol,” “Memphis,” “Back In The USA,” “Nadine,” “Let it Rock,” “Come On,” “Nadine,” “No Particular Place To Go” and a couple of dozen other landmark songs which served as a Rosetta Stone for all who dared follow. 

Every guitarist who attempts to play rock and roll is inspired by Chuck Berry - even if they don’t realize it. Those lines and riffs (many of them inspired by Johnny Johnson piano licks adapted for guitar) are the foundation on which the school of rock was built.

Certain that musicians everywhere were versed in his songs, Berry traveled without a band, insisting that promoters pay him in cash before each show AND find him a different pick-up backing band at every stop.

Sometimes, he played the songs straight, but when he was ornery (which was often) he would call out a song-key to the band only to perversely and purposefully play the song in an altogether different key, just to see how long it would take the other musicians to catch on. It was part of Chuck’s complicated charm that only added to his mystique. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.

There will never be another individual in popular music as influential as Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry was, and will always be, rock and roll music. John Lennon said it best in 1972. “If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” 


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