Let It Rock!!! The Music of Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

“Chuck Berry is the king of rock and roll. My mama even said that. Why mama, what about me? Son, you’re good, but you’re no Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is the Hank Williams of rock and roll.” Jerry Lee Lewis on a conversation he had with his mother.

“No one does it better than Chuck Berry”, Bruce Springsteen introducing Berry’s Sweet Sixteen during concert 8/21/78.

By Ryan Hilligoss, October 2013. In celebration of Chuck Berry’s 87th birthday

In 1973, a twenty-four year old budding musician from New Jersey and his band were booked by their manager to play on a triple bill with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. When told the promoter would hire a local band to back up Berry for the live show, the musician told his manager to let them know they would back him up instead since Chuck Berry was one of their musical heroes. That young musician was none other than Bruce Springsteen who along with his E Street Band, backed up Chuck Berry at a concert held at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House on April 28, 1973.

Newspaper ad for concert on 4-28-73 featuring Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen

Newspaper ad for concert on 4-28-73 featuring Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen

In 1986, a documentary entitled Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll, was released which featured a live performance of Berry performing at the historic Fox Theater in St.Louis and included a legendary musical lineup including Keith Richards as guitarist and musical director, supremely talented Steve Jordan on drums, Johnnie Johnson(Berry’s longtime pianist and musical partner) on piano once more, and guests Etta James, Julian Lennon, Eric Clapton and Linda Ronstadt among others. The performance filmed that night was held at The Fox Theater in St.Louis. The choice of venue was a very deliberate choice on Berry’s part and had great personal and racial significance. When Chuck was a child growing up in a segregated St.Louis, Berry’s father attempted to take his children to see the movie, A Tale of Two Cities at that very same theater and was told by the white ticket operator, “Come on now, you know we don’t sell tickets to your kind. Go on now.” 40 years later, here he was as a legendary, iconic, founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and playing a concert in front of an almost entirely white audience who were all going nuts for him during the performance.

Berry’s book, entitled simply Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, has a foreword written by Springsteen who also appeared in two separate segments of the documentary. Chuck Berry introduces Bruce’s foreword with, “Now here’s a guy who speaks what God loves, which is the truth. How he got it down so straight I’ll never know, but it’s like I had written it.”Within the documentary are several interviews with other musical artists and fans of Berry, including Springsteen who relays the events of the night in 1973 in fine detail.

One part of the story left out of Bruce’s version is that at least on that night, the E Street Band included Southside Johnny(John Lyon), who at the beginning of the show, played the harmonica standing over on the side of the stage. According to brucebase, Berry was so impressed that he pulled Johnny over to center stage and told the crowd, “That white boy can blow can’t he?”

As bad as some of that appears from Springsteen’s version ie no idea on what songs he would play, keys, in fact, things may have been even worse. According to Craig Statham’s Springsteen: Saint In The City, there was more to the story. When Berry came into the band room before the show and Bruce asked what songs they were going to play, Berry simply replied, “Chuck Berry songs boys, what did you think?” According to Statham, “When the time came to play the first songs, the band was nearly quaking in their boots and things would only get worse when Berry called the first song in B flat. He then proceeded to castigate Garry Tallent and Viny Lopez for playing too fancifully, and Springsteen for playing his lead on his acoustic guitar, turning down the volume on his amp and telling him, ‘Only Chuck Berry plays Chuck Berry licks.’

If you would like to hear a close approximation of what Bruce and the band and Chuck Berry sounded like that night in 1973, with Berry just launching into the song with no introduction and no warning to the band and then the band racing to figure out the song and proper key, below is audio from a performance of Rock and Roll Music from September 2, 1995. You can hear Berry struggling at first through the song but then picking it up as the band kicks in with the ‘Chuck Berry sound’. Even though Chuck forgets some of the words and vamps his way through it, ‘it still has a back beat that you can’t lose it, any old way you chose it.’

Chuck Berry with Clarence Clemons in background, from 4-28-73 concert, University of Maryland

Chuck Berry with Clarence Clemons in background, from 4-28-73 concert, University of Maryland, image from brucebase

A third source on the story comes from musician and pianist Daryl Davis through the blog Go Ahead On! in which Davis relays his first hand account of that night as he was standing on the side of the stage that night as an observer after sneaking his way into the show, “He walked toward where I was standing a few feet from the band. As he passed me, I didn’t say a word, I just watched him. He laid the guitar case down on an amp crate and opened it up. The bandleader approached him with the rest of the band and said something to the effect of, “I’m Bruce Springsteen and my band is your backup band. We’re really looking forward to playing with you.” At the time, few people outside of Asbury Park, NJ knew who Bruce Springsteen was. Chuck shook hands and Bruce went on to tell him that they had been going over some of his repertoire earlier and asked what songs he might want to play that evening. Without pausing or missing a beat, Chuck said, “I think I’ll play some Chuck Berry songs,” and walked on stage and plugged in his guitar. It was a great concert. When he came off stage, he packed up his guitar but had forgotten the cord. The audience was screaming for an encore. Chuck walked back onto the stage and the crowd thinking he was going to play another song cheered even louder. He pulled the cord out of the amp waved to the crowd and duckwalked off the stage. He walked right by me again and again, I didn’t say a word. I was just in awe. He went out the door and got in the rental car and drove himself to wherever he was going.”

According to brucebase, Springsteen and the E Street Band’s opening 50 minute set that night included Spirit in the Night, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, Blinded by the Light and Thundercrack. Berry’s set lasted for 70 minutes and included some of those ‘Chuck Berry songs’  including Maybellene, Rock and Roll Music, School Days,  Roll over Beethoven, Nadine, No Particular Place To Go, Sweet Little Sixteen, My Ding A Ling, Reelin’ and Rockin‘, and Johnny B. Goode.

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen playing their guitars like they're ringing a bell. Sound check September 1995

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen playing their guitars like they’re ringing a bell. Sound check September 1995

In 1995, Bruce Springsteen was asked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to have a significant role during their museum dedication celebration held at Cleveland Brown Stadium. Springsteen reformed the E Street Band which had been disbanded in 1989, for a short time, and once again they were the backing band for Chuck Berry as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.

There stood a ‘colored’ boy named Johnny B Goode

The recordings Chuck Berry did at Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, mainly with  the backing of Johnny Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums, have inspired countless musicians the world over including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and of course, Bruce Springsteen. Berry’s influence on Springsteen has been evident throughout Springsteen’s career including lyrics, guitar rhythms and stylings, similar song titles, and  Berry references in his live performances including the classic Growin Up’ outro  ‘And it was bye-bye New Jersey, we were airborne.’ During a 1972 interview with rock journalist Paul Nelson, Springsteen was asked what inspires him musically, “Eddie Floyd’s arrangement of Raise Your Hand, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, and Chuck Berry. I saw him the other night at a show. He was to the 50s what Dylan was to the 60s. He just laid it down so much…just incredible.”

In 1975, after 18 grueling months of recording the Born To Run album, Springsteen was very ambivalent about the music and releasing the album. He even threatened to scrap the whole project and just release a live album of material recorded at the Bottom Line. According to Dave Marsh,  a very concerned Jon Landau talked to Springsteen and said, “Look,” he told him, “You’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybellene’? And when he does hear it, don’t you think the wishes a few things could be changed? Now come on, it’s time to put the record out.’ It was an argument Springsteen could understand, and he accepted it. So it was over. The monster was tamed at last.” The key to that paragraph is “it was an argument Springsteen could understand.” Landau knew how deep Springsteen’s love and admiration of Chuck Berry’s music ran, and by using Berry’s name and song, he was putting the argument in terms near and dear to the young artist’s heart. And we as the audience are all the better for that discussion.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri and lived in a segregated, middle-class neighborhood called the Ville. Berry learned a love for music at an early age from his parents who sang at home and at church. Berry started playing the guitar in his early teens and was greatly influenced by the pop music vocal styling of Nat King Cole, the blues of Muddy Waters and T Bone Walker, the swing of Tommy Dorsey, the jazz of Louis Jordan and the country and western of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. After Chuck Berry joined a trio at a small club in St.Louis which included boogie woogie pianist Johnnie Johnson, Berry combined all the various styles of music he enjoyed into a new sound which became one of the cornerstones of rock and roll music. Berry developed his signature guitar sound using all of his influences, forming a new distinctive sound including his trademark double string licks.

In Hail! Hail!, Keith Richards explained the Chuck Berry sound’s relation to Johnnie Johnson’s piano, “Chuck adapted his guitar riffs and keys from Johnnie Johnson’s piano keys, not Johnnie playing around Chuck’s keys. Guitar keys are played in A, E, D using open strings, and if you listen to the music, it uses piano keys, jazz keys, horn keys, Johnnie  Johnson keys. Chuck adapted his guitar around Johnnie’s sound and put those great lyrics behind them.”

According to Berry himself, he derived his sound from blending together all of his influences up to that point and making it his own. “So the guitar styles of Carl Hogen, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I’ve heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry’s style. So far as the Chuck Berry  guitar intro that identifies many of my songs, it is only back to the future of what came in the past. As you know and as I believe it must be true, there is nothing new under the sun. So don’t blame me for being first , just let it last. The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple. Call it what you may: jive, jazz, jump, swing, soul, rhythm, rock or even punk, it’s still boogie as far as I am connected with it.”

That guitar sound and Berry like storytelling can easily be heard in Springsteen’s From Small Things(Big Things One Day Come) recorded in 1979.

Bye Bye Johnny/Johnny Bye Bye

In Dave Marsh’s excellent, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he places Johnny B. Goode second best of all time, only behind Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and he writes,“Buried deep in the collective unconscious of rock and roll, there’s a simple figure drawn from real life: One man, one guitar, singing the blues. But he’s not any man. He’s black, Southern, poor and (this is the part that’s easiest to miss) dreaming. In many ways, his story is terrible and terrifying. We’re speaking after all of someone like Robert Johnson, by all evidence as sensitive and perceptive as, say, F.Scottt Fitzgerald, but rather than pursuing lissome Zeldas through Alabama mansions, he’s enduring the pitiless reality of sharecropping, segregation, the threat of lynching, and all but inescapable twentieth century serfdom in Mississippi.”

“Chuck Berry’s genius lay in his ability to shape those gruesome facts into a story about joy and freedom. Not that he didn’t have to make concessions to the reality he was subverting. He says in his autobiography that he wanted to sing, “There lived a colored boy named Johnny B Goode,” rather than the “country boy” we now have, but, “I thought it would seem biased to the white fans.” Especially no doubt those white listeners who programmed the radio stations that would determine whether the record became a hit or was not heard at all.”

“Already a star, Chuck Berry was on intimate terms with the pop game and the limits it imposed on famous men with black skin. Standing at the edge of the rules, Berry shot himself right past one crucial dilemma of American culture into the center of another. By changing “colored” to country, he found that, instead of speaking for himself alone, he’d created a  character who also symbolized the likes of Elvis Presley, another kid whose mama promised that “someday your name will be in lights.” Horrible as the source of the compromise may have been, its effect was to treble the song’s force. For ultimately, if you could identify with either Berry or Presley, there was a chance you could identify with both. The result is history- and not just pop music history.” DM

The correlation between Presley and Berry is an important one given their placement in the firmament of rock and roll and its’ development. Both artists combined all of their influences into a new sound, both equally great, but equally different and containing slightly divergent genres. Throughout his career, Elvis Presley loved to play the music of Chuck Berry, both on stage and in the studio. I recently stumbled across a release of live audio taken from Presley’s performances during his brief but important tenure on the Louisiana Hayride radio program from 1955-1956 which contains several versions of Presley playing Berry’s first hit, Maybellene. In the 1960s, amidst the dearth of movie music, Presley recorded great versions of Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and Too Much Monkey Business. In later years, Johnny B. Goode was a Presley concert staple and in 1973, Presley recorded Berry’s Promised Land, as Presley may have seen a lot of his own life story in the lyrics of a poor southern boy who makes good and sees his name in neon lights. Berry wrote the sequel of Johnny B. Goode, entitled Bye Bye Johnny in which a tearful mother “pulls her money from the southern trust and put her little boy on the Greyhound bus to make motion pictures out in Hollywood.”

Unwittingly, Berry had written the lyrics that Presley had lived out in his own life with this: “She remembered taking money out from gathering crop/And buying Johnny’s guitar at the broker shop/As long as he would play it by the railroad side/And wouldn’t get in trouble, he was satisfied.” Given the level of Presley’s poverty, not many people would know at that time, but those four lines sum up the first 20 years of Presley’s life. Gladys had indeed worked in the cotton fields around Tupelo, Mississippi while pulling a very young Elvis down the rows on her cotton sack. She then used the little money the family had saved to help Presley buy his first guitar on his 11th birthday. And, the Presleys lived along the railroad tracks in the Shakerag neighborhood of East Tupelo, the poor side of the tracks amongst the African-American section of the town.

After Presley died in 1977, Springsteen, a devoted fan of both artists, chose to write his elegy for Presley and reversed Berry’s title and borrowed the first two lines of Berry’s song to open his farewell. For this, Berry is given co-writing credits on the studio release.You can also hear the basic Chuck Berry guitar rhythm which accompanies the lyrics.  Below are Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny and Springsteen’s Johnny Bye Bye.

 

No Money Down/Cadillac Ranch

While learning his musical craft playing in clubs at night, Chuck Berry had many jobs including carpentry, which he learned from his father, a beautician, and he also worked on the assembly line at the local General Motors plant producing,……you guessed it, Cadillacs, the trademark vehicle in so many of his classic songs. In his lyrics, many of Berry’s characters obtained freedom by either buying a car, cruising the highways, or getting friendly with their loved ones in a Cadillac. To Berry, in his own life and in those early songs, the Cadillac represented elegance, grace, social currency, and freedom: personal, racial, and, sexual. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes, “Cars were dear to me and provided luxuries far greater than any others. It wasn’t so much travelling that motivated me to better cars, it was the quality of settling down I anticipated. With the restrictions we had at home, it was imperative to have a place to base for face-to-face. In your car, you could enjoy any sort of spectacular performance without the likelihood of a heckler or someone crossing the stage during the climax of your show.” Berry’s use of the cars for escaping seem to have rubbed on Springsteen who often times used cars as central characters in many of his early songs including Born To Run, Thunder Road and Racing In the Street. During The River tour, Springsteen often used a small portion of Berry’s No Money Down as an introduction to Cadillac Ranch, purposefully demonstrating the influence of Chuck Berry on  his own work.

Down Bound Train

In 1955,one of Berry’s early recordings at Chess Records was entitled Down Bound Train which had an overall eerie, ethereal atmosphere and contains imagery of a train loaded with life’s losers, those who’ve squandered their lives, and are travelling on a ghost train bound for hell. In Berry’s song, there is a dream sequence embedded in the lyrics in which a drunk falls down on a barroom floor, has nightmares of going to hell but then awakens to a new life after praying for forgiveness. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes on the writing of the song, “It surely was cultivated from my background of religious teachings. It took little to bring the thoughts of a sinner worrying over his destiny and coordinate the circumstance in a dramatic display of contrast to the average person’s life-style. I could say my father, in many ways, really wrote the foundation for Down Bound Train in his constant preaching of the horrors of hell once you’ve missed the blessings of salvation and heaven.”

Springsteen probably would’ve first encountered Berry’s version on Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade, Vol. 3 and the connection seems clear. In Springsteen’s version, which also has a dark, ghostly foreboding background and a dream sequence, his down bound train is reserved not so much for those whose life choices have them hell bound, but those for whom life’s circumstances are hell-like already and whose struggles already feel hopeless. Listen for yourself and see what you think.

Let It Rock/The Big Payback

Chuck Berry’s influence on the work of Bruce Springsteen appears to have reached its zenith during the period between Darkness On The Edge of Town and Nebraska. Berry’s songs were cover staples during live concerts of that period, many songs such as You Can Look But You Better Not Touch have that distinct Chuck Berry drive and guitar rhythm, and song titles such as I’m A Rocker appear to be Berry inspirations. On another interesting connection between Springsteen, Berry and the Nebraska album, according to my friend Shawn Poole, in a 1986 interview with Backstreets magazine, Nebraska album cover designer Andrea Klein revealed that the album Two Great Guitars, by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, was a key reference for the look that Bruce wanted for the Nebraska cover’s design and lettering. The Nebraska cover photo selected by Klein and Springsteen was taken by photographer David Michael Kennedy during the mid-1970s. It shares the Berry/Diddley album-cover’s perspective of a view from behind the windshield of a car.

Bo Didley/Chuck Berry Two Great Guitars album cover

Bo Didley/Chuck Berry Two Great Guitars album cover

You Can’t Catch Me/Open All Night/State Trooper

Another artist Chuck Berry inspired was John Lennon who once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. In the 1950s, a whole generation worshipped his music and when you see him today, past and present all come together, and the message is Hail! Hail! rock and roll! Right on!” Some of the Beatles first albums included cover versions of Berry classic like Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. In one of the few instances where Lennon quoted another writer into his own song, The Beatles Come Together features the classic opening  line “Here come old flat top/He come grooving up slowly” which is a reference to Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. That “flat top” Berry refers to is a state highway trooper driving up the New Jersey turnpike in the rain, in the wee wee hours to pull over his brand new Cadillac Coup DeVille. Springsteen’s State Trooper is that very same patrolman who the driver pleads with, please don’t stop me because I got to get back to see my baby. In Open All Night, Springsteen’s driver, driving through the “wee wee hours when his mind gets hazy” calls out for help, “Hey Mr. Deejay, wontcha’ listen to my last prayer, hey ho rock and roll deliver me from nowhere.” In this, I hear distinct echoes of Berry’s deejay from Roll Over Beethoven when he writes “I’m gonna write a letter and mail it my local deejay/An’ it’s a jumping little record I want my jockey to play.” Neither highway driver wants to hear classical music or talk shows, they want some hard-driving rock and roll to propel them through the night.

As an interesting side note, it was recently reported that the space probe Voyager 1, first launched in 1977 and meant to try to communicate with other life forms out in deep space, has left our solar system for interstellar space. The Voyager probe was given a “Golden Record,” a phonograph of words and images meant to tell aliens of existence here on earth, should the probes be found. Classical music melds with sounds of nature and a series of hellos in various languages on the disc. Also, included in the music selections? “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. So right now, there is a space probe drifting through the dark recesses of space, and Berry’s classic song maybe bouncing off a very distant satellite and broadcasting to Radio Nowhere.

Nadine/Pink Cadillac

Chuck Berry was the original rock and roll troubadour, one of the few early rockers to write his own lyrics and songs. On Berry’s writing style and genius, John Lennon stated, “I don’t think there’s any one band in the world, white or black, that wasn’t turned on by Chuck Berry. Not one of us, The Beatles, The Stones, you name any of them and they’ve all been inspired by him. His lyrics were very intelligent lyrics in the 50s when most people were singing about virtually nothing. He was writing social commentary songs. He was writing all kinds of songs with incredible metre to the lyrics which influenced me and Dylan and many others. The meter of his lyrics was tremendous. He’s the greatest rock and roll poet and I really admire him.”

After being asked how Chuck Berry’s work affected him, Springsteen said, “Like most musicians of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry through the Rolling Stones. I think I learned my first Chuck Berry lead from Keith Richards and that first Rolling Stones record where they had Carol and a few other Chuck Berry songs, and from them I went back and got his records. I guess the funny thing is his influence on my own writing came later on when I wanted to write the way I thought people really talked because that’s how I felt like he writes. If you listen to one of his songs, it sounds like someone is coming in, sitting down in a chair and telling you a story about their aunt or their brother or some girl…the descriptiveness…and his eye for detail. Like on Nadine, ‘I saw her on the corner and she turned and doubled back/started walkin’ towards a coffee-colored Cadillac.’ It was like, I’ve never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac, but now I know exactly what one looks like!!” Given Berry’s propensity to use sexual innuendo in his lyrics which I will get further into later, I can’t help but think Berry could have been using the term coffee-colored Cadillac to refer to a certain part of his anatomy. And on the other side, Springsteen is echoing that with his own “pink Cadillac”, especially given the open sexual references in his own song. Hey, that’s the beauty of art, it’s open to our individual interpretation. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I’m A Rocker/I’m Going Down

When Chuck Berry first began writing songs in the 50s, he often used subversive, coded lyrics to express himself regarding race, sex and politics. In the excellent book, Deliberate Speed, by WT Lhamon, the author makes a convincing argument that The Promised Land, written while Berry was serving a prison sentence for violating the racist Mann Act, Berry is writing about the Civil Rights Movement by using places like Rockhill, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama, of being 90 miles outside of Atlanta by sundown and getting through Mississippi clean. When you hear lyrics like “Can you imagine the way I felt, I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt” and, “She says she don’t, but I know she do” from No Particular Place To Go and Little Queenie, you might get the idea that there is some sexual tension boiling under the surface. Many of Berry’s songs had sexually charged titles such as Too Pooped To Pop, It Don’t Take But a Few Minutes, Let Me Sleep Woman and I Want To Be Your Driver. Berry has admitted that the phrase “drop the coin right into the slot” from School Days was as close as he could get to openly talking about sex at the time. Berry’s version of the old standard South of the Border has his character shoot a travelling salesman for playing with his wife south of her border between his Rio Grande and his Santa Fe. In 1970, Berry released his song, I’m A Rocker which contains the line, “I’m a rocker/I’m A Roller/ Sometimes I Go Down/But then I come back up and roll her.” While possibly not a direct relation to Springsteen’s I’m A Rocker from The River, given all the other Berry influences, I can’t help seeing a connection between Berry’s I’m A Rocker and Springsteen’s  I’m Going Down. During a concert in 2008, Springsteen said of his version, “This is a song that almost didn’t make the Born In The USA record. It was either this or Pink Cadillac. We’ve played it a few times. It’s good for a laugh and probably one of my most insightful songs about men and women.” Below is a link to the audio from Berry’s I’m A Rocker from his 1970 album Back Home and Springsteen’s I’m Going Down.

 Hail! Hail Rock and Roll, Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry

As most fans of Springsteen have heard or read over the years, then rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote of seeing Springsteen live in concert in 1974, “…. tonight there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock’n’roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” My own interpretation of that statement is that Landau didn’t believe Springsteen’s music was simply a retro soul, rock and roll sound but that he was taking his musical influences, ie Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector’s sounds, The Crystals and Shirelles, Dylan, and forming his own distinct sound and art. Springsteen didn’t reinvent rock and roll, but he did make his own stamp and develop his own signature style just as his hero Chuck Berry did back in the 1950s by blending jazz, swing, blues and country and western into his own. Just as you can listen to any Chuck Berry song and say, that’s the “Chuck Berry” sound, you can listen to a Bruce Springsteen song and say, ‘now that’s the ‘Bruce Springsteen sound’.

On August 21, 1978, Springsteen and the E Street Band played in New York at Madison Square Garden. On that night, as on many shows on the same Darkness tour, Springsteen played several retro selections like Summertime Blues, Heartbreak Hotel, Not Fade Away/ Mona/She’s The One and Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. To gain a full understanding of how Springsteen developed his own sound, you can listen to that night’s version of his classic, Growin’ Up. His composition has echoes of many of his influences, but none more so than Berry. In the middle of his ‘teenage werewolf shaggy dog story’ during the middle of the song, he tells a story of being chased out of Asbury Park by the police and driving down the New Jersey turnpike and quotes lyrics from Maybellene before doing his standard outro of that time, “And it was bye bye New Jersey, we were airborne.” Just as Springsteen was growing up as a person, he was also growing up in his musical artistry as, literally and figuratively, he said good bye to his home, both geographically and musically. Darkness was the album where he began to expand his songs, lyrics, stories and characters beyond the boardwalk into a more meaningful, national and even international spectrum. Listen below.

Chuck Berry is still out on the road performing his music for the fans, 60 years after he began. Earlier this year, Berry played concerts in the South American countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. This month, he will again travel overseas and play shows in Russia, Italy, Finland and Norway. But then he’ll be back in the USA after touching down on an international runway. Unless he is out of the country, Berry plays every second Wednesday of the month at a wonderful, small restaurant and performance venue called Blueberry Hill, set in the heart of a funky neighborhood called University City in St.Louis. Currently, he is scheduled to play November 13 and December 11, so if you are in the area or want to see a true living legend in action, go to blueberryhill.com for more information.

Even though Chuck Berry turns 87 years old this week, he is still out playing the rock and roll songs that inspired thousands of artists around the world including a young Bruce Springsteen. It’s good to know that the heart of rock and roll is still beating and it’s got a back beat you can’t lose it, any old time you use it, and it’s got to be rock and roll music if you want to dance with me. I think I know what John Lennon was onto when he suggested if you need to come up with another name for rock and roll you could call it Chuck Berry because when you a hear a Chuck Berry song with that back beat and driving guitar rhythm, it gets into your body and makes you feel good, and makes you want to get up and dance in the aisles, and it makes you feel like it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. Happy birthday, Chuck, and thanks for the all the artistry, music and joy you have brought to all of us. I hope you have many more years, you beautiful, hard rockin’, guitar playin’, Cadillac drivin’, song writin’, highway cruisin’, booty shakin’, motorvatin’, space travelin’, musician inspirin’,  duck walkin’, legendary, hard-core, rock and roll genius. Hail Hail!!! Rock and roll. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry!!!!

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen perform Johnny B Goode, September 2, 1995, Cleveland, Ohio

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen perform Johnny B Goode, September 2, 1995, Cleveland, Ohio

Top Bruce Springsteen covers of Chuck Berry

#3 Little Queenie(Are You Loose? Bomb Scare version), 10/02/75, Uptown Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

#2 Sweet Little Sixteen, Largo, Maryland 1978

#1 Back In The USA, Main Point, Bryn Mawr, Pa 2/2/75

Sources, notes, odds and ends, brushes with greatness

Chuck playing ByeBye Johnny and Johnny Be Goode 1972

Chuck Berry on race and music

“Over half the songs I was singing at the Cosmo Club were directly from the recordings of Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. They are the major chords in the staff of music I have composed. Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction. The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down home blues in the language they came from, Negro dialect. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.” P. 90-91 autobiography.

“It seems to me that the white teenagers of the forties and fifties helped launch black artists nationally into the main line of popular music. Some of these songs caused parents and radio authorities to declare they were unsuitable listening and initiate record-breaking sessions on their programs. But still, the doctors, lawyers, and police chiefs of today, who then were teens, bent an ear to a totally different music and decided to delight in what was destined to become known as rock and roll.” P. 95 autobiography

Memphis, Tennessee: According to Craig Statham, in a monologue from a performance at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Ma 1/6/74, Springsteen talked of his early love of Chuck Berry’s music. His mother famously gave him his first electric guitar in 1964, a barely tunable $69 sunburst Kent complete with a two-input ZoCo amplifier. Bruce and his friends loaded their guitars through the input jacks and started blasting out Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”, blowing up the amplifier within a few days.

Joe Perry on Berry’s writing genius: “As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what’s going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.”

8.21.78 NY MSG show: Springsteen plays Sweet Little Sixteen, and on Growin’ Up, quotes lyrics from Maybellene in the middle of his rap and then ends with the standard “it was bye bye new jersey we were airborne” which is a reference from Berry’s You Can’t Me. During Rosalita, he adds lyrics in the middle of the song with “I’m almost grown/I got my picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone” which is referencing the then current issue of RS which featured Dave Marsh’s essay.

Steve Jordan, drummer during  Hail! Hail! and sometime Springsteen session drummer, explains how Chuck’s guitar progression, Johnson’s piano chords and the drum beat is definition of R&R: “Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson, that’s the real push and pull of the sound. Rock and roll is all based on straight eigth notes against dotted quarters and dotted eigths. So the swing thing was perfectly illustrated with Earl Palmer and Little Richard. Rock is the straight eights and the roll is dotted eigths. And that’s what Chuck and Johnny had.”

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Robert Lee Hilligoss doing his best duckwalk along with Johnny B Goode, University City, St.Louis, Mo

Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he's ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he’s ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

10 thoughts on “Let It Rock!!! The Music of Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Chuck Berry! (Video) | Lee Hernly - Family.Life.Mac.Music.Sports.Tech

  2. Pingback: Chuck Berry – “Almost Grown” – (1959) | mostly music

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