By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, June 14, 2017
My friend Shawn Poole and I today celebrate the music and legacy of Chuck Berry. While Chuck passed away last March at the ripe old age of 91, his legacy will be everlasting. To help prove it, his first album in 38 years, simply entitled Chuck was just released on Dualtone Records last week. Containing 10 new tracks, 8 originals and 2 cover songs, it reflects Chuck’s continuing artistic powers up to the very end. Bob Dylan once referred to Chuck Berry and his lyrics as being the Shakespeare of rock and roll, and this album contains plenty more great lyrics just like the rest of his classics.
We are celebrating this new Chuck Berry album, as well as Chuck’s enduring influence on Bruce Springsteen and all of rock and roll music. So let’s start this off with “Big Boys,” the first single released from the album, featuring Chuck on vocals and guitar along with backing vocals from powerhouse Nathaniel Rateliff, of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats, one of our favorite new bands, and backing guitar from key Springsteen collaborator and part-time E Street Band member Tom Morello. Morello takes the final and extended guitar solo on this recording and while remaining true to Chuck’s signature guitar sound, pushes it well into the 21st century where Chuck’s music firmly belongs for new generations of fans to listen to and enjoy. The video below is the first official Chuck Berry video and clearly recalls the movie Back To The Future and the scene at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance wherein a young Michael J Fox as Marty McFly rips into Johnny B Goode at the school dance while band leader Marvin Berry phones his cousin Chuck to have him listen to the music of the future.
Go….Go…. Go…. Little Queenie!!!!
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.
When Chuck Berry died last March, Springsteen issued an internet statement that sums up what Chuck Berry meant, both to him personally and to music in general. Here’s what Bruce wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.” Springsteen has played Berry covers hundreds of times in concert over his career, possibly the most infamous being the “bomb scare” version of Little Queenie played on October 2, 1975 at the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee. A threat had been called into the theater and the band was sent back to the Hotel PFFFFFister where they enjoyed some spirits and then came back and performed the show including a…lively and “spirited” version of the Berry classic. Here are two cover versions from more recent years. First up is Bruce and the E Street Band performing Chuck Berry’s classic “Little Queenie” live in concert in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri back in August 2008. Incidentally one of the best concerts Ryan has ever attended and one that was just recently released via Nugs as an official release. Second is a great 2013 version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” featuring the E Street Horns, live in Leipzig, Germany, complete with on the fly arrangement and key selections, a master class demonstration to all musicians on the beauty of watching seasoned, incredible musicians improvising and creating magic out of thin air.
Stranded Way Out On The Kokomo- No Particular Place to Go
If you go the Backstreets.com NEWS page and click on the “News Archive” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives, you’ll see our appropriately extensive coverage on the death and enduring impact of Chuck Berry: four separate reports in all, and I’m honored to have written three of them. The last one I wrote came about courtesy of Born To Run cover photographer Eric Meola, who was smart and kind enough to point out to us what probably is the earliest known Chuck Berry lyrical reference in a Bruce Springsteen song. Some of the characters in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” park at a place called The Kokomo, which also gets mentioned in Berry’s classic song “No Particular Place To Go.” You can read all of the interesting details online, but another Springsteen reference to The Kokomo popped up again years later in the song “Light of Day,” which certainly sounds a lot more like a Chuck Berry song than “Sandy” does. So here back to back are Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and Bruce’s “Light of Day,” performed back in 2001 with the great Joan Jett, another guitar-slinger heavily inspired by Chuck Berry. Take it away, Chuck!
Mister I Ain’t A Boy, No I’m A Man and I Believe In The Promised Land
Regarding the fact that both Chuck and Bruce wrote about the Promised Land, I’ll just advise you to go to the Backstreets.com NEWS page, click on the “News Archives” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives and check out Shawn’s essay entitled “Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen: Seeing The Promised Land from Different Sides of the Divide.” There’s a lot of interesting information there about the layers of meaning and the connections between Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.”
Cadillac, Cadillac Long and Dark, Shiny and Black
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.
Last year during an interview Springsteen did with Apple after his autobiography Born To Run was released, the interviewer seemed perplexed about Springsteen’s propensity to write about cars despite the fact he himself didn’t obtain a driver’s license until well into his 20’s. Springsteen’s final summation was perfect, “Look, Chuck Berry wasn’t in high school when he wrote all those great songs, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, and I didn’t drive cars Ok?”
Berry’s newest album, his first in 38 years is full of surprises and shows that he was still writing and recording quality songs as he aged. Recorded mostly at his personal studio at Berry Park in Wentzville, Mo along with a live recording at Blueberry Hill, the St.Louis institution where he played over 200 shows, mostly on Wednesday nights once a month for over 20 years. The album was recorded with his normal house band from his St.Louis shows and features his son Charles Junior on guitar as well as his daughter Ingrid, a fine singer and harmonica player in her own right, both of whom typically accompanied Chuck at his live shows. As you heard above, “Big Boys” is a modern day rocker with that classic driving beat and Chuck guitar tones. Other highlights for us include “You Got To My Head”, a standard cover but showing Chuck’s still fine voice, “Wonderful Woman” with lyrics just as playful and descriptive as “Nadine”, and the “Dutchman”, a talking blues of original lyrics with a driving guitar and modern rhythm behind his solid, smoky voice. Our biggest favorite is “Darling”, featuring Chuck as he sings to his daughter Ingrid who backs him on vocals about “her father growing older each year”. The back and forth between the two is touching to say the least and you can hear the love between father and daughter in the twilight of the father’s life.
Way Down In New Orleans, There Stood A Boy Along The Railroad Tracks
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. For the clip of Little Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen singing Bye Bye Johnny, please forward to 4:47 mark in the video. This was taken from Steve’s Soulfire CD release show 4/22/17 held in Asbury Park.
Even This Shall Pass Away
After Chuck passed away, director Taylor Hackford gave an interview and discussed details of filming the great documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! Hackford stated that knowing the influence Berry had on Springsteen and his music, they reached out to Springsteen to perform at the highlighted concert filmed at the Fox Theater in St.Louis on Berry’s 60th birthday. Hackford said Springsteen was the biggest rock star in the world at the time, coming off the success of Born In The USA, and they felt like his presence would push the film along in it’s narrative. While Springsteen was unable to perform, he did agree to be interviewed for the film and Hackford said it was the cornerstone of the whole film.
Berry was the 4th of 6 children born to William and Martha Berry in a segregated St.Louis, Missouri. William was a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church where the family attended services and sang in the choir. At night, William would gather the children around and recite poetry, literature and biblical passages. The poetry and word play seemed to have worked their magic as Berry began writing poetry at a very early age and this helped foster his incredible lyrics later in his career, In this outtake from the film, Chuck recites a poem taught to him by his father years ago, a poem written by Theodore Tilton during the Civil War entitled, Even This Shall Pass Away. As Robbie strums the guitar, Chuck recites the poem strictly from memory and then on the fly, demonstrating his agile, quick mind, he makes up a final stanza of his own, and looking into the camera, relates a story befitting his own life.
Johnny B Good Belongs To The Stars
Yes, Chuck Berry has passed away at the age of 91, but his music will live forever as people continue to listen to his music, the lyrics, and that singular, much mimicked, but never to be replicated guitar sound. As Shawn pointed out to me before, Chuck’s “Johnny B Goode” was the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager “Golden Record” which was launched into outer space in 1977 as a representation to extraterrestrials of life and culture on Earth. Coincidentally, that record was put together with help from noted Springsteen collaborator Jimmy Iovine. According to historian Douglas Brinkley who wrote the liner notes for the Chuck album, Chuck loved the idea that Johnny B Goode is now past Jupiter and Saturn, over 4 billion miles away, out of our solar system. Brinkley asked Chuck if he ever looked up at the stars and wondered where exactly Johnny B Goode was to which Chuck replied, “Sure, it’s somewhere in the heavens. That’s as good as it gets jack.”
I think I know what John Lennon was onto when he suggested if you needed 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, it 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. May you rest in peace, Chuck, out there somewhere in the universe among the stars. Thanks for the all the artistry, music and joy you have brought to all of us. Thank you, 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!!!
Like A Steel Driving Hammer: Favorite Chuck Berry Performances: