Chuck Berry statue in St. Louis
Remembering a fellow Midwesterner, The Brown Eyed Handsome Man
by Sam Leighty
Charles Edward Berry was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in Southern Illinois, approximately a half hour to 45 minutes away from St. Louis where he was kind of a local celebrity. Berry grew up just before the era of the baby boomers, back at the time before World War II and the Korean War. St. Louis was a red hot breeding ground of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, boogie woogie, with all sorts of country music and pop blended in. To know about Berry's background that helped shape who he was (and who we are now), it's important to know that St. Louis was a hotbed for an amazing array of classic artists like Jimmy Odin, Victoria Spivey, Miles Davis, Little Milton, Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw. Johnny Otis has written about the hybrid music developing in the towns West of the Mississippi along the lattice work of the railroads and highways (see his 1993 book, Upside Your Head!. He described groups who didn't exactly play jazz and what they played couldn't exactly be called straight blues either. He described these bands as having a very showy style on stage. Berry started to play guitar amidst this inundation of sounds in the '30's, '40's and early '50's. Of course, Berry was very fond of T-Bone Walker, Les Paul and Charlie Christian who were famous musicians in that era and you can hear their influence in his sound where he took their guitar theatrics to a whole new level.
But Berry made his name over 250 miles north of St. Louis. By the mid-'50's, Chuck Berry had been writing songs, singing and playing guitar for years. One night in Chicago in 1955, he got close to his idol Muddy Waters in a club. After seeking advice from the blues master, Muddy told him to "go see Leonard Chess." Berry made the pilgrimage to go see Chess who liked what he heard so they set up his first recording session when Berry was almost 30 years old (for Chess blues artists like Howlin' Wolf who did his first single when he was over 40, this was nothing but it's incredible to think that one of the first rock careers began at that 'late' stage). You can read details of what happened at that historic recording in this NPR article. What followed were years of hits for Chess and Chuck that led to the foundation of the fledgling music called rock and roll.
My first Chuck Berry record was Chuck Berry is on Top (1959), which is one of my favorite albums of his. I paid 98 cents for this album at a little grocery store in 1968. In my opinion, it's all way above par, musically and otherwise. Though he was a remarkable lyricist, to me, Berry's music is the important thing. His guitar playing on this album is unrivaled. There are the songs in the weird keys like B flat, A flat and E flat. These weird keys come from the pianos, organs and horn sections of that hybrid music back in towns like St. Louis.
Berry gigged a lot locally in St. Louis but most of those gigs were at his own Berry Park in Wentzville. Berry Park was his estate and grounds where Chuck would stage local rock festivals and sometimes gig himself (he also created it to counter the whites-only country clubs). A friend of mine in St. Louis who played drums for Walter Scott also jammed with Chuck Berry once for half an hour out at Berry Park. He describes this as an incredible experience (Scott was a superb blue eyed soul vocalist who recorded for regional St. Louis labels like Musicland USA). The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played St. Louis in the mid sixties- members of both groups remarked that they were proud to be performing in Chuck Berry's hometown.
A lot of people around St. Louis 'knew' Chuck but they didn't hound him personally. There were people who worked at Lambert Airport in various capacitys like the baggage check who knew him and they all say he was a nice guy. Berry Park isn't in operation anymore and hasn't been in awhile. Not to sound sarcastic but Berry Park belonged to the 1969-1974 era of hitchhiking and day-glow painted vans. The groups and the festivals held there had varying degrees of musical ability and sound quality. Of course, Chuck took the stage from time to time. St. Louis isn't as large as New York, Chicago and other cities but it did have its share of local acts then.
(See a tour of Berry's St. Louis' homes in this River Front Times article)
Berry also played record hops around the US and he was a regular guest on TV Shows like American Bandstand. He was very energetic on stage with moves like the duck walk. I first saw Chuck Berry on TV when I was 8 years old on Hullabaloo. Though many of Chuck's live gigs in the late '70's and the '80's tend to feature not only poor quality medleys of his songs and rush job versions of his classic songs with half of the trickiest notes left out and backing from local pick-up bands that he couldn't fully rehearse, prime Chuck on prime time was available in the early '70's after he made a comeback with the novelty hit, "My Ding A Ling." Originally done by Dave Bartholomew (later Fats Domino's producer), Berry made a try of it in 1968 but after a live show in an English ballroom, backed by members of Average White Band and Van Der Graaf Generator, an 11 minute plus version of his newer version got cut down to four minutes for a single, giving Berry his first number one pop hit in 1972. Some radio stations banned it before of its naughty innuendos (which no doubt helped it become a chart-topper). Riding this revival, there was a Midnight Special show from the 1973 where Berry served as host and did jaw dropping versions of "Johnny B. Goode" and "Maybelline," which featured no less than the Bee Gees on backing vocals.
You've all seen (or should see if you haven't already) the Hail Hail Rock and Roll documentary from 1985 celebrating Chuck's 50th birthday along with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt and other special guests. Chuck puts in a great performance but actually it's worth the price of your DVD to sit and listen to a portion of the movie where he's sitting in a simple folding chair backstage and playing "Down Bound Train" on a pedal steel guitar, not to mention all the stories and commentaries from people like Richards, who reveals that Berry was even more difficult to work with than his old buddy Jagger. That didn't matter though and Richards knew it- how could the Stones and any of the rest of the British Invasion (including the Fabs) exist without him? For that matter, how could The Flamin' Groovies, Dave Alvin, the MC5, Dave Edmunds and thousands of other rockers have existed either? They couldn't.
When Berry died, he was still playing gigs from time to time. He was always with his Red Gibson Guitar, writing and rehearsing. I'm reminded of what the great blues and boogie woogie piano player Cecil Gant in L.A. told his friends when he started to experience some success. He said all he wanted to do is get drunk, laid, get rich and play. That's something like the life led by Chuck Berry but Berry had everybody beat.
Also see our other articles about and tribute to Chuck Berry
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