Without prior rehearsal Chuck Berry would turn up for a show to perform with a backing band hired by the promoter as required in his contract. Long before he was born to run Bruce Springsteen found himself in one of them and had the temerity to ask Mr Berry what music they were going to play. “Chuck Berry music,” he replied scornfully. If you didn’t know how to play Chuck Berry music you had no business hanging an electric guitar around your neck.
You only need three strings: bottom 6th open, first finger on the second fret of the 5th moving up to the fourth fret every other beat, strum ‘lively’ for two bars as music books say, then shift the whole process up a string for a bar, then back down again, fake it at the seventh fret, same on the fifth, then back to the first position for the final bar. That’s Chuck in E, the easiest key, but I think he preferred G or sometimes even further up the fretboard, and he barred across all six strings with the first finger of his left hand, never using a capo. Like Hendrix, he had really long fingers.
Thanks to his duck walk, the way he swung the neck around and those nifty little intro licks, Chuck was the first rock’n’roll guitar hero but you didn’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist to play like him. You could make a half-way decent fist of playing Chuck Berry music without much practice at all. That’s the beauty of it. It’s where they all started and where dreamers like me are happy to remain if they can’t get much further. The ones on stages in arenas invariably did go further but Chuck stayed true to first principles even if it did become a chore towards the end and, for his audiences, less and less engaging as the years rolled by.
Back in Skipton in 1963 when I toted a red Futurama in The Rockin' Pandas we played ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Before that I sat mesmerised in the town’s coffee bar listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Reeling And Rocking’ on the juke box, wondering what ‘rocking on Bandstand’ was all about, and smiling at the thought of Chuck ‘dancing with a woman who was twice my size’. More than Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard and even Buddy, he drew me to America: a land of cars and endless highways, of driving along with no particular place to go, of teenage girls in tight dresses and lipstick, and where they never stopped rocking till the moon went down. The combination of these wonderful lyrics and the incessant drive of the music was irresistible to me at 16 and remains so even now.
When I heard the news of his death aged 90 on TV last night they played ‘My Ding A Ling’. Please no, I cringed. His biggest hit and his worst record. There’s a paradox for you, along with the other dislikeable traits forged as a victim of racism that sent him to jail on four occasions, once for asking a white woman for a date. No wonder he trusted no one. Like the inexcusable mischief with video cameras in the ladies loo at his club, it conferred upon Chuck a reputation as a ‘difficult’ man. My old boss at Music Sales tells a wonderful story about how when he wanted to publish a book of Chuck Berry sheet music – who needs sheet music for Chuck Berry songs? – he was required to deliver a hefty advance in $100 bills to his home in Missouri. Charles, as he preferred to be called, always dealt in cash.
Chuck certainly had much to answer for and Keith Richards, for one, had good reason to both loathe him and love him. Chuck drove Keith to distraction by switching keys without warning during the filming of that Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll documentary in 1987, but, since the Stones recorded six of his songs and modelled plenty more on his style, maybe Chuck felt he owed him one. The Beatles, however, recorded eight if you include those on the BBC sessions records, and unlike the Stones managed to trash Chuck’s original with their version of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on Beatles For Sale. “If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” said John who sings that particular track, brilliantly too.
But covers by The Beatles and Stones are the tip of the iceberg of course. Put simply, everybody covered him. Right now somewhere in the world some band is plugging in and opening up a set with Chuck Berry music: ‘I’m gonna write a little letter…’, ‘Deep down Louisiana…’, ‘Long distance information…’, ‘Riding along in my automobile’ or any of a dozen more. Me? I’m listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ as I type this, rocking yet again in Boston, Pittsburgh PA, Texas, Frisco Bay, St Louis and New Orleans, names on a map until Chuck Berry music turned them into a kind of mythical paradise for me all those years ago. RIP you old genius.