Farewell To The Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90.  He was the man whose songs gave rock ‘n roll a sound and a shape and a theme and a direction, way back in the ’50s, and thereby helped to create a genre of popular music that has endured for more than 60 years.  His song Maybellene, his first big hit, was released in 1955, and its combination of irresistible guitar licks, a chugging back beat, and a story about teenage angst, girls, cars, and speed created a lasting framework for what was then a shocking and utterly new sound.  (Interestingly, just last year Chuck Berry was working on an album of new material to be released some time this year.  Let’s hope we get to hear it.)

chuck-berry-1957-billboard-1548The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world.  The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said:  “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”  The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing.  And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music.  Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?

I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try.  I can say this without fear of contradiction, however:  when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry.  That remains true today, 40 years later.  That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.

Advertisements

Still Reelin’ And Rockin’

Chuck Berry turned 90 this week.  Perhaps fittingly, one of rock and roll’s few surviving pioneers will be releasing an album of new songs next year.

chuck-berry-duck-walk-hd-wallpaper-1Many people helped American music take an abrupt turn in the early ’50s, from the big band/crooner/torch singer sound to the chaotic rhythms of rock and roll, but Chuck Berry was foremost among them.  Berry helped to define the genre in two key ways — in writing about fast cars, music, and girls, and in producing a guitar-focused sound that made everyone want to move their feet and strum the air.  More than 60 years later, the riffs he produced on Maybelline and Johnny B. Goode remain some of the greatest ever recorded.  And Berry’s showmanship on stage, including his trademark duck walk, helped to define what live rock music should be, too.

When Elvis Presley died almost 40 years ago, I was working for the Ohio State Lantern, which ran a headline referring to Presley, as many did, as the King of Rock and Roll.  Our faculty advisor, Tom Wilson, emerged from his office to vigorously object to that headline, because he thought that title could only be given to Chuck Berry.  Some people in the newsroom argued with Mr. Wilson, but not me.  He was absolutely right.  And Berry’s recordings remain as fresh and catchy today, and as ready to convert a young person to the world of rock and roll, as they were when they first hit the disk jockeys’ turntables so long ago.

One other thing:  it’s nice to be able to write about a music legend who has lived to a ripe old age.  Rock music takes its toll, and many of its best have been felled by drug overdoses, plane crashes, or violent death.  Chuck Berry duck-walked right on past all of that, with his wife of 68 years, Themetta, there beside him.  Two of their children are part of the band that has recorded the new album, too.

Back In The U.S.A.

I’m pleased to report that Russell has returned to the United States from his trip to Vietnam, safe and sound and no doubt enriched — personally, culturally, and artistically — by the experience.  For now, however, he may be mostly glad to get back to the land of serious air conditioning.  In recognition of that likely fact, I offer Russell the following amazing performance of Back In The U.S.A. by Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt, with a wicked guitar solo from Keith Richards tossed in:

Maybellene, Chuck Berry, And The Future Of Rock ‘N Roll

Fifty-five years ago, Chuck Berry’s Maybellene was released, and rock ‘n roll would never be the same.

I know that songs like Rock Around The Clock and Rocket 88 had been released before Maybellene, and Elvis Presley has popularized rock ‘n roll by July 1955, when Maybellene was released.  Still, I think Maybellene was the first modern rock ‘n roll song.  Rolling Stone apparently agrees:  in its on-line entry on Maybellene, it says “rock & roll guitar starts here.”  And it did, too.

I heard Maybellene on the Ipod the other day, and it sounds just as fresh and great as it must have sounded when it first crackled over the AM airwaves on a summer day during the Eisenhower Administration, so long ago.  The song irresistibly invokes two of the timeless themes for successful rock songs — girls and fast cars.  The first verse is calculated to appeal to the instincts of every teenage boy, from the ’50s until now and probably until the end of time:

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac arollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side

What could be more American than accelerating down an open road trying to catch up to your girl?  Add those lyrics to a pulsing beat that sounds like a speeding car, driven by guitar and stripped down bass, tinny piano, and drums, and you have an unbeatable classic.  You hear it and you turn up the volume, your body starts moving, and you feel compelled to play some air guitar.  It’s no wonder that the themes and feel of Maybellene have been borrowed by so many successful rock ‘n roll songs since 1955.  It has to be one of the most influential rock songs ever recorded.

Youtube has several videos of Chuck Berry playing Maybellene.  I like this one best, because it contrasts Berry’s vibrant new style with the stodginess that existed at the time.  Check out the looks on the faces of the band members and audience when Berry starts his duck walk.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

Pool Music

We are down in the Bahamas visiting our good (and generous) friends Chuck and Laura Pisciotta. They are graciously hosting us at their lovely second home near Freeport, and we have had a wonderful time.

Yesterday we were sitting out by the pool on a bright sunny day and were listening to the trusty Ipod played over our portable speaker set-up. I chose my Orlando Ave. playlist, which features songs from the 1950s and early 1960s, up to the cusp of the British invasion. I have to say it is just about perfect pool music — the Four Seasons, the “girl groups” of the early 1960s, the Coasters, Connie Francis, and so on, with some Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis sprinkled in. The songs tend to be light and bouncy in tone and short in duration, and before you know it you are on to the next one. I never thought Dominique by the Singing Nun would appeal to Chuck’s musical tastes, but in that setting it did.