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2017.04 Chuck Berry

The Late Great Chuck Berry: Mr. Motor-Vator

Chuck Berry was a pirate. An outlaw. A convicted felon. He was gifted and crazy. He was Rock & Roll.

Ever considered why it’s always Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, and the like, at all the NAACP rallies, civil rights marches, Black Lives Matter protests etc., and no Blues and Rock & Roll guys?

Because Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Guitar Slim, James Brown, and their sordid peers were bad, bad, scary men. Stabbings, drinking, theft, assault and battery, adultery, shootings, are all part of the story, and told surprisingly matter of factly by the participants themselves. You do not want any of these guys on a stage with a politician. You want Quincy Jones.

Personally, I thought The Beatles wrote Chick Berry’s songs, and that those songs were, by far, the best ones the fab four were writing. Don’t misunderstand me. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was great, but “Roll over Beethoven” kicked ass and had a smoking guitar intro.

My friends and I eventually sorted it out from the backs of the LPs and worked our way back through music history – just like the Stones did with Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

But just as I was getting it all straight, a little bit, Chuck did something really weird in 1972 (aside from owning an insurance company. “Hi. I’m Chuck Berry. Can I interest you in some life insurance?” What?). He released “My Ding-A-Ling” — a horrible, bizarre sing-along ditty which contained obvious encouragements to quite young girls (today it would make scandalous headlines). It was his only #1 single, and it topped both the UK and US charts.

For quite a while afterward, he seemed to be on the British show “Top of the Pops” every week!

It took a while for me to reconcile the two Chucks and understand the music business. I sorta get it now.

Underlying all of his shiny, catchy, perfectly crafted tunes is always a threat, a boast, a sneer, or a know-it-all message from a man who did. He was a man who endured all that Jackie Robinson did, but Chuck did it alone with nothing but a guitar by his side.

“Early in the morning, I’m giving you a warning.”

“You can’t catch me”

“Roll over Beethoven”

“You better stop doing those things you used to do”

The Beatles caught on. After all, John wrote this:

Run for your life if you can little girl,

If I catch you with another man,

That’s the end.

Little girl.

And as only Chuck could do, he dropped dead months before the release of his first LP of new material in 40 years.  He finished it and then died. Talk about great PR. It should be his second #1. He’s apparently working while dead. Try that Kanye.

Keep Pickin’

-Bill