Chuck Berry was in his pomp before I was born. His music was old when I was young. His jail time happened when I was very small. For most of my contemporaries he was the music of their parents. That made him even more disreputable to my then abnormally old parents who’s world of the Big Bands and the gentler styles that went before Rock ‘n Roll was disrupted by his ilk.
That Chuck Berry was a flawed individual there is no doubt. That he WAS Rock ‘n Roll there is even less. The measure of Rock ‘n Roll, and what’s missing from so many of the beautifully produced, carefully staged live acts I see in these days when live music is again the way to make money, is the spontaneous difference that injects excitement into a session of electric noise. This is what distinguishes Rock ‘n Roll from rock recital.
Chuck Berry didn’t do recital. It was never the same twice. Sometimes it was bored, pissed-off, ground down by the routine of the never ending tour – but it was never ‘the same’. Keith Richards, who in the same spirit ploughs his own furrow, describes the challenging business of playing with their unpredictable, erratic performer in the magnificent documentary, ‘Hail Hail Rock ‘n Roll’. By the time I saw Chuck Berry perform he was doing Cabaret venues – in this case better known for hosting Darts (the game, not the band). I guess I must have caught him on a good night – unforgettable, unique and joyous. The audience, uniformly old enough to be my parents, jumped and jived impressively.
A black musician playing through segregation and who knows what day-to-day slights and injustices, when you look back at the commercial history it is now hard to believe that many of the classic ‘canon of Rock ‘n Roll’ tunes he wrote and recorded were only minor hits at the time.
By the time I was old enough to appreciate contemporary performances music moved on – his last tune to chart, ‘Promised Land’ made number 26 in the UK back in ’64. By 1972 Chuck Berry was struggling for relevance and air time. Then he had his first number 1 with a knob-gag nonsense song.
‘My Ding-a-Ling’ achieved two things: the supreme irony of the BBC hauling out Rolf Harris to illustrate the ‘innocence’ of ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ on a show hosted by Jimmy Saville; and more importantly, it’s B-side, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and the genuine Rock ‘n Roll follow-up, ‘Reelin and Rockin’ ‘ reminded another generation of his spectacular back catalogue. That generation would discover Chuck Berry and his contemporaries and compare their energy and spontaneity with the increasingly recital-oriented rock of the mid-70s and produce a few years later the next great disruption of popular music.
The old man dies, his legacy is pervasive, his last album of original material, the first since 1979, will be released posthumously. With any luck it will come out in time to knock Ed Sheran off number 1.