LifeNotes: Rock Music Founding Father Chuck Berry Passes

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• March 20, 2017

Rock-music founding father and powerful country-music influence Chuck Berry passed away on Saturday, March 18, at age 90.

In addition to being an inaugural inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Berry became a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years earlier. His song catalog not only serves as a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll, it has been tapped by dozens of country artists for more than six decades.

Such members of the Country Music Hall of Fame as Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley, Buck Owens and Ernest Tubb all scored major hits with Chuck Berry songs. Berry’s fusion of blues and hillbilly idioms – plus his lyric emphasis on cars, girls, school, clothes, parents and other teen concerns — made him a pluperfect rockabilly artist. Fittingly, he was also an inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Born in St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1926, he was a largely self-taught musician who began performing locally around 1952. His bands performed a mix of r&b, swing, pop, blues and country tunes. He recalled that black audiences particularly loved dancing to his hillbilly numbers.

Berry’s band was soon the biggest attraction in St. Louis. Encouraged by his local renown, he traveled to Chicago to earn a recording contract with Chess Records.

“Maybelline,” based on the country tune “Ida Red,” launched his hit-making career in 1955. Marty Robbins instantly recorded the song for the country market and scored a top-10 hit with it. Similarly, in 1956 Ernest Tubb covered Berry’s 1955 hit “Thirty Days” and turned it into a country top-10.

Chuck Berry then embarked on a barrage of late-1950s pop and/or r&b top-10 smashes that included “No Money Down” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956), “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956), “School Day” (1957), Rock & Roll Music” (1958), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958), “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), “Carol” (1958), “Memphis Tennessee” (1959) and “Almost Grown” (1959). These hits made him a leader of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Indeed, he is arguably the artist who most clearly defined the genre — as a songwriter, as a guitarist and as a “duck-walking” showman.

At the peak of his early fame, he was jailed on a morals charge. But Berry returned to the charts with such iconic tunes as “Back in the U.S.A.” (1959), “Too Pooped to Pop” (1960), “Nadine” (1964), “No Particular Place to Go” (1964), “C’Est La Vie (You Never Can Tell)” (1964) and “Promised Land” (1965). Berry’s final chart hits were “My Ding-A-Ling” (1972) and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” (1973), yet he remained a vital live performer for decades to come.

In addition, his songs continued to be recorded. The Beach Boys famously co-opted his “Sweet Little Sixteen” melody for their 1963 hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” The first Rolling Stones single was a 1963 version of Berry’s “Come On.” The Beatles covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” (1964) and “Rock & Roll Music” (1965).

Country artists were particularly enthusiastic about recording Berry’s songs. In fact, several became bigger hits on the country charts than they had been for Berry on the pop hit parade. These included Buck Owens’s chart-topping 1969 version of “Johnny B. Goode,” Waylon Jennings’s 1970 remake of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Freddy Weller’s 1971 rendition of “Promised Land,” Elvis Presley’s 1974 recording of “Promised Land” and Emmylou Harris’s 1977 revival of “C’Est La Vie (You Never Can Tell).”

Other significant country hits of Chuck Berry’s tunes included Freddy Weller’s 1974 top-10 success with “Too Much Monkey Business,” Linda Ronstadt’s 1978 version of “Back in the U.S.A.,” the George Jones and Johnny Paycheck 1979 duet of “Maybelline,” Freddy Weller’s 1979 reworking of “Nadine” and Fred Knoblock’s 1981 rendition of “Memphis Tennessee.” The last-named has also been recorded by Lonnie Mack (1963), Waylon Jennings (1964), Elvis Presley (1965), Buck Owens (1965), Flatt & Scruggs (1965), Karen Black (1975) and Toby Keith (2011).

Conway Twitty (“Maybelline”), Ronnie Hawkins (“Thirty Days”), Carmol Taylor (“Back in the U.S.A.”), Jerry Reed (“Promised Land”), Johnny Cash (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Sweet Little Sixteen”), Ronnie Milsap (“Johnny B. Goode”), Lyle Lovett (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), Elvis Presley (“Too Much Monkey Business”) and Roy Clark (“Johnny B. Goode”) have all covered Chuck Berry tunes over the years. In 1965, Bluegrass Hall of Fame members Jim & Jesse recorded an entire LP of Chuck Berry songs, Berry Pickin’ in the Country.

Meanwhile, the rock ‘n’ roll patriarch soldiered onward. In 1969, he played Central Park in New York and the big Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival. President Jimmy Carter invited him to play at the White House in 1979.

Chuck Berry was jailed again, this time for income-tax evasion. But he garnered increasing acclaim from such admirers as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jerry Reed, Johnny Rivers, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, The Dave Clark Five, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Steve Miller, Merle Haggard and Keith Urban.

In 1984, Berry was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy. He was honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987.

An all-star concert celebrating his career was filmed in 1987 as the movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. During his lifetime, Berry also appeared in the films Rock! Rock! Rock! (1957), Go, Johnny Go! (1959), Mr. Rock and Roll (1957), The T.A.M.I. Awards Show (1964) and American Hot Wax (1978). He published Chuck Berry: The Autobiography in 1988.

In 1995, Berry performed at the grand opening of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The following year, he began performing once a month at Blueberry Hill, a bar/restaurant attraction in his hometown of St. Louis. He was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2000. Despite his advancing age, he toured Europe in 2008.

Chuck Berry continued appearing regularly in St. Louis until last October. He revealed at that time that his final album would be released by the Nashville label, Dualtone Records.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

 

 

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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