Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry RIP

There is of course his role as the figure who put the electric guitar front and center as the soloing instrument of choice in rock & roll. Granted, the supplanting of the tenor sax in that role had already happened in R&B; Johnny Guitar Watson was knocking their socks off out in LA, playing with his teeth and behind his back. And yes, Elvis's Sun sides featured Scotty Moore's solos, but those boys were coming at it from a country orientation.

And close examination reveals precedent for what Berry wrought. The blazing lick with which he opens "Johnny B. Goode," and to which he had been leading in earlier intros such as that on "Roll Over Beethoven," appeared in single-note form, as performed by guitarist Carl Hogan, in 1946, on Louis Jordan's "Ain't That Just Like A Woman." Hogan delivers a clean signal, though. We all know the raw, manic treatment Berry gave it.

But there's also the overall story, and how it perfectly encapsulates the way rock & roll took America by storm in 1955. The son of a contractor and a school principal, young Chuck spent a little time in the slammer as a youth for armed robbery, and then entered the world of work in a factory and as a hairdresser. When he formed his combo in 1952, with pianist Johnny Johnson, they would mostly play jump tunes and slow blues, but in their last sets, when their nearly-all-black audiences were somewhat lubricated, they would work in some hillbilly tunes, notably an old fiddle number called "Ida Red."

Then came that fateful weekend of club-hopping on Chicago's south side in May 1955, which led to an audition for Leonard Chess. Berry played him "Ida Red," which he was then calling "Ida May," and Chess told him that he couldn't sell a black guy singing an old country number. He suggested Berry speed up the tempo and work up new lyrics, perhaps something about fast cars, which the kids seemed to be interested in at the time. Thus was "Maybelleine" born.

By September 1955, Berry's combo was performing in Alan Freed's package shows at Brooklyn's Paramount Theater, for mostly white audiences. As he came onstage and looked around, he could sense that he was a lightning rod, a key figure in a massive cultural shift.

There's also his songwriting. Never veering far from some combination of I, IV and V chords, he dabbled in tempos and rhythms ranging from jump to after-hours slow blues to various Latin propulsions, and his lyrics told wry stories of teenage frustration, always with the telling detail of a true writer.

His art was simple, but there is no overstating its impact.

Chuck Berry's place in American culture is deservedly permanent, high, and worthy of study for centuries to come. And, of course, his contributions will rock the house as long as there is some equivalent of a record player that can take those kinds of decibels.

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