Bernard Weintraub has a great series in the NY Times, “The Music They Made,” profiling the “Legends of Rock Country and Soul.” Today’s story is on the inimitable Chuck Berry, the second greatest of the pre-Beatles rockers (after Elvis, of course). Chuck is still rocking at 76:
- Chuck Berry is seated backstage listening to the crowd gather at Blueberry Hill, a music club and bar in the Loop area on this city’s west side. Once a month, Mr. Berry, known universally as the father of rock ‘n’ roll, performs downstairs in the cramped Duck Room, named for the famous duck walk he has performed around the world for nearly 50 years.
….Mr. Berry remains as suspicious, defiant and guarded offstage as he is mesmerizing on. In a life overshadowed by three prison terms, his own inner demons and the humiliations of racism, he now carefully avoids any public hint of the anger and resentment that seem to lurk just beneath the surface.
….The high point of his career, from the mid-50’s through the 60’s, was distinguished by about 40 songs, many of them early rock ‘n’ roll classics.
He became famous with “Maybellene” in 1955. It was followed by “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “School Days,” “Nadine” and “Rock and Roll Music.”
Although Little Richard and Fats Domino may have been the earliest black stars to sell rock to white audiences, Mr. Berry was the first to break down racial barriers, not only with his electric guitar but also with wordplay and imagery. As Paul Friedlander writes in his book “Rock and Roll: A Social History,” Mr. Berry “created the most literate, stylistically innovative and original music of the era.” If the formulaic lyrics of early rockers were narrowly focused on boy meets girl, Mr. Berry’s songs went beyond this to appeal to the concerns of white adolescents dealing with issues like parents, dancing, cars, lust and new tastes in music, along with teenage romance.
….He also forged the style for rock ‘n’ roll guitar that’s still current. “For him, the guitar was more than an accompanying prop hanging off his shoulders,” Joe Stuessy and Scott Lipscomb write in “Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development.” In Mr. Berry’s hands, they observed, the guitar “was a frontline instrument, often on a par with the lead vocal. The statement-and-answer technique in which the guitar mimics the just-completed vocal line is related to the two-bar or four-bar ‘tradeoffs’ found in jazz. It is as if Berry and his guitar are doing a duet.”
When Mr. Berry recorded “Maybellene” for the Chicago-based Chess Records, he was inspired, he said, by a country-western song, “Ida Red.” Leonard Chess, one of the owners, told him he didn’t like the title.
As Johnnie Johnson, the piano player and Mr. Berry’s longtime collaborator, recalled, Mr. Chess suggested “Maybellene” after noticing a Maybelline cosmetics box on a window sill beside a secretary’s desk.
….His book also includes scary incidents with the police or with white men who saw him driving or dancing with white women.
But the most devastating episode in Mr. Berry’s life was his trial and conviction in 1961 for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women or girls across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. Mr. Berry was convicted of charges involving Janice Norine Escalanti, a 14-year-old hat-check girl. (She complained to the police after Mr. Berry fired her from her job at his St. Louis club, Club Bandstand.)
Mr. Berry’s 20-month imprisonment left him broken and outraged. He said he felt hounded by the police because of his association with white women.
….”Never saw a man so changed,” Carl Perkins, the songwriter, singer and guitarist, once told Michael Lydon, a journalist, as he recalled a 1964 tour of Britain with Mr. Berry. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn’t just jail. It was those years of one-nighters; grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail.”
….Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, he grew up in his family’s three-room brick cottage at 2250 Goode Avenue, “a nicely kept area in the best of the three colored sections of St. Louis,” he recalled later. The neighborhood, known as the Ville, was a thriving black community north and west of downtown St. Louis. Mr. Berry’s parents, Henry and Martha, came from polyglot roots: African, Chihuahua Indian and European. His father worked in a flour mill and later as a repairman in apartment buildings.
….Judging by his candid autobiography, which he wrote without the help of a ghostwriter, Mr. Berry was stirred by two forces in his early years (and his late years, too): sex and music. “My 12th was my most Christian and most boring year of my life,” Mr. Berry writes. “Try as I did, day after day, to cling to righteousness, I was washed down in suds of sinful surroundings.”
His earliest influences were boogie-woogie, blues and swing. He spent hours listening to the bluesmen Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Arthur Crudup and Muddy Waters, and later to Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Johnson, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James and Nat King Cole.
“Nat Cole’s diction, his speech and his delivery was something that I can’t get from a lot of rappers today,” Mr. Berry said backstage. “And a lot of that country-western – can’t hear what they’re saying.”
….At the Cosmopolitan, Mr. Berry worked up a repertory of boogies and blues but also played around with the lyrics of old country songs. “Some of the clubgoers started whispering, `Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ ” Mr. Berry recalls in his autobiography. “After that, they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it.”
Mr. Berry’s calculated showmanship began luring larger white audiences to the club. He also began singing the songs of Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. “Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction,” he said at Blueberry Hill. “The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.”
….”Maybellene” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s R & B chart and had crossed over into the pop chart. By the end of the year, the song had sold a million copies and Mr. Berry had been named Most Promising R & B Artist in Billboard’s annual disc jockey poll. Almost overnight, he had become one of the country’s most popular artists.
In the same breath, Mr. Berry recently praised and criticized Leonard Chess and his brother. “They were great,” he said. “They weren’t honest but they were very helpful in my career. They gave me the first chance. That’s a beauty. To rob somebody or to not give somebody what belongs to them is not honest. So they’re both, you know. But they were good to me and cool.”
Below is a portion of my bio of the Chess brothers from The Encyclopedia of Record Producers:
- The story of the Chess brothers and their label burrows into the heart of such charged issues as art versus commerce and exposure versus exploitation – all tangled up in the miasma of race relations.
Lazer and Philip Chez, aged 11 and 6, were herded through Ellis Island on Columbus Day 1928 from their village near Pinsk, Poland, and transformed into Leonard and Phil Chess. They joined their father, who had been running a junkyard in a Jewish neighborhood near the South Side of Chicago. Their address, 1425 South Karlov Ave, provided the catalog number for the first Chess Records release.
Phil served in the Army during World War II. Leonard’s childhood polio left him with a limp, ineligible for military service. During the war, Leonard pursued various business interests, including liquor stores and bars of less than stellar repute.
Eventually, Leonard moved up to the Macomba Lounge, an upscale jazz and blues club at the heart of the South Side. The club featured major national acts
including Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. The predominantly black crowds were regular and enthusiastic, and as label talent scouts sniffed around the back door, Leonard realized he could sell records as well as drinks to his customers.
….For his first Aristocrat session, “Johnson Machine Gun,” veteran Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim brought in a youthful guitarist, Muddy Waters, fresh from the Mississippi Delta. Waters recorded “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in April 1948 and the first issue sold out in 12 hours. Reeking of the country funk of the Delta, Waters’ single is a violent shout into the void that laid the foundation of the Chess sound – heavy on vicious electric slide guitar, thumping rhythm and
unadulterated blues wailing.
Leonard reportedly couldn’t understand what Waters was singing in the studio, but he understood the sales and somehow knew the records sold because, not
in spite, of the track’s rawness.
This insight is of such importance that American Heritage magazine (December 1994) selected the Chess brothers as among the 10 most important agents of change in America since 1950 with the following comment:
- “The Chess brothers made records that helped transport African-American culture, especially its language and music, to its central place in American culture…The Chess brothers’ story is one in which greed and inspiration swirled together in a characteristically American pot where the ingredients did not so much melt as alloy in a metallurgical sense: steel guitar, electricity, and vinyl transmuted into a wholly new cultural substance.”
….Willie Dixon tends to minimize Leonard’s contributions as a producer, indicating that his main contribution was to rile up the musicians in the studio with a string of friendly curses and then leave them to take out their frustrations on the music. (Leonard was notoriously crude, answering the phone with a “Hello, Motherfucker.”)
However, an ability to bring out the best from musicians is one of the very definitions of producer. Also, it was in Dixon’s interest to play down Leonard’s input in that Dixon was also a producer and writer with the company, and felt rather unappreciated by the Chesses, especially financially.
Dixon’s account of the first Chuck Berry session in 1955 leaves Leonard out of the picture entirely; Berry’s account in his autobiography firmly places both Leonard and Phil on the scene as engineers and supervisors: “We struggled through the song, taking thirty-five tries before completing a track that proved satisfactory to Leonard,” Berry wrote, observing Leonard was clearly in charge of the session.
Perhaps inadvertently, the Chesses contributed to the perception that they were exploiters of black music by downplaying their personal interest in that music. They both claimed to be “just businessmen.” Perhaps this attitude stemmed from some vestigial Old World notions of hierarchy, division of labor, or even the unseemliness of the music that they produced. Perhaps downplaying an affinity for the music helped the Chesses maintain emotional distance from their artists – many of whom they clearly took advantage of financially with recording, publishing and personal appearance contracts that screamed of inequity but were standard for the time.
Another way to view them is as paternalistic: The Chesses “took care” of their most important artists. Muddy Waters worked with them for 20 years without a contract; they paid for the funeral of a destitute Little Walter; Howlin’ Wolf grumbled but stuck around, and the like.
Despite their protestations, the Chesses, especially Leonard, had a feel for the blues, rock and roll and their permutations. Leonard’s son Marshall (who would become president of the company and runs the Chess publishing company,
ARC) put it this way to writer Peter Guralnick in his classic Feel Like Going
Home: “My father was a music lover in a very strange way. People used to talk, they’d think he was kind of a freak, because all he’d ever want to do was to go to these little funky clubs that no white person would ever dream of going to, to hear new acts, to buy new talent.”
….Other greats to work for the label include Bo Diddley, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Little Milton, Etta James, Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass and Chuck Berry. Waters, Wolf, Diddley, Berry, Dixon, James and Leonard Chess himself are inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
As brilliant and lasting as the Chess blues work is, their work with Berry will stand the longest. Berry met his idol Muddy Waters on a road trip to Chicago from St. Louis, accepting Waters’ advice to seek out Leonard Chess, whom Waters called the best in the business.
Leonard has dismissed his acumen regarding Berry as riding a trend. But the master tapes show Leonard making decisions about takes and contributing ideas throughout. And when “Maybellene” began to look like a hit, Leonard took the record directly to Alan Freed in New York to push Berry with all the clout Chess could muster.
Whether Leonard recognized Berry for the most important single figure in rock ‘n’ roll history is debatable, but he knew greatness when he heard it and was willing to back his judgments with money and muscle.
Berry is the greatest lyricist in rock, capturing the teenage experience with empathy and humor. He also was the architect of the riffing guitar sound at the base of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and every other guitar-based rock band on earth. “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock And Roll Music,” “Memphis” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” are but a few of the greats in the remarkable Berry canon.
….On Oct.16, 1969, Leonard Chess died of a heart attack at age 52, probably felled by his own type A personality. Earlier that year, he and Phil had sold the
company to GRT for a reported $11 million. In 1975, GRT closed down the logo,
selling it to All Platinum Records. Phil remains active at ARC, the Chess publishing company. The Chess catalogue is now being aggressively reissued on CD by MCA, giving another generation access to this timeless music.
The first profile in Weintraub’s series was on Bo Diddley.