Compiled from suggestions on our Facebook page.
By Ted Cogswell
Let the Good Times Roll is a 1973 concert film directed by Robert Abel and Sidney Levin. fearuring Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, The Coasters, Danny and the Juniors. Bo Diddley. Fats Domino. The Five Satins. Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, and The Shirelles. For my money, one of the best concert films of all-time. Everybody in it was performing at a very high level, the Chuck and Bo footage is all-time classic, and Little Richard is in rare form.
From PIG PAPER #11, January 1980
Gary Pig Gold wrote:
And while we’re on the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Kings, here’s the most unsung hero of the genre: CHUCK BERRY. Inventor of the duck-walk, the ding-a-ling, and many insist, the entire concept of rock ‘n’ roll guitaring itself. The Chucker’s contribution to modern history cannot be over-emphasized. He first assaulted the Top Forty ‘way back in ’55, and even today, between jaunts to the slammer and The Merv Griffin Show, Mr. Berry still out-riffs and out-rhymes all comers. Let us pause for a moment, to offer humble praise and prayer to this undeniable Pop God.
By Steve Butts
As Chuck Berry turned 89 on Sunday I reflected upon when I was first exposed to his music and how it had made an impact on who I eventually became. Like many, I am sure that I probably first heard Berry’s Johnny B. Goode (without necessarily knowing who the artist actually was) on TV shows like “Happy Days” or in a movie like “American Graffiti”, each shining a softer, tamer light upon the revolutionary impact Berry’s music had made on 50′s rock ‘n’ roll culture.
Much like the nostalgic small screen portrayals of life in middle America that were commonly featured in movies and television during the 70′s and 80′s, I had grown up in a similar environment in a small town in Michigan. Heavily protestant, the farming community that I grew up in was not a place where someone could expect to receive much exposure to current rock ‘n’ roll music, let alone anything that could be construed as “hip” music or “acid rock” or anything else.
My parents were much more permissive than the average family in my hometown. They attended Marshall Tucker Band concerts and we often visited their friends who had a stereo room (I will never forget it. The room would be completely dark, except a few lit dials on the stereo and the ceramic statue of an embracing naked couple that had pinholes in it where changing colored lights shined through them).
This same family friend knew that I had enjoyed the Woodstock soundtrack during a visit, so he gave me a dubbed copy of it when I got my first Walkman (which I later shared with my hippie Boy Scout leader who must have utilized it as the inspiration necessary to smoke a surreptitious doob out of the view of our impressionable eyes).
Even though I had been exposed to quite a bit of my parent’s music and had exhibited a desire to be exposed to even more, many of my best friends grew up in far more restrictive and less liberated households. The kind of households that very closely mirrored the idealized nuclear households that were exhibited on shows like “Happy Days” or movies like “American Graffiti”.
For a better idea of the musical climate of the community where I lived, I remember going to a church roller skating party with some friends of mine where the DJ was asked not to play any current hits but was instead given generic vinyl instrumental versions of hits from the 50′s and early 60′s to play (think Pat Boone–this was during the 80′s).
During one summer, I spent a great deal of time with my friend Troy. This was during the early 80′s emergence of professional wrestling in popular culture and the popularization of action films like “Rambo”, each being things that we were able to share enjoyment of and bond over. We also loved listening to a local oldies radio station’s airing of a syndicated weekend top 100 countdown program.
One afternoon, we were listening to a cassette dub of some songs that Troy had recorded from the previous weekend. With the permeation of “Rambo” in pop culture and the overarching cultural environment during the Reagan presidency, we listened excitedly to Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” (Troy would eventually become an Army Ranger) over and over. Having heard the anti-war songs featured on Woodstock, I was quite likely already conflicted about this patriotic one hit wonder who glamorized the gallantry of war to great success. Later, we would hear a fun, silly novelty song that made us laugh. Laugh hard at that!
I will never forget hearing “My Ding-A-Ling” for the first time. The voice sounded familiar and it was evident that the song had been recorded live in concert. Amid the stolid surroundings of my friend’s house, something anarchic and forbidden had forced its way into our lives. As pre-teen boys, the double entendre juvenile humor of Chuck Berry’s corniest song was absolutely delicious.
As we began listening to “Ding-A-Ling” over and over, I started to feel the rush of doing something a little dangerous and contradictory to the repressive environment that surrounded us. I realized that not only was going against these constrictive societal norms appealing, it felt great.
This might have been the first moment where I questioned the bland lives that many people around me had chosen to live and was rapidly determining that I probably was not going to ever live a life quite like those that my friend’s and their families were.
I can only imagine that this moment of enlightenment, spurred on by one of Chuck Berry’s silliest songs was just a mere fraction of what people during the mid-50′s must have felt as Berry deftly combined the blues with a countryish twang, bringing an aspect of young black popular culture to a still segregated white America.
As time passes, “My Ding-A-Ling” has lost some of its former allure for me. It is not as bad of a song as many might indicate, but is far from the best and most representative of Berry’s songs. That said, whenever I hear it, I am immediately transported back to a more formative time in my own life where 30 plus years later I can still measure the impact that Berry’s music has so obviously had on my life.
By Andy Schwartz
Years ago, I’d heard that the lyrics to Chuck’s great ’64 single “The Promised Land” described a trip through the South along a route that closely paralleled that of the Greyhound bus trip undertaken by the original Freedom Riders of 1961. For purposes of comparison, I used the Wikipedia entry on this important moment in the US civil rights movement because (a) it didn’t seem grossly inaccurate and (b) I’m lazy. Check this out:
“I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia – California on my mind / I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh, on across Caroline / We stopped in Charlotte, we bypassed Rock Hill, we never was a minute late / We was 90 miles out of Atlanta by sundown, rollin’ outta Georgia state…”
-> The Freedom Riders departed Washington D.C. on May 5, 1961. They encountered only minor harassment in Virginia and North Carolina, but future US Rep. John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill SC. Other riders were arrested in Charlotte NC; Winnsboro SC; and Jackson MS.
“We had motor trouble that TURNED INTO A STRUGGLE [My emphasis -- A.S.] halfway across Alabam / And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham…”
-> Upon arrival in Birmingham AL, the bus was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains.
“Right away I bought me a through train ticket, ridin’ ‘cross [right across?] Mississippi clean / And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham, smoking into New Orleans…”
-> Greyhound clerks in Montgomery AL told the Riders that their drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called national attention to the civil rights cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham.
“Somebody help me get out of Louisiana, just to help me get to Houston town / There are people there who care a little ’bout me and they won’t let the poor boy down / Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit, put luggage in my hand / And I woke up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land…”
From this point, Chuck is traveling safely and comfortably by jet to Los Angeles. But that whole first half…Kind of amazing, eh?
Andy Schwartz was editor of New York Rocker from 1977-1982. He has also served as Director of Editorial Services for Epic Records, editor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction night program, and research consultant for the Rock Hall’s Library & Archive Project. He co-authored two volumes of Icons of Rock, published in 2007, has a long resume of freelance credits, and is currently provides editorial services to the Jazz Standard club in New York City.
What you’re looking at in the accompanying pictures are my own personal copies of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” 45, and the Rockin’ Berries cardboard bound EP.
I got these both signed around 1990. We (Del-Lords) opened for him at what had been Studio 54, and was now the home of the Ritz. We were in our dressing room when there was a knock on the door. Lo and behold, it was Chuck Berry himself! Chuck had on a wife-beater (God, i hate that term!!) t-shirt and a towel around his neck. He said the hot water in his dressing room was not working, and would it be ok if he used ours. Well, we were completely speechless, and blown back around 100 yards, but i managed to say, “Well, you’re Chuck Berry, and that means, absolutely, of course you can, sir!”. He smiled and came on in. We all looked at each other in disbelief, grinning ear-to-ear. When Chuck came out of the bathroom, he just sat down on the couch, and started asking us about who we are, what kind of music we played, and this and that. We told him that he loomed very large in our music, indeed, and was a lifelong hero and influence. Which, of course, he is!
I know how hard it seems to be for him to ever acknowledge the supernatural artistry of his music and his writing and his playing, as he usually just throws out something to the effect of, “Well, it’s what the kids wanted to hear”. As if that was all there was to it. But, i took a shot anyway. First i asked him about the Country influence in his songs. To me, that influence is more than obvious, but i have had this argument before. He said how much he loved Hank Williams, and what a gigantic influence he was on his own writing, and how all anyone had to do was listen to Maybelline, or Nadine, and that bass line is pretty much a Country music cliche. I was very satisfied with his answer, and couldn’t wait to tell those who argued that Country had nothing to do with Chuck’s music.
We talked about BB King, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Keith Richards, Charlie Patton, and plenty more, and he seemed satisfied that we knew our shit, and that made him relax even more. He was almost horizontal from leaning so far back in the big couch. He hung around for about twenty minutes or so, but before he left i whipped these two records out. I had brought them just in case i could get him to sign them. I expected nothing but instead i got this! I have never been shy about asking for autographs, and have a small but very prestigious (if i do say so myself) autographed LP collection. This seemed like a now or never moment for me, and i grabbed it. He could not have been sweeter, or more gracious. He was funny, too, and came off like your next door neighbor – if your neighbor was a raving guitar playing genius who changed popular music by inventing an entire genre, and was just this side of God. Just your average Holy Man ready to ply his trade one more time.
Scott “Top Ten” Kempner is a founding member of the Dictators and the Del-Lords.
By Joe Bonomo
Originally posted at No Such Thing As Was, April 21, 2012, reprinted here with permission of the author.
How many hundreds of times have I heard Chuck Berry songs? At home, in the car, at parties, in the bars, on TV, on the radio, in my head, in any number of a thousand songs that rip off him and his band’s 1950s high water cuts. Berry is so monolithic, so legendary, such the prime mover that he barely exists as a flesh and blood man (his low-profile adds to the mystique). His songs aren’t really songs anymore, they’re blueprints in an archaeological museum; less words, melody, and performance on analog tape than Platonic models. Sheer repetition coupled with mythology have rendered Charles Edward Anderson Berry inhuman, his songs rumors of a man who once existed, or was invented, it’s unclear.
How great when a song can still surprise. Tonight Ame and I were driving, listening to a roots show on local public radio, when “Johnny B. Goode” came on. Because I hadn’t been looking for it on my Chess box, because I wasn’t already bored by its oft-told stories before it played, because my mind was elsewhere (as it turns out, still enjoying the close of the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk,” which preceded Berry in the set), because I wasn’t burdened with solemn appreciation for the Father, because I didn’t start with the reference books, because this wasn’t a Sweatin’ To The Oldies infomercial at 3 am after last call, because with all great rock and roll we catch up to it a moment after it begins, led first by the rush of blood, then the heart, then recognition in the form of a Yes! and a smile and a shared glance with a friend or a stranger, then a lurch to turn UP the song—none of which we can articulate in language, with sentences, until another moment or two passes—because of this I heard “Johnny B. Goode” for the first time today. Then it was over. Actually, it was over before Chuck got to his first solo, the recognizable notes and style already descending into formula, routine, ancient black and white, archetype, cliché, Happy Days. But for that minute, a bell never sounded so purely rung by human hands.
Joe Bonomo‘s books include This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays), Conversations With Greil Marcus (Literary Conversations Series), AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was and at @BonomoJoe.
In 2014, Bear Family Records released Any Old Way You Choose It. which brings together virtually everything Chuck Berry ever recorded, including his late 60s Mercury sides along with his two stints at Chess Records. Prior to that collection’s release, the most thorough assemblage of his classic work was represented by three four-disc sets issued by Hip-0 Select between 2007 and 2010, which featured everything he recorded for Chess. Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings, You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, and Have Mercy: His Complete Chess Recordings 1969-1974 are all available to stream on Spotify and we’re presenting them here for you to enjoy on Chuck’s big day, wrapping up with the third and final volume , DIG!
In 2014, Bear Family Records released the 16-disc Any Old Way You Choose It. which brings together virtually everything Chuck Berry ever recorded, including his late 60s Mercury sides along with his two stints at Chess Records. Prior to that collection’s release, the most thorough assemblage of his classic work was represented by three four-disc sets issued by Hip-0 Select between 2007 and 2010, which featured everything he recorded for Chess. Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings, You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, and Have Mercy: His Complete Chess Recordings 1969-1974 are all available to stream on Spotify and we’re presenting them here for you to enjoy on Chuck’s big day, continuing now with volume two , DIG!
In 2014, Bear Family Records released the 16-disc Any Old Way You Choose It which brings together virtually everything Chuck Berry ever recorded, including his late 60s Mercury sides along with his two stints at Chess Records. Prior to that collection’s release, the most thorough assemblage of his classic work was represented by three four-disc sets issued by Hip-0 Select between 2007 and 2010, which featured everything he recorded for Chess. Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings, You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, and Have Mercy: His Complete Chess Recordings 1969-1974 are all available to stream on Spotify and we’re presenting them here for you to enjoy on Chuck’s big day, starting with the first of the three , DIG!