^ Chuck Berry at his hot-rodding, duck walking fiercest
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Chuck Berry died this weekend, well into his 90th year. His songs wrote pretty much the story of my youth, and probably of yours as well.
How great was he ? Just consider : he invented an entirely new musical framework : fast tenpos, two-string guitar licks, a storyteller’s voice as biracial as his audience, lyrics that you instantly remembered, lines that spoke your life better than you could — which is what a great pet does. Berry was a great poet.
From May 1955, when his first hit “Maybellene” was released, until late 1964, when his last batch of major songs reached us — “No Particular Place to Go,” “Nadine,” “Marie” — he ruled my generation. The car radio was our connection. It was a car radio age. What an iphone is to today’s youth — Snapchat and Whatsapp etc. — the car radio was for us, and the car itself, a fast moving joy room in which we could “motorvate” without parents saying no. Berry sang about car radios, ab out cars, about going to school and the bell that ended school days, about the juke joints where we could drop a coin into the slot and play his stuff, and about car chases, speed, the sound of speed, the feel of it. He sang it, and his guitar and band played its soundtracks.
No one else had us anywhere near as completely as he. After “Maybellene” came “Roll Over Beethoven,” “You Can’t catch Me,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,’ “Johnny B. Goode” — each one a celebration of what we did and of who we were and wanted to be. His songs focused it all.
There were others who we liked, of course. We raved with Little Richard, swooned with Fats Domino and Frankie Lymon, lusted with Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, joked with the Coasters, sang lullabies with a dozen great doo-wop vocal groups. Yet none took command of us as did Chuck Berry.
I said that his reign lasted from 1955 to 1964, but that’s not entirely so. Early in 1957 a very different kind of voice, fronting a very different kind of beat and tempo — Chuck Willis, doing his version of “C. C. Rider” — proved irresistible to most of us. We slowed down and sang upward rather than straight ahead. Yet if Berry now had to share the highway with the big hall dance floor, his passing lane music gave way to center-lane funk : “Little Queenie,” “Memphis,” “Carol,” and “30 Days” thumped as well as flew, and it was all that Chuck Willis — his own follow up hits kept the pressure on — could do to stave off Berry’s lumpy new story songs. Berry’s wry wit funk style was stronger, musically, than his first fast flourish. He held his own well into the new, 1960s era of soul styles, James Brown, and Motown slick : “Promised Land,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Back in the USA,” These were some of his greatest songs, lyrics as visionary as they were pithy.
After 1964, however, we were no longer living in, by, and for cars and the car radio, and as Curtis Mayfield, James Brtown, Otis Redding, Motown, and surfin’ music became our musical standards, Berry’s world of cars and high school slipped to memory status: though he continued, occasionally, to craft wonderful songs in the manner of 1952-1954 slow drag blues that he had rendered obsolete (and from which he lifted more moves than he would ever admit to). He had always done such songs, but as B sides to his inventions; now they became his calling card, songs to last a long while rather than flash hot for a month or two: “Beer Drinking Woman,” “It Wasn’t Me,” “Have Mercy Judge,” “Aimlessly Drifting,” “Ramona, Say Yes.”
Songs of this type came naturally to an artist who knew the history of Black American and country music as well as anyone ever, sources from which he constantly drew and whose pith he reshaped. In particular, count the number of songs that he wrote on the venerable “poor boy long ways from home” theme.
He also knew his guitar hsito9ry. He took from T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, Pat hare,m Guitar Slim, and Muddy Waters, to name the most obvious; and every.one whose work he grabbed came out sounding completely different when Berry did his Berrying.
Berry often told interviewers that he made the music that “the market” wanted. He was every inch an entrepreneuir, a salesman, a provider to those who needed provisions. He did not confront or oppose. Pleasing those who wanted music to be pleased by was good enough to make him the great artistic inventor — who also succeeded in inventing us.
—- Mike Freedberg / Hered and Sp-0here