Thoughts On Our Losing Chuck Berry
I won’t bother attempting to compete with all of the articles that are popping up like weeds upon the passing of Chuck Berry. It would be pointless. Those articles are bringing up all of the obvious and important points over why Chuck Berry was and still will be a musical institution around the world. In light of this, I’d rather be short and sweet when it comes to Chuck and mention a few things not mentioned as often as they should.
First of all, anybody who could release a song like “Wee Wee Hours” could be forgiven for punching Keith Richards, tax evasion and setting up a camera system in a restroom at his place to watch women using the toilet. With some artists, it’s not the songs which put them on the zenith of their craft in the eyes all of who followed them, it’s the songs they would plop themselves down into a chair for during the after-hours which can reveal to people where they really came from. That Chuck Berry still managed to find the time and inclination to want to just hammer out a Blues tune is something which endeared me to him over the years. It was painfully obvious to observe his genius-the combining of Country, Jazz and Blues into the drive which became Rock and Roll. It was the Blues angle which I always wished got more attention.
In my eyes, “Wee Wee Hours” is the Chuck I will always take along with me for as long as I live. I think of it as the true soul of Chuck. It told me that he wasn’t forgetting where he came from while being an African American in this country and living through the hard game involving a real rigged system which was levied against him in his quest to become who he would become. So much has been made of his imperfections in life. Perhaps those hardships he endured during the early part of his career made him develop some really eclectic quirks? He wasn’t perfect and he angered a lot of people because of those imperfections. Hell, I’d have loved to have punched him for some of the things he did-like changing tempos on famous name bands who backed him at gigs without notice and no rehearsals beforehand.
But as distanced as I was to chuck Berry and his orbit, as a fan, I could still forgive him for those transgressions because of his having the outright taste to do a song like “Wee Wee Hours”. Hey, that’s my excuse. We fans are nuts just for something like this that I’m explaining. We have this strange thing we do. We love to make saints out of people with whom you’d just assume strangle to death. I just wish he could have cut whole Blues albums with Johnnie Johnson to go with all of the great Rock and Roll he gave us. Universal would later compile an album of songs of his which were Blues cuts and made a CD out of it called Blues. But he never, as far as I know, ever cut an entire Blues album.
Something also has to be said for his late great pianist Johnnie Johnson. Let’s credit Keith Richards for saying it when Keith was trying to get Johnnie inducted separately into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chuck would not have been who he was had he not had the framework of Johnnie’s Blues-based piano to work with. He never would have done his rhythm patterns like he did had he not had Johnnie to play off of. It also influenced Chuck’s leads too. In short, we might have never had Chuck combine the elements of Country, Jazz and crooning that he did and speed them up if it hadn’t been for Johnnie Johnson.
I am also thinking of a song like “Havana Moon” as well. Again, for him to have come up with the great riffs that he did for all of the big hits, I can still think of him doing “Havana Moon” It got him a little out of his element so that he could come back and be even better at the Rock and Roll gig with all of those elements coming gloriously together.
God! I can still remember late 1972 and my being hit with Chuck Berry fever via my first copy of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out by The Rolling Stones and his then new version of the “Reelin’ And Rockin'” single during a small ’50s Roots Rock revival which was going on at Top 40 radio as a result of the popularity of the American Graffiti movie and the soundtrack which went with it. In the San Francisco Bay Area, I was also hearing “School Days” being played on those AM stations for a short period of time. I can’t even recall if it was re-released as a proper single that late Fall. That revival helped me to make invaluable connections between the ’50s artists to ”60s artists. I needed to make those connections. My own evolution was calling out for it. The timing was perfect and Chuck Berry played a huge role in all of it.
It was during that Fall that I fought with the meanest teacher I ever had during all of my years in school. “School Days” gave me a great framework for rebellion. It also gave me something to bang up against when I would discover other guitar players that I would develop huge admiration for. Long live Rock and Roll. Baby, you better believe it! Over the years, all I had to do was remind myself not to think of Chuck’s problems with his own personality and let the music speak for itself. I could save the subject of his quirkiness with all of my music friends I would develop over the years. The music is what keeps you going when the friends aren’t there.