In a sense, Chuck Berry’s story was different to that of Bill Haley and Elvis in that Chuck was a black man inspired by country music. For example, Chuck’s first record, 1955’s “Maybellene,” was based on the country classic “Ida Red,” and in 1964, Berry recorded a version of “Crazy Arms,” first cut by country artist Ray Price in 1956. In 1996, I caught a ten-part history of rock ‘n’ roll and I remember Chuck’s pianist Johnnie Johnson, whose trio Chuck joined in 1952, being interviewed while sitting at his piano. He played the piano riff to “Maybellene” and sure enough it was country. One of the things he mentioned was that when they performed live back in the 1950s, whispers could be heard among the audience proclaiming “I thought he was white” – the Elvis syndrome in reverse, if you wish. But Chuck naturally had his blues/R&B heroes and influences. One look through his 1955-1979 discography shows that he covered too many blues/R&B classics to mention here in any kind of detail, but I’m going to highlight a handful for this article.
[pullquote-left]Chuck Berry rarely sang about womane troubles, alcohol or serving time in jail[/pullquote-left]Chuck Berry can be thought of as an “accessible” blues musician in that he rarely, if ever, sang adult themes: women troubles, alcohol or serving time in jail, at least as far as his chart hits were concerned. More accurately, his lyrics dealt with the lives of young people and the many aspects of it while his music was a combination of swing, blues, boogie woogie and country. Ultimately, though, I think it’s safe to say that Chuck’s music was a combination of Aaron “T-Bone” Walker and Louis Jordan. From Jordan, Berry took the drive; the swing, replacing Jordan’s sax with his electric guitar and, I think, the ability to write lyrics that tell vivid, detailed stories. As for the famous Berry guitar licks, they were actually from the T-Bone Walker school of the blues – with one notable exception: On January 23, 1946, Louis Jordan and his band The Tympani Five recorded “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” for Decca Records. The guitar intro was played by Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan, one of Chuck’s early guitar heroes. Twelve years later, in 1958, it would appear as the intro to Chuck’s “Johnny B. Goode,” itself a rock ‘n’ roll anthem. Just how many kids since 1958 copped that lick thinking it was Berry’s creation? How many consider that lick to be the greatest opening guitar lick in all of rock ‘n’ roll? Plenty, I’m sure. But I digress. The “Johnny” in the song is ultimately Chuck, with the name “Johnny” borrowed from Johnnie Johnson. Highly recommended: “Johnny B. Goode” as done by The Grateful Dead, found on their live, self-titled 1971 release, a.k.a. “Skull & Roses.” Eventually, Chuck recorded “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” in its entirety, on September 3, 1965.
Today, Louis Jordan is hailed as the father of rhythm and blues and arguably the father of rock ‘n’ roll. However, since my personal view of the rock ‘n’ roll landscape is a wide one, it’s impossible for me to choose one artist as the “king” or “father” of rock ‘n’ roll. Therefore, I think it’s appropriate calling Jordan the father of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Why, you ask? Because more than any other musician, Jordan built the foundation which ’50s rock ‘n’ roll directly rests upon. Some musicians to have fallen under the Louis Jordan spell include such titans as Bill Haley, James Brown, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, in addition to blues/R&B pioneers Gatemouth Brown, Rufus Thomas, Amos Milburn, Joe Liggins, Jimmy Liggins, Koko Taylor, Jack McVea, Joe Lutcher, Freddie King, and, more recently, Joe Jackson and Dave Alvin. To give an idea of just how important Louis Jordan is to rhythm and blues (and one might say to rock ‘n’ roll and to music in general), Billboard chart expert Joel Whitburn placed Jordan as the fifth most important R&B musician of All Time, behind James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and The Temptations (he tied with Stevie Wonder). Considering Jordan was only on the R&B charts for a total of 8 years (and spending 113 weeks of those years at #1) before the music was even called rhythm and blues as opposed to the length of time the others have been around, well, that’s a pretty significant achievement. Louis Jordan wasn’t called “The King Of The Jukeboxes” for nothing.
Texas blues great T-Bone Walker was ultra smooth, playing the guitar perpendicular to his body while pumping out biting guitar licks with jazz band accompaniment. As a youth, he led fellow Texas guitar great Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas. In 1929, the year of Jefferson’s death (his death was, like many aspects of the early blues pioneers, shrouded in mystery) Walker made his first recordings under the name “Oak Cliff” T-Bone. He didn’t record again until 1940, when he recorded with Les Hite’s band serving only as vocalist (Frank Pasley was the guitarist on the session.) It wasn’t until July 20, 1942, that he recorded as a leader, singing and playing electric guitar with boogie woogie pianist Freddie Slack, bassist Jud De Naut, and drummer Dave Coleman.
Musical barriers are built not so much by the musicians but by record store owners, critics, and most especially by the fans. I’m guilty of building barriers, myself. However, nobody is more open-minded musically than the musicians themselves. At least in most cases. As I’ve stated in the past, black and white musicians inspired each other, often covering the same material and recording for the same record company. On August 12, 1940, a white band called the Will Bradley Trio featuring Freddie Slack (piano), Doc Goldberg (string bass), Ray McKinley (lead vocal, drums; former drummer for the Dorsey brothers, in fact), and Don Raye (vocal) recorded a Don Raye composition under the direction of Bradley entitled “Down The Road A Piece” for Columbia Records. “Down The Road A Piece” as recorded by the Will Bradley Trio is a perfect example of white R&B (the personification of the white rhythm and blues artist is the great Louis Prima). At his first session, held on September 12, 1946, in Los Angeles, black boogie pianist and vocalist Amos Milburn cut a terrific version of “Down The Road A Piece.” Chuck Berry cut his version of the song fourteen years later, on April 12, 1960.
Note: In 1949, Billboard began using the term “rhythm and blues” to describe the then-current black music being recorded to replace the dated term “race.”
Speaking of white R&B, the team of Freddie Slack and Don Raye wrote a tune called “The House Of Blue Lights” which was recorded by white R&B vocalist Ella Mae Morse on May 18, 1946, for Capitol. Four years earlier, Morse’s “Cow Cow Boogie,” co-written by Raye, became the first hit for the label and sustained Capitol throughout the recording ban during the early years of World War II. On July 16, 1953, white hillbilly boogie/boogie-woogie pianist and vocalist Merrill Moore cut “The House Of Blue Lights” for Capitol (he first cut the tune at his debut Capitol session on May 5, 1952, but this version is unissued and is thought to be lost). In 1955, Chuck Miller, who sounds white to me, had a #9 pop hit with “The House Of Blue Lights” for Mercury Records. Chuck Berry cut the tune on June 12, 1958. “Carol” was also cut that day.
In 1941, Kansas City’s own Jay McShann recorded a tune called “Confessin’ The Blues” for Decca Records with Walter Brown handling the lead vocals (an early member of McShann’s big band during the early 1940s was another Kansas City legend: future pioneer Charlie Parker). “Confessin’ The Blues” has since become a blues standard, with covers done by blues greats Little Walter, B.B. King, Lowell Fulson, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker, Joe Williams, Jimmy Witherspoon, and countless others, including Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. It’s probably through the Chuck Berry version that the Stones came to the song, including it on their album 12×5, released in 1965 (Keith Richards stated that he stole every guitar lick Chuck Berry ever played.) Chuck recorded his version of “Confessing The Blues” on April 12, 1960, the same session that saw Chuck record “Down The Road A Piece.”
On October 26, 1953, blues singer/guitarist Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones recorded a tune called “The Things That I Used To Do” for Specialty Records, a small, independent label (one of many during this period) formed in 1946 by Art Rupe to record R&B material that the major labels (i.e., Columbia, RCA, etc.) wouldn’t touch. The musical director in charge of the session was Ray Charles, who shouted with joy towards the end of the released version (check it out!) due to the fact that they finally hit upon a useable take after several failed attempts by a drunken Guitar Slim. Chuck recorded his version on January 14, 1964. This day also saw the recording of original Chuck Berry material, including the hits “Nadine” and “You Never Can Tell.” The blues standard “Dust My Broom,” originally recorded by Robert Johnson as “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” in 1936 for Vocalion, and again by electric blues guitarist Elmore James in 1951 for Trumpet, was also covered by Berry at this session.
One of the many Christmas classics heard each holiday season is “Merry Christmas, Baby.” The song was first recorded in 1947 by The Blazers featuring singer/pianist Charles Brown. The group were formerly known as Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (Charles Brown: piano; Eddie Williams: bass; and Johnny Moore: guitar), but Johnny’s brother, guitarist Oscar Moore, left the Nat King Cole Trio to join his brother’s band. A few years earlier, on September 11, 1945, The Three Blazers recorded a Charles Brown original that went on to become a blues standard: “Drifting Blues”. Chuck Berry recorded his version on March 29, 1960. On this day, he also cut the blues standards “Don’t You Lie To Me” and “Worried Life Blues.”
Two of Charles Brown’s main inspirations were Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole (the latter of which also inspired Chuck Berry). Nat King Cole was an important influence on West Coast R&B piano men such as Cecil Gant, Ray Charles (who modeled himself after Charles Brown early in his career), and the previously-mentioned Amos Milburn (who, in turn, was a major inspiration to Fats Domino). The version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that’s played each year, though, is not the 1947 original cut for Exclusive Records, but rather Brown’s remake, cut on September 4, 1956, for Aladdin Records. Chuck Berry recorded his version on November 19, 1958, the same session that saw the recording of Chuck’s classic “Little Queenie.” “Merry Christmas, Baby” is recognizable to more modern ears through the live version cut by Bruce Springsteen in the mid-’80s.
Chuck Berry managed to hit the pop charts three times in 1964: “Nadine (Is It You?)” (#23), “No Particular Place To Go” (#10; remade by George Thorogood in 1982) and “You Never Can Tell” (#14; this was included on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994). Not bad at all considering that 1964 was the year The Beatles arrived on American soil and caused many of Chuck’s musical peers to fall out of favor with the teenage audience. In fact, Berry would have two more hits in the 1970s, remakes of two R&B classics recorded live in Manchester, England on February 3, 1972: “My Ding-A-Ling” became Berry’s only #1 pop hit, and “Reelin’ and Rockin'” would become a #27 hit for Chuck in 1973.
“My-Ding-A-Ling” was originally recorded in 1952 by New Orleans bandleader-producer-songwriter-trumpeter-arranger Dave Bartholomew, who was responsible for all of the recordings of Fats Domino and New Orleans singer/guitarist Smiley Lewis, who recorded many R&B classics, including the original version of “Blue Monday” in 1953, which ironically featured Fats Domino on piano. In 1954, an R&B band calling themselves The Bees recorded “My-Ding-A-Ling” as “Toy Bell” for Imperial Records, another indie label formed by Lew Chudd in 1949. Billy Bland, who, in 1960, had a Top Ten hit with “Let The Little Girl Dance,” was one of The Bees. On September 20, 1966, Berry recorded the tune as “My Tambourine.”
“Reelin’ & Rockin'” was originally the B-side to Chuck’s single “Sweet Little Sixteen,” released in January 1958, but the song was originally recorded for Philo Records as the two-part “Around The Clock” in July 1945 by R&B shouter Wynonie Harris. Not long after Harris cut the original, “Around The Clock” was recorded, again in two parts, by the aforementioned West Coast pianist Cecil Gant with Numa Lee Davis handling the vocals. In 1947, Big Joe Turner recorded the two-part “Around The Clock Blues.” By 1940s standards, however, the clock theme was not a new one: in 1922, Trixie Smith recorded “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll),” which had Trixie looking up at the clock every few hours (“I looked at the clock and the clock struck one… I said, ‘Now daddy, ain’t we got fun?'”) making “My Man…” an ancestor to “Around The Clock,” “Around The Clock Blues” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” On May 26, 1938, Trixie re-recorded “My Man” as “My Daddy Rocks Me” and “My Daddy Rocks Me No. 2” for Decca featuring some of the day’s hottest jazz artists: Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Sidney Bechet (clarinet/soprano sax), and Teddy Bunn (guitar). The clock theme, more specifically “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” reached a new audience in 1986 when George Thorogood included the song on his live album.
Like every other musician, Chuck Berry took what came before and made it uniquely his own. He updated the sounds and styles he grew up on, made them fresh, and presented them to then-modern ears. He wrote countless rock ‘n’ roll anthems and remains a true rock ‘n’ roll original. Many artists, especially the two biggest acts to fall under the Chuck Berry spell – The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – wouldn’t exist like we have come to love them if it wasn’t for Chuck Berry.
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Copyright 2006 JacoFan Music. All Rights Reserved.