Ridin’ along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel.
The lyrics are all rock ‘n’roll, but you didn’t have to wait for the lyrics. By the start of the second bar you know it’s Chuck Berry. It’s like that with all his tunes, isn’t it? Of course occasionally it isn’t Chuck Berry, but instead one of the many bands who launched a career interpreting his music. Listen for instance to Sweet Little 16 followed by Surfin USA…
When I was a teenager I loved all kinds of early rock’n’roll, but in particular what I considered the big 3, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Listen to Johnny B Goode, Roadrunner and Lucille and you have in that package so many rock’n’roll moves we’ve heard again and again by dozens of musicians.
What was the first rock’n’roll song? I don’t know. Something happened there in the mid 50s, some kind of shift in the space-time continuum I suppose. I’ve heard people suggest that Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (AKA Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm) was the first, but I think of it as more like the last of whatever you want to call what came before. That was in 1951.
By the time 1955 came along, Chuck Berry recorded another tune about riding in a car – Maybellene, and it was pure rock ‘n’roll. Maybellene, why can’t ya be true? Man, she was ridin’ along in that Coupe deVille and they were going fast down the highway. The song was driven by Berry’s guitar sound and it was exciting.
Never mind that the tune was borrowed from an old fiddle tune called Ida Red. Here’s Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers….
That was yesterday. Maybellene was in the moment. It was urgent. It was happening, that V8 Ford was chasing down Maybellene in her Coup deVille. Cars and Sex. It was fun and just a little bit dangerous. Not full on dangerous the way the blues was. Pat Hare singing I’m Gonna Murder my Baby wasn’t going to sell to those white kids. That was 1954 but nobody was going mistake it for rock ‘n’roll. Instead of a rhythm driving down the tracks like the evening train, complete with an infectious backbeat, Hare’s guitar was grungy, distorted and downright ugly. No harmless teen-aged fun there.
Good morning judge and your jury too. I got a few things I’m gonna say to you. I’m gonna murder my baby. I just thought you’d like to know judge.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been out of step with my time when it comes to music. After all the first record (remember those?) in my collection – at age 7 or 8 – was a 78 my dad brought home for me. Ernest Tubb – Walkin’ the Floor over You. I memorized the lyrics and couldn’t understand why the other kids at school didn’t know it. That nurtured my love for music. I started listening to the old rock ‘n’ roll material early on, before stumbling into Bob Dylan’s music and the blues in high school.
I remember when I first heard Chuck Berry. It must have been Johnny B Goode. My feet were instantly tapping. Go Johnny Go. I could feel that music surge through my body and I had never heard anything quite like it before. It was about being young and alive; it was about growing up.
Chuck Berry had a narrow repertoire. With the exception of his late novelty hit, My Ding-aling, most of the tunes all shared the same feel, the same driving guitar, the same themes. That doesn’t matter if your repertoire is narrow, though, when what you have is that good. Today I asked my friend Russ what he thought was the best Chuck Berry song and we talked about it for a while. It’s so hard to nail down because they’re all fantastic. Johnnie B Goode; Rock & Roll Music; Sweet Little Sixteen; Memphis Tennessee; Brown Eyed Handsome Man; Nadine; School Days; Sweet Little Rock & Roller; Maybellene; Back in the USA; Promised Land. The list goes on and on. How many musicians have that many tunes that are all that good?
Chuck Berry passed yesterday at age 90. He was important to me growing up. I loved his music because it was fun and felt good. (Later, things got more confusing for me of course, when a decade after it was recorded I heard Bob Dylan’s exaggerated HOW DOES IT FEEL!?) As someone who loves music and music history, I can’t imagine what rock ‘n’ roll would have been like without Chuck Berry. For me, he’s been there all my life, laying down the groove, doing that goofy duck-walk, wearing those flashy shirts.
Chuck has moved on to the Promised Land. The music has changed along the way, but we can expect that, even when it seems to go down the wrong way. I’ll leave you with one last Chuck Berry song. It came out in 1964, after Mr. Berry emerged from a prison term. Did he have any more tunes left in him? Well he borrowed the melody from Wabash Cannonball for this one, but that’s easily forgotten, because he’s transformed it into the ultimate road trip tune. I think maybe this one is my fave.
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana, just help me get to Houston Town.
There are people there who care a little about 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.
I have a bit of a sad story about Chuck Berry well after his hay-day. I went with a buddy to see him perform at the old Ontario Place Forum. They had a pick-up band backing him up with a Hammond Organ and really muddy sound. Women kept climbing the barriers and running up to Chuck to give him a kiss and Chuck he was some pissed off about that, at one point saying if one more person comes onto stage he would stop the show, which I think he actually did at one point. It was a terrible show but it didn’t matter. We heard Chuck Berry perform some Chuck Berry tunes and that was all that counted. Bad nights like that are easily forgiven if not forgotten when you’ve offered so much to our culture.
To this day whenever I hear a Chuck Berry song, I can’t stop my foot from tapping and I think, yeah I could even dance to this.
Chuck Berry RIP