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Music / Chuck Berry

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Chuck Berry in the 1950s.

If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'

Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry (October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017) was an American Rock & Roll guitarist, singer and songwriter best known for his string of pioneering hit singles during The '50s. Indisputably one of the most important and influential performers of all time, his best known songs include "Roll Over Beethoven", "Maybellene", and especially "Johnny B. Goode", which had the honor of being sent into space on the Voyager Golden Records in 1977. It's generally considered that if it weren't for the racism at the time of his fame, Berry would have been crowned "King Of Rock And Roll" instead of Elvis Presley by a vast majority.

Although his output slowed after a run-in with the law which saw him convicted for some time (in circumstances similar to those that wrecked the career of Jerry Lee Lewis) and his hit-making period was over by the mid 1960s (with the exception of his only number-one hit, 1972's "My Ding-A-Ling"), Berry's influence on subsequent performers was significant. He was widely covered and cited as major influence by many British Invasion bands, such as The Animals, The Beatles, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds.

Like his contemporaries Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry remained fairly active over the past sixty years. On his 90th birthday in 2016, he announced that he was working on new songs for the first time since 1979, after decades of insisting he was too old to put out any more work. He thankfully managed to finish recording one final album before his death in March of the following year.

Rolling Stone recognizes him as the seventh greatest guitarist of all time on their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Studio Discography:

  • 1956 - Rock, Rock, Rock
  • 1957 - After School Sessions
  • 1958 - One Dozen Berrys
  • 1959 - Chuck Berry Is On Top
  • 1960 - Rockin' At The Hops
  • 1961 - New Juke Box Hits
  • 1964 - Two Great Guitars note 
  • 1964 - St. Louis To Liverpool
  • 1965 - Chuck Berry In London
  • 1965 - Fresh Berry's
  • 1967 - Chuck Berry's Golden Hits
  • 1967 - Chuck Berry In Memphis
  • 1968 - From St. Louis To Frisco
  • 1969 - Concerto In B. Goode
  • 1970 - Back Home
  • 1971 - San Francisco Dues
  • 1972 - The London Chuck Berry Sessions note 
  • 1973 - Bio
  • 1975 - Chuck Berry
  • 1979 - Rock It
  • 1987 - Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll
  • 2017 - Chuck

Live Discography:

  • 1963 - Chuck Berry On Stage note 
  • 1967 - Live At The Fillmore Auditorium
  • 1972 - The London Chuck Berry Sessions note 
  • 1978 - Chuck Berry Live In Concert
  • 1981 - Alive And Rockin'
  • 1981 - Chuck Berry Live
  • 1982 - Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival 1969 Vol. II
  • 1982 - Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival 1969 Vol. III
  • 2000 - Live!
  • 2000 - Live On Stage note 
  • 2002 - Chuck Berry - In Concert

"Let me hear some of that trope and roll music, any old time you choose it":

  • Abridged for Children: His version of "Merry Christmas Baby" changes the present in the first verse from a diamond ring to a hi-fi, and changes the last line from "I haven't had a drink this morning, but I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree" to "I will always love you baby. Now I'm happy as I can be", presumably to make it slightly more suitable for his teen fanbase.
  • Audience Participation Song: One of most proliferated recordings of "My Ding-a-Ling" involves him getting the audience to sing the chorus back to him.
  • B-Side: A number of his best-known songs were actually the B-side of their respective singles, most notably "Memphis, Tennessee" (the A-side was "Back in the USA").
  • Bait-and-Switch: "Memphis, Tennessee" appears to be a standard teenage love story about a guy desperately trying to get in touch with his girlfriend Marie, whose mother disapproves of them seeing each other. The last verse reveals that Marie is not his girlfriend but his daughter.
  • Berserk Button: Touching his guitar was a very bad idea. Keith Richards did, and got punched in the mouth for his troubles.
  • Call-and-Response Song: "School Day" features a contrapuntal pattern between Berry's vocal and his guitar.
  • Car Song: Starting with "Maybellene", these were a common part of his work. He even did a song about buying a car ("No Money Down").
  • Christmas Songs: Both sides of his 1958 Christmas single are still heard frequently today: "Run Rudolph Run" (not written by him, but very much in his Signature Style), and his version of the Johnny Moore/Charles Brown classic "Merry Christmas Baby".
  • Concert Film: He is one of the performers in the seminal 1960 concert film Jazz on a Summer's Day. A little bit of Oddball in the Series since, as the title indicates, all the other performers were jazz acts while Berry was rock & roll. He is also prominently featured in 1964 rock and roll concert film T.A.M.I. Show.
  • Cover Version: One of the most popular sources for covers, especially by the artists of The British Invasion during the sixties.
  • Cutting Corners: To save money, he notoriously didn't assemble a band to travel with him, instead requiring concert promoters to hire a backing band for each show. Hired to open for Berry in 1973 just as his career was kicking off, Bruce Springsteen learned about this and volunteered the services of himself and the E Street Band to back Berry, in an incident that would became legendary over the years.
  • Dirty Old Man: As the infamous "video cameras in the women's bathroom" incident can attest to.
    • Then there's the sex tapes....The less said about those, the better.
    • Casey, the protagonist of "Too Pooped To Pop" is an elderly man who hangs out at teen dances, so he could well have been one (though the song is more critical of his dancing skills).
  • "Double, Double" Title: Rock, Rock, Rock is made of just repeating "Rock".
  • Double Entendre: "My Ding-a-Ling." The whole song is basically one big double entendre, with nothing terribly subtle about it. With the refrain "I want to play with my ding-a-ling!" it borders on being a single entendre.
  • Epic Rocking: The instrumental "Concerto In B. Goode", at 18:40, is easily 5-6 times longer than most of his other songs.
  • Flying Car: "You Can't Catch Me".
  • Gratuitous French: "You Never Can Tell" includes "monsieur and madam have rung the chapel bell/C'est la vie said the old folks, goes to show you never can tell." Possibly justified, since the groom in the song is named Pierre, and there's a reference to "Orleans", which could place the song's events in either France or Louisiana.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: "La Juanda" from One Dozen Berrys, where the narrator tries to pick up a woman in Tijuana but runs into a Language Barrier.
  • Heavy Meta: "Rock And Roll Music", "School Days", "Roll Over Beethoven". It was really what most of his lyrics were about.
  • Hurricane of Puns: In "Nadine" it's more like Hurricane of Similes ("like a wayward summer breeze", "like a mounted cavalier").
  • I Can't Dance: "Carol".
  • Jerkass: Many have theorised that his adherence to this trope, as exemplified through his numerous instances of abrasive or outright violent behavior, is at least part of what kept him from becoming as big as someone like Elvis, who was the epitome of the Nice Guy.
  • Lead Singer Plays Lead Guitar: He played many riffs, solos, and sang his songs.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: The title character of "Jo Jo Gunne" is a "meddlesome monkey" who pulls this scheme on a lion and elephant.
  • Listing Cities: Most famously "Sweet Little Sixteen" (Boston, Pittsburgh, Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans, Philadelphia), but also "Back in the U.S.A." (New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, St. Louis) and "Promised Land" (about a guy who travels from Virginia to California).
  • Motor Mouth: Several songs, most famously "Too Much Monkey Business".
  • Neologism: "Motorvatin' ", from "Maybellene" (and later "No Money Down"), "botheration" in "Too Much Monkey Business".
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Let it Rock", which is not an ode to The Power of Rock but an uptempo Blues song about working on a railroad.
  • Ode to Youth: "School Day" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin: An account of an everyday 1950s school day, up to the point where they finally let you out of school and you get to listen to rock and roll and dance.
    Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!
    Deliver me from the days of old!
  • One-Man Song: "Johnny B. Goode" examines the life of the titular guitarist, a poor kid living in the forests of New Orleans who dreams of becoming a famous musician.
  • Perspective Flip: The two Sequel Songs to "Johnny B. Goode" examine the original song's events from the point of view of other people relevant to Johnny's life. "Bye Bye Johnny" examines the story from the perspective of his mother, while "Lady B. Goode" looks at it through the eyes of his wife.
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "You Never Can Tell" got a new life briefly due to it being featured in the big John Travolta-Uma Thurman dance sequence in Pulp Fiction.
  • Road Trip Plot: "Promised Land" has the narrator finagle his way from Norfolk to Los Angeles by bus, train and plane.
  • Rock Star Song: "Johnny B. Goode" is about a young guitar player dreaming of stardom. The sequel "Bye Bye Johnny" reveals he made it.
  • Rockumentary: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, about his star-studded 60th birthday concerts in 1986.
  • The Scrooge: He would rather go to jail (for the second time, even!) than pay a fine when he was sentenced for tax fraud in the seventies. When he went on tour, he demanded that the local organisers provide him with a backing band, because he didn't want to pay travelling expenses for his own band.
  • Self-Plagiarism:
    • "No Particular Place to Go" is basically "School Day" with different lyrics.
    • "Thirty Days" is a pretty blatant knockoff of "Maybellene".
    • "Little Queenie" and "Run Rudolph Run" have identical guitar intros and generally sound like one another (the main difference is that Berry didn't write "Run Rudolph Run").
    • Let's just say he wasn't ashamed to reuse a good guitar riff.
    • "Big Boys" from Chuck uses the same opening as "Johnny B. Goode."
  • Sequel Song: A Trope Codifier for this, with "Johnny B. Goode"/"Bye Bye Johnny" and "Memphis"/"Little Marie". "Johnny B. Goode" would receive another sequel song in 2017 with "Lady B. Goode".
  • Something Blues: While he wasn't a blues singer, he recorded for one of the definitive blues labels (Chess) and it's reflected in titles like "Drifting Blues," "St. Louis Blues" and "Worried Life Blues"
  • Take That!: "Roll Over Beethoven" is a double case - both at the composer, and at his parents who didn't let him use their piano since it was only for his sister's classical training.
    Roll over Beethoven, and dig these rhythm'n'blues!
  • Trope Maker:
    • Along with Elvis Presley sideman Scotty Moore, Berry is the trope maker for guitar-based rock and roll.
    • It's important enough that he was rock's first singer-songwriter, but he also pioneered lyrical tropes like clever wordplay, Slice of Life and Heavy Meta.
  • 12-Bar Blues: Like all 50's rockers, it's a staple of his songs.
  • Unusual Euphemism: My Ding-A-Ling for his penis.
  • Wham Line:
    • For most of "Memphis", it sounds like the singer is trying to get in touch with his old girlfriend Marie, until the last lines and the twist:
    Marie is only six years old, Information, please!
    Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee
    • "Dear Dad". The narrator spends the song complaining about his Ford and asking his dad for a new car. The last line reveals that the narrator is Henry Ford's son.