I’ll never forget the last time I saw Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at 90.
It was about 10 years ago and I covered his outdoor concert at Silver Springs. I was on the side of the stage standing 15-20 feet from the man who is the father of rock and roll.
It was a late March afternoon, and a gentle breeze was in the air. Then, Chuck Berry — the man who inspired the Beatles, Rolling Stones and just about every guitar band – started playing Johnny B. Goode.
A giant flagpole towered above Berry as he hit those magical guitar licks and did that duck walk. I stared into the blinding sun and watched Chuck Berry playing under an American flag waving in the wind.
It was an existential rock and roll moment, and I wrote in a review for the Ocala Star-Banner:
“Looking up, you had to squint against the sunlight as the Stars and Stripes towered over the Berry in a symbolic melding of American symbols and icons.
Berry belongs to history as one of the founders of American music that changed the world. His music was born in another time but, like the man himself, it remains timeless.”
Chuck Berry was a revolutionary. He understood the power of the electric guitar and youth culture. He grew up in St. Louis and combined country, R&B, jazz and turned it into something called rock and roll.
Chuck Berry changed the world.
“Chuck Berry was rock and roll,” Gerry “Rocky” Seader of Rocky and the Rollers said Saturday. “No one was better than Chuck Berry.
“I was lucky enough in my career to have worked with him and played drums for him. It was an honor and one of the highlights of my career.” Here’s Berry and Keith Richards playing “Nadine”:
“To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection,” Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, inducting Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
John Lennon put it this way: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.” Here’s video of Lennon talking about Berry:
“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry,” Stevie Wonder once said.
Jerry Lee Lewis said this about Mr. Berry:
[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.’”
Merle Haggard: “Chuck Berry influenced everything. I liked the way he acted. I liked the way he played. I liked the way he sang. I liked the way he wrote songs.”
Berry’s hit list includes such rock standards as: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Sweet Little 16,” “Maybelline,” “Memphis,” “Rock’n’Roll Music,” “Oh Carol,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Promised Land” and too many more to mention.
But it wasn’t just music that made Berry so special. Berry took language and turned into lyrical majesty. Long before Bob Dylan came along, Berry was writing rock and roll poetry.
“He was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby I love you so,’” John Lennon once said in a television interview.
“Chuck Berry is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. “He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan. I’ve loved everything he’s done, ever. He was in a different class from the other performers.”
Here are some of my favorite Chuck Berry lines:
Johnny B. Goode:
He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Or sit beneath the tree by the railroad track.
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade,
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made.
The people passing by, they would stop and say,
“Oh, my, but that little country boy could play!”
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
Nadine, honey is that you?
Honey, where are you?
Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot
Hail, hail rock’n’roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock’n’roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock’n’roll
The feelin’ is there body and soul
Here’s a video for “School Days”:
Berry talked about songwriting at udiscovermusic.com: “Most of my songs come from either personal experience or other people’s experiences, or ideas I get from watching people.
“I would say I aim specifically to entertain and make people happy with my music, which is why I try to put as much humor into my lyrics as possible.”
Berry’s lifestyle could be controversial and he spent time in jail during the late 1950s. But he always came back. I covered him many times, and I remember seeing him arrive at a gig a few minutes before showtime. He drove a big Cadillac and would pull his guitar out of his trunk.
Then he would hit the stage and start playing.
Soon as the show was over, Berry would jump in the car and take off to the next gig.
So it was for the great Chuck Berry. He never left rock and roll. He was working on a new CD at the time of his death. “It’s so sad,” said local DJ Al Brady, adding Berry was one of a kind in rock history.
“The life of Chuck Berry has always been a profound gift to rock and roll,” Brady said Saturday. “Every artist that I worked with has given Chuck Berry credit as their No. 1 influence in music. He truly was a rock and roll poet.
“Johnny B. Goode was by far the best “biographical” song that became his signature tune. If you were a performer and called upon to work a Chuck Berry show, you either knew his music or you were asked to leave the stage — NO rehearsal — just a show. The most obvious conclusion you can make of Chuck Berry, is that his name will always be synonymous with rock n roll.”
I’ll always remember the scene from the movie “Back to the Future.” Michael J. Fox gets transported back to 1955. He jumps on stage and plays a scorching version of “Johnny B. Goode.”
High school kids in the audience just stand there in shock with their mouths open. They never heard rock and roll before. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for this yet, but your kids are going to love it,” Fox tells them.
As Bob Seger used to sing: “We’re all Chuck’s children.”
It’s strange now, living in a world without Chuck Berry. Ever since I was kid, he and his music were always there. Chuck’s gone but as long as some young kid plugs in a guitar and starts playing a garage, the spirit of Berry will live on. You can count on it.
Now, all I can say is: Hail, Hail, Chuck Berry.
Tony Violanti writes about entertainment for Villages-News.com