Berry, who turns 90 on Tuesday influenced all Rock Artists with ’50s rock ‘n’ roll hits such as Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode and Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. While the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Who and Roger Waters have been partying at the two-weekend Desert Trip Festival in Indio, there is no plan to salute Berry, and few plans to celebrate his birthday anywhere in the country.
Tuesday is also the 30th anniversary of two concerts staged for Barry’s 60th birthday in St. Louis by Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Oscar-nominated director Taylor Hackford filmed those concerts as the centerpiece for his documentary, Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. But this time around celebrations are more low key with Berry himself who lives in St. Louis, Missouri, not slating any performances, according to his website.
Yet, people who have worked with Berry say the Desert Trip Festival artists will remember him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the stars are aware,” said Bobby Craig, a rock ’n’ roll pianist who played with Berry in the 1980’s and Elvis Presley in the 1970’s in Palm Springs. “They probably are doing some things just on their own. Those guys are clearly of the age that had their socks knocked off by Chuck Berry — because Chuck Berry broke all the rules. His records were great, his tunes were great, the ideas he sang about were great. I think they have to know that.”
The Rolling Stones were actually formed after Mick Jagger saw Richards holding a Chuck Berry record at the Dartford railway station in Kent, England. They had been elementary school classmates, Richards wrote in his book, Life, he thought he was the only Berry fan around until discovering Jagger had “every Chuck Berry ever made.” Jagger invited Richards to hang out with his cadre of R&B fans and they began playing music, with Richards playing electric guitar “Chuck-style.” Dylan has said he was into Chuck Berry before discovering Woody Guthrie and turning to folk. His first rock hit, Subterranean Homesick Blues, is directly influenced by Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.
The Beatles had hits with Berry compositions such as Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music and Sweet Little Sixteen, and McCartney called Berry “one of greatest poets America has ever produced” in an introduction to the 2014 release of Berry’s complete studio recordings. Neil Young played with Berry and Richards at Berry’s 1986 induction into the first class of the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, in which Richards said in his induction speech for his hero, “I lifted every lick he ever played.”
Berry was born to middle class parents in segregated St. Louis. He got in trouble with the law when he ran away from home with two high school dropouts at age 17. When their tires blew out and they had no money for food, Berry wrote, one of them robbed a bakery shop of $62. Berry found a fire-damaged gun in a used car lot and robbed a barbershop for $32. Then, they held up a clothing store for $52.
With that haul, they were able to buy a tire and a rim and some food to continue their journey west. A rod blew on Berry’s 1937 Oldsmobile at 3:30 a.m. After a couple hours of standing on the roadside, waiting for someone to give them a push, a man in a Chevy coupe stopped and offered to help. Berry flashed his defective gun and told him to move over “‘cuz he was driving.” The guy bolted out of the passenger door, and Berry and a buddy lined up his car to start pushing Berry’s Oldsmobile back to St. Louis with the other friend at the wheel.
A state trooper was waiting for them 10 minutes down the road, alerted by the Chevy owner who had scooted out of the passenger seat and ran to a phone booth. Berry was arrested and advised by an inexpensive lawyer to plead guilty and seek mercy from the court. The trial lasted 21 minutes. Berry said he was sentenced to the maximum 10 years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men near Jefferson City, Mo.
When he was paroled on his 21st birthday, Berry returned to St. Louis and eventually began singing and playing guitar at parties, then nightclubs. He discovered that whenever he’d sing country songs he’d get a big reaction, even from African-American audiences. Eventually, he and his band — including pianist Johnny Johnson — gained enough of a reputation to get asked to record for Chess Records in Chicago. Their 1955 recording of Maybelline became the first song to fuse country and the blues into what became known as rock ’n’ roll.
Fats Domino, Little Richard and Bo Diddley all wrote and recorded songs that could be considered rock ’n’ roll before Berry. But no one wrote and recorded hit songs as prolifically as Berry. With Elvis bringing a mix of R&B and country to a white audience, they created a pop cultural revolution 60 years ago this year. Berry would serve two more sentences behind bars, once for a violation of the seldom-enforced Mann Act and another for a tax evasion.
Berry was a victim of the payola and corruption that was prevalent in rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s. So, by the 1960’s, Berry always took his payment in advance in cash and wouldn’t perform if conditions weren’t up to his specifications. The promoter was even required to find a backup band for Berry and they rarely rehearsed. There’s no question that Berry was a victim of racism and bad management. He got ripped off on his first big hit, Maybelline. But, you know what? He learned. It’s like, ‘Fool me once, it’s your fault, fool me twice, it’s my fault.’ He never got fooled again. He made a ton of money in his life.
So on this great survivors 90th Birthday, let’s say it loud, let’s say it proud, Hail, hail Rock and Roll!
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry – American guitarist, singer and songwriter and is one of the pioneers of rock and roll music – October 18, 1926, St. Louis, Missouri, United States
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