The prerequisites of geniusMarch 19, 2017
Unlike a lot of the kids he would inspire, Chuck Berry was a professional musician first, and a rock ’n’ roller by opportunity. He began as a rhythm and blues sideman — there are stories that he played his first professional gigs as early as 1936, when he was 10 years old. The Chuck Berry Trio had been a successful club act in St. Louis for years before Berry ventured north to Chicago to audition for Leonard Chess in the spring of 1955.
Berry was drawn to Chess because it was the recording label of his two largest influences, the bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Legend has it that Waters himself directed Berry to Chess’ office.
That’s not to say that Berry sounded like either of these rumbling giants. Unlike Elvis, a would-be crooner whom Sam Phillips groomed into a rockabilly singer, Berry’s style — that seemingly effortless and perfectly natural amalgamation of country, blues, swing, folk and Chevrolet ads — was apparently well established before he ever cut a side for Chess. Berry’s guitar playing was more influenced by Louis Jordan’s boogie-woogie technician Carl Hogan and jazz guitarist Charlie Christian than any blues player, and his well-observed and comic lyrics were strictly his own.
Chess signed him on the spot, and other than suggesting that a song called “Ida Red” be retitled “Maybellene” (there was already a country song titled “Ida Red”) and supplying Berry with a microphone, did very little to mold Berry’s style. “Maybellene” went to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts in 1955.
By the end of 1956, Berry was selling more records than any of the established Chess blues artists, as white teens picked up on his sound. Between 1956 and 1958, Berry had a burst of creativity unequaled by any rock songwriter/performer with the possible exception of Buddy Holly. Most of Berry’s singles in this period — including “Rock & Roll Music,” “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Little Queenie” and “Memphis, Tennessee” — have become rock standards.
And then, in 1959, he was arrested for the Mann Act violation. He went to prison in 1961 and served two years. Released in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, Berry still had a few bullets left to fire —most notably the sweet “You Never Can Tell” and “No Particular Place to Go” (which was “School Day” with new lyrics). But only a few.
By the late ’60s, Chuck Berry was an oldies act. It was ironic that a lot of people know Berry for his biggest commercial success. His first No. 1 single came in 1972 with “My Ding-a-Ling,” an irrelevant, naughty, novelty sing-along.
Most people will remember how in Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film Back to the Future, there is a sequence in which Michael J. Fox (as Marty McFly) finds himself playing guitar in the band at the high school prom where his parents will (he hopes) finally fall in love. After a rendition of the then-current “Earth Angel,” an excited Marty begins to play the opening riff of “Johnny B. Goode” (an “oldie” to him, but not to the class of 1955, since the record wasn’t released until 1957). Marty begins to sing and duck walk, sliding across the stage on his knees, in a performance so vivid (Fox is really good in this sequence) that the bandleader, Marvin Berry (played by Harry Waters Jr.) is prompted to call his cousin — Chuck — and hold up the phone so he can listen.
“You know that new sound you’ve been looking for?” Marvin gasps into the receiver.
It is a wry joke that some people find offensive because it suggests a callow white teen-ager might have given Chuck Berry the idea for his sound. I think they’re missing the point. Marty’s covering a song, not creating one.
And the joke works largely because Berry’s sound is inexplicable. It’s impossible to imagine how anyone could have come up with it on his own, without the help of some outside agency. Maybe aliens taught him to play; maybe, like Robert Johnson, he sold his soul to the devil. There is no logical, earthly explanation. Except this. Chuck Berry is a genius.
A cranky, ribald genius who maybe didn’t care as much about his music as we think he ought have, a problematic genius with tendencies criminal, but nonetheless a genius.