Chuck Berry, cited by a wide swath of artists as the definitive influence on American rock ‘n’ roll, turned 90 on Tuesday.
He’s celebrating in part by announcing a new album, titled Chuck, that will see release in 2017. Comprised mostly of originals, it’s Berry’s first album in 38 years. Recorded primarily in his native St. Louis, Missouri, the album features his longtime backing group that includes son Charles Berry Jr. (guitar), daughter Ingrid Berry (harmonica) and his bassist of forty years, Jimmy Marsala. The group has accompanied Berry for over two decades’ worth of residency shows (some 200 performances) at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill club.
“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Berry said in a statement, referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’, I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
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“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon famously said while introducing Berry on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972. An untold number of rock luminaries would be quick to agree.
Born in 1926, Berry had a middle-class upbringing and was playing the blues by 15, but while still in high school was sent to the reformatory for stealing a car. Released on his 21st birthday, he took the blues licks (and showmanship) he’d learned from older artists like T-Bone Walker and combined them with his abiding love for country music from Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers. The resulting combination — the excitement of “jump” and early R&B music, blues licks and showmanship, country chords and melody — became the template for rock ‘n’ roll swiftly adopted (or pillaged) by white artists like the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Berry was, more than almost any other early architect of rock and roll, a true rebel. He often felt shortchanged by the attention other (white) artists got by covering his songs, and wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure. The Beach Boys were taken to court after “borrowing” the music to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their own “Surfin’ U.S.A.” But Berry got a little more personal when the Beatles’ “Come Together” cribbed lyrics from his tune, “You Can’t Catch Me.”
During a duet with Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show, Berry changing the song’s key from F to E as the cameras rolled. Lennon was apparently thrown off by the switch and fumbled the guitar solo. Still, he was thrilled to perform alongside one of his idols.
Berry served jail time in the ’60s and continued his stretch of idiosyncratic behavior as he toured steadily over the decades. One legend recounts him demanding a paper bag full of $10,000 cash from promoters for 30 minutes of performance. Berry would drive up to the venue himself, cart his amp and guitar onstage, and play for the agreed-upon length of time with the pick-up group of musicians he’d usually never met. When the time was up, he collected his fee and driving away.
Keith Richards, a devoted fan on the order of Lennon, was also on the receiving end of Berry’s anger. Richards was backstage at a Berry gig, and picked up Berry’s guitar when he was out of the room. Berry walked in, saw Richards, said “Nobody touches my guitar,” and struck the Rolling Stone in the face. “One of Chuck’s biggest hits,” Richards dryly recounted in 2014 on The Tonight Show.
And if you needed any other proof of Berry’s influence, consider the fact that he’s quite literally intergalactic. “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock and roll song to be included on NASA’s “Golden Record” aboard the Voyager spacecraft, where he nestles up quite against Mozart, Stravinsky Beethoven and Bach. The disc is currently in interstellar space, as part of the furthest human-made object from Earth.
Happy 90th, Chuck — to infinity and beyond.