Who was most important to early Rock and Roll? “Elvis” is too easy an answer. Little Richard says it was him. Could be. An argument could be made for Buddy Holly. Ike Turner was the first to record a rock and roll song according to some historians when he recorded “Rocket 88.” Bill Haley and the Comets were early, but were probably derivative of other artists. It’s pretty easy to make an argument for a native of St. Louis besides Mr. Turner: Mr. Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry was the first person to make the English language into a poetry of Rock and Roll. He was more dangerous than Fats Domino (who kept his danger on the down-low). He created the role of guitar hero. He created the first signature stage moves of rock and roll (can you say, “Duck Walk?” Sure you can.) He also embodied the emergent rock and roll lifestyle, which derailed his career more than once. I learned many of his songs from other artists. I learned “Back in the USA” from Linda Ronstadt. I learned “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” from Ricky Nelson. I learned “You Never Can Tell” from Emmylou Harris, “Roll Over Beethoven” from E.L.O., “Rock And Roll Music” from the Beatles, “Promised Land” from the resurgent, late sixties Elvis. In every case it was a testament to his incredible song writing: Sweet Sixteen, School Day, Johnny B. Goode. The list just goes on and on.
I’ve mentioned that I recently saw Neil Young in Knoxville. He had been at the top of my list of artists I had never heard in concert and I wanted to see before I die (or they do, whichever comes first) since I missed seeing him in 1976 due to a cancelled concert. So, if number one is removed from the list, someone new must ascend to the top of the charts, right? In my case, the new trinity at the top became Van Morrison, Fats Domino and Mr. Berry. I’ve never been close to a Van Morrison concert and Fats only plays at the New Orlean’s Jazz festival, which is when I’m working. It turns out Chuck plays once a month at a club called “Blue Berry Hill.” This was the reason for the trip to Saint Louis. It was a pilgrimage to pay homage to the 83 year old “architect” (as one serious victim of man-love in the audience yelled), or, perhaps more accurately, the archetype.
The room where he plays holds about 250 people. At $35 a ticket, no one is getting rich. Chuck came out in good spirits, looking lanky and healthy. His playing and lyrical recall isn’t quite what it used to be, though there were occasional bursts of staccato muscle memory in which his fingers would fly through the lines or he would spit out lyrics that would not have been easy for many young men to repeat with such machine gun rapidity. His son played guitar behind him and a steady cast of musicians kept the train on the track when a derailment seemed eminent. He demonstrated more power at age 83 to move women (see photograph below) than most men ever have in a lifetime. Through the entire hour of music he kept his humor about forgotten lyrics and other foibles and gave what he has to give. He is a treasure and it was entirely worth the 500 miles.
So what does this have to do with Knoxville? Nothing that I can think of. So demand your money back! It’s Chuck Berry! Indulge me once in a while. Next up will be St. Louis, Part Three and it has a big time Knoxville tie-in, in which I’ll ask for your help.