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Berry the hatchet

Posted by Sid Langley on Monday, July 16, 2007

An unexpected (and, frankly, unwelcome) guest is ushered into the hallway. From the depths of my settee several yards and one welcome doorway away I’m deeply involved in a newly acquired DVD and don’t really want to be sociable. Mind you, I never want to be sociable, new DVD or not.
 Anyway, UG (that’s Unwelcome Guest for the less sharp among you) hears the song I’m enjoying in the distance and enthusiastically yells: “Is that Bob Dylan?” UG now disappears from this narrative (and my life, with any luck).
 The casual question from UG reported above stayed with me for days, gently radiating through my muddy synapses like a warm glow. Because, you see, I was listening to Charles Edward Anderson Berry, known to all but his family as Chuck, and still gigging at 81.
 I was listening to Too Much Monkey Business. And he does sound like Bob Dylan. Actually, it’s the other way round, of course. Listen to Mr Zimmerman’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and you’ll see how Monkey Business shall we politely say “inspired” it many years later.
 Berry influenced everyone, he’s one of the great originals, a fact that comes over loud and clear in the newly-reissued DVD by Taylor Hackford (husband of England’s sainted Dame Illiana Lydia Petrovna Mironova aka The Queen).
 Hackford’s fine film was first released in 1987, now a two-disc or four-disc version is available. It’s a record of a 60th birthday concert played by Chuck Berry in his home town of St Louis – at the same theatre, incidentally, where as an 11-year-old he was turned away from the movie A Tale of Two Cities because, “you people aren’t allowed in here.”
 Chuck, a shrewd businessman from a very educated and middle class background, instinctively understood how to exploit America’s racial divide. Poor white working class boys like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis ripped off the blues music of urban blacks – get up Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog on YouTube to see exactly what I mean. But trickster Chuck, who could play the blues as well as any (he loved Muddy Waters) started performing what he called “hillbilly” tunes with clear diction on his live club shows because they went down so well with the increasing number of whites in the audience. Interesting to hear Roy Orbison say of Chuck “I always thought he was a country singer.”
 It is no coincidence that Mr Berry’s breakthrough hit, Maybelline, was “inspired” by Ida Red, a bluegrass tune made famous by Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys. Fascinating from this distance to hear Chuck talk about deliberately tailoring his songs to his audience. Modern marketing minds would be proud of him if not of other aspects of his career ...
 Right, I don’t want to stray into the UG category myself, so I’ll be off now, with a warm recommendation to all to catch Hail, Hail Rock ’n’ Roll, if only for the scene where Chuck nearly floors Keith Richards for fiddling with his amplifier settings.
 Great story, too, from Jerry Lee Lewis.

4 comments on “Berry the hatchet”

HoosierGal Says:
Monday, July 16, 2007 @6:46:59 PM

I love Hail Hail Rock and Roll (and Maybellin, and Ding a Ling and.. just about any other song he ever did) .. but because I used to sing in my bedroom with a fake microphone to Johnny B. Goode and had learned all the words so I could sound like a pro.. LOL - it's going to be stuck in my head all night. lol

Joanchek Says:
Monday, July 16, 2007 @11:54:51 PM

I asked a question or two tonight in my game about Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who were a great inspiration to many artists as well.  Hank Ballard didn't make it big because his lyrics were too risque for a lot of radio stations at the time (and some would still raise eyebrows today.. "I want to make a little cream...")

I love rockabilly, and early rock in general.  I have a CD collection called "Fast Loud and Out of Control" which has revived many a lagging party.

stanger Says:
Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @1:49:15 AM

Chuck really connected things- rhythm & blues crossed with country, crossed with all of Bill Hailey's rock-as-teen-music, and took it all higher. White kids and black kids all hooked right up with his music, and he was the REAL prototype for all the other stuff that followed. A great musicain!

twayneking Says:
Saturday, September 8, 2007 @10:51:46 PM

A strange little man, our Chuck!

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