Putting music to the original sin

by Alberto D. Prieto

What is it if it's not classical music? Whatever it is, let's pigeon-hole it as popular music, broadening what the concept of rock 'n' roll is; whatever name we care to give it, let's say that in the beginning there was an Adam. And if we were to choose, subjectively, of course - unless divine intervention was behind these writings (which at times certainly seems to be the case), the incarnation of man that fell into the temptation of putting guitar chords to the rhythm of the ribs of any young Eva that cared to shimmy up beside him, one would point one's divine finger at Chuck Berry.  

Among other reasons, because Berry makes pure, primitive rock'n'roll, that, in one form or another, all people drink from. Moreover, in any list that is drawn up (again, capriciously) of the top hundred, fifty or ten greats, his name would always be on it. Finally, and please correct me if I am wrong, if we take any of these 'greats' lists and reorganise it not by taste, or by number ones, but by chronological order, whichever list you care to choose, Chuck Berry will always be first. He is Adam.

Back in 1953, Charles Edward Adelson Berry (Saint Louis, Missouri, October 18, 1926 - March 18, 2017) went up on stage every night in the hives and dives of the hot and humid black south of America to some success: In the Eden where everything started, the 27-year-old guitarist began to tell of his experiences. A young man, but already not only married, he was also a father, a man that had already served three of the ten years that he was sentenced to for several armed robberies in Kansas. Prison had taught this young man the art of boxing (useful to have this side of the Mississippi) and there he had also taken part in a choir – something that today would probably be called music therapy. Back then, with a dexterity on the guitar that had never before been seen, he competed not only with Ike Turner in bringing the crowds in (and always winning), but also with his band members - until the Sir John Trio finally changed its name to the Chuck Berry Combo.

After triumphing in all the swing, country and blues bars with their new mix of rhythms (that sound that nobody had as yet put a name to but all understood that it was the new beat that was here to stay), his idol, Muddy Waters, pulled him out of the desert of poorly-paid dives to the promised land of Chess Records. It was with this company that, while toing and froing in a constant search for a better contract, he always found his perfect symbiosis, as during his trysts and infidelities with Mercury and Atco, his success was not in terms of records sold, but more in the explosively powerful live performances he gave. On those electric, hot nights, his curly hair flying, Berry invented the famous 'duck walk', which decades later would characterise Angus Young rocking out with AC/DC.

In 1957, Chuck Berry's debut recording, 'Maybellene', went straight to number 1. Far from sitting back and watching the money roll in from this success, until he left Mr. Chess in 1963, Berry had a hit in every album – 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'Rock and Roll Music', 'Johnny B. Goode'… - but his infinite fame was always over and above the copies sold. Rock 'n' roll had been born to inherit the earth and he, with the Gibson ES 355 begotten from one of his ribs, was the first to take a bite out of the apple.

He ran his business with the help of a Jewish girl named Francine, with whom he founded Chuck Berry Music Inc., and from then on, every verse was big bucks and all his chords, triumphs. Berry left his other trades – mechanic, carpenter, and hairdresser – and dedicated himself to letting his deft hands conjure up the big hits.

With the years, Bob Dylan and George Harrison learnt from his melodies and rhythms, and with his lyrics, the likes of John Lennon and Keith Richards learnt to sing sweet nothings to blushing, young girls. They all copied his magic – some too much so. When Berry left prison (again), he sued the Beach Boys for plagiarism, and rightly so. He had been in the state penitentiary for the better part of two years after having contracted a pretty young Mexican girl he had met in Juarez, Mexico to find her a bar job in his Missouri bar. The girl tried to make up for the miserly paycheck that the tight Berry paid her by gladly playing with the 'Ding-a-ling' of any paying customer in the area for a few dollars. Her favours soon made her famous in the vicinity – and her employer infamous the world over. The young 'lady' was also as good a liar as she was a lover: it turned out that she wasn't, as she had promised the king of rock 'n' roll, 21 years old. She was in fact only 14.

After this experience, Chuck Berry came out of prison nearly 40 years old, rich and bitter, trusting nobody and giving away nothing. Berry's music had now jumped the puddle and the USA was hosting English acts that had drunk from his well, playing versions of his hits – the Yardbirds, the Stones and the Beatles were just a part of the British invasion at that time. And so, after seeing his own glory threatened by not only home-grown talent, but also by that from abroad, when he heard 'Surfin' USA', his big eyes saw red. This was an outrage, and these squeaky-clean blonde boys had taken the chords, rhythms and harmonies from (oh, what irony), another lovely adolescent, 'Sweet little Sixteen', to make them their own.
  With the Beach Boys lawsuit, Berry also became the pioneer in the defence of copyright. Added to his formidable ability in getting into trouble and onto the hit parade, Berry was also a great lover of money.

Until then (and after, too) popular music's tradition was to dip in and take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, paying homage to other's talent. In fact, that is precisely how black music flourished. The poor families and shanty-towns had been handed these songs down from the cotton fields and it would be this music that would emancipate them from being mere facts to be read in the history books - emancipated by their grandchildren, adapting the lyrics to their new reality of segregation and freedom, fights over a girl, basic studies and basic instincts, dirty jobs and police arrests.
He had done exactly the same thing at the start of his career, covering the piano skills of Nat King Cole with his Gibson, for example. This he had made into a fine art when he took as his unverified autobiography ('Johnnie B. Goode') not the name of his pianist coupled with the surname of the street in which he was born, but the starting riff of 'Ain't that just like a woman', the work of another great missing link in the art of transposing oral tradition to vinyl, Louis Jordan. Even his great debut single, 'Maybellene' was based on a little ditty sung ever since the blacks learnt English from their masters, called 'Ida Red'. Berry even covered himself, looking to his 1957 hit 'School Day' seven years later, giving it new lyrics and another name in order to rake in the dollars with 'No particular place to go', much as he already had donw in order to get his Christmas bonus by magically converting 'Little Queenie' (1957) into 'Run Rudolph Run' (1958)... if he even cited himself, when in 1960 he sang 'Bye Bye Johnny' as the sequel to his hit 'Johnnie B. Goode' two years before... if he was able to do all this, what wouldn't Chuck Berry do, aware that he was the man chosen to found a civilisation away from the formal, black-tie paradise of the tight suit and baton, to be the voice to be heard in everyone's living room, on every street corner. A proud sinner, Berry always made it quite clear that the crackle of the needle on vinyl must always be accompanied with the cha-ching! of the dollars in the cash till. 

And so he won his lawsuit against the Beach Boys and they paid out the money, and Berry earned himself the deserved reputation of being a squabbling, avaricious profiteer in the music industry. This greed is why the man who is recognised as he who started what we call today rock 'n' roll, the man who sits sixth in the greatest guitar players of all time ranking, has no signature Fender or Taylor guitar – not even Gibson have managed it. The old man asks for far too much dough for his name to be put on any model's headstock.
During ninety years, Chuck Berry had his run-ins with the law – for wife beating, for voyeurism. Always hell-bent on pocketing every last dollar that he felt is rightfully his, as if he didn't have enough with the dollars coming through the door from royalties for the covers and versions that artists of all kinds have done (and do) of his work and the innumerable times his songs are heard in the cinema. His music is travelling with Voyager space probe for when some Martian wants to understand our civilization.

The beat of a drum and a couple of chords played out on his ES 355 turn any occasion into a '50s or '60s revival, taking us back to the beginning of that wonderful original sin that made Beethoven roll over. To when Chuck Berry brought to earth this kingdom of the slicked-back hair, the girls in love and the sleek cars, all moving to his six-stringed 4/4 rhythm.