I doubt I heard “Maybellene” when it came out in 1955. I was five, and our car radio wouldn’t have been tuned to those stations, but somewhere along the way I heard “Johnny B. Goode” (released in 1958), and by the time “Nadine” was cruisin’ the charts in 1962, I was truly tuned in, wishing I knew those chords as I tried to rock on my black Danelectro when I was supposed to be practicing the square chords I was expected to play behind the girls in this dumb accordion band my mother’d hooked me into as if life were a string of major triads. But somehow I knew that his riffs, rhythms, and moves were a fundamental language of rock ‘n’ roll, even if the way his lyrics said innocent teenage love but meant sex as they blurred the line between child and adult in this new realm called “teen” were beyond my naïve 12-year-old sense of things—just as the way he played white into black and back with ironic, sardonic innuendo was beyond my small town white world view. Poetry? Damn straight. And if our parents thought Chuck was relatively safe—for rock ‘n’ roll that is and at least compared to Little Richard shrieking “Lucille,” that wild hillbilly singing “Great Balls of Fire,” and even young Elvis—they weren’t listening to the subtext in “Sweet Little Sixteen,” where it’s the “cats” who want to dance with missy and not the nice school boy down the block. This album cover from 1959 (look up the listing of songs on it if you want to see how heavily the early Rolling Stones were into Chuck) illustrates that fusion of innocence and innuendo:
My guess is that Berry was usually “on top,” just as he was, when this album came out, on the top of the hit charts. And yes I do think those berries can be seen as suggestive, even as the setting—a booth in a soda shop where teens might gather after school to play the jukebox?—undercuts, yet doesn’t, the possibility of being on top.
When I heard Chuck Berry in November 1970 at a place outside of Ithaca called The Roadhouse, he wasn’t a big name. He was playing small venues, driving from one gig to the next in his Cadillac, his guitar in the trunk, and playing with whatever pickup band the promoter put on the stage. I didn’t know that he’d done time on a Mann Act rap, the charges at least in part racially motivated (and the trial and retrials certainly racially inflected). I didn’t understand that his Cadillac was not only his office but some nights, as he drove from town to town, his hotel. I didn’t know that his mistrust of white club owners and promoters was such that he’d only go on stage after being paid, up front, in cash (a practice that contributed to a 1979 tax evasion conviction). What I did know was that Berry was one of the Founding Fathers—an architect and pioneer of the music that The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and other British Invasion bands had exported back to the U.S. charts in sped up form (as homage and expropriation; as in part imitation but also re-invention).
And what I still know is that it was a privilege to see him, even if the young white kids put on the stage to back him that night could barely play. Because in spite of that Berry was so strong a musician and so fine an entertainer that his art came through, and I remember being struck with how deftly he coached them through the songs, and how, as the show progressed, he slowly shaped them into something of a band and willed them to help him make his music.
This video clip of Chuck Berry playing with Eric Clapton and Keith Richards in 1972 that illustrates how foundational Berry’s language has been for rock and, also, something of his ability to fuse musicians into a working unit.
Berry’s February 6, 1965 appearance on Belgian TV includes performances of several of his most iconic songs and offers, as well, illustrations of his ability to play not just his music but the audience and occasion. The program also includes examples of Berry’s famous duck walking and other “moves.”
In this 1972 performance of “My Ding-a-Ling,” we see Berry not simply playing for the audience’s satisfaction but playing the audience for his satisfaction (much as he did when I saw him that night at The Roadhouse):
Chuck Berry, The Great Twenty-Eight (originally released by Chess Records in 1982; re-released on MCA in 1993; currently available as a digital download and as an LP from Geffen) covers the hits.
Notes to the Poem:
- Groucho Marx (1890-1977): a leading figure in the comedy team, the Marx Brothers, whose gliding walk on screen, anticipates Chuck Berry’s duck walking while playing the guitar.
- Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993): a Soviet ballet dancer famed for his athleticism and grace, who captivated American audiences with his TV appearances in the 1960s.
- “Maybellene” (1955), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958), “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), “Little Queenie” (1959), and “Nadine” (1962): songs by Chuck Berry.
- The phrase “pumpin’ like an ol’ steam drill” comes from Berry’s 1960 recording of “Down the Road Apiece,” a remake of Amos Milburn’s 1947 hit, which in turn derived from the Will Bradley Trio’s top ten 1940 hit. Berry’s version is the basis for The Rolling Stone’s 1965 recording of the song.