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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Chuck Berry--An appreciation

Chuck Berry performs his hit "Nadine" with Keith Richards in "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll"

Stating the obvious, no one signified rock 'n' roll like Chuck Berry, as singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer.

"After Elvis Presley, only Chuck Berry had more influence on the formation and development of rock 'n' roll," proclaims the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the start of Berry's page on the Rock Hall's website, and if Presley, who with Berry was inducted in its first year (1986, the same year he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame), was the king of rock 'n' roll, well, Berry, who died yesterday at 90, was just about everything else.

"I often say that I love Elvis Presley, but Chuck Berry's really the king!" notes New York rock 'n' roll bandleader Jon Paris, who played bass for Johnny Winters and recorded with Bob Dylan and counts Berry, whose hits he performs regularly, among the many artists he's played with.

"As a guitarist, singer-songwriter, and performer, Chuck Berry laid the blueprint and set the standard," says Paris. "He pulled his influences together--Louis Jordan, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, Muddy Waters--came up with his own approach, and went on to influence everybody else: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Johnny Winter, Bruce Springsteen--everybody!"

He was a major influence on Paris, too, and probably every guitarist who followed him.

"This is how it started for a lot of rock guitarists of my generation," explains Robert Kenison of the acoustic rock 'n' roll duo the Mighty Weasels, who as Troy Charmell was a member of the legendary 1970s Midwest rock ‘n’ roll show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners.

"You get your first single pickup electric guitar, plug it in to an old Sears and Roebuck amp. You have absolutely no idea how to play it, but pick the top two strings together somewhere in the middle of the neck--and the most amazing sound you'll ever hear comes out: a peek at 'Johnny B. Goode'! Chuck Berry has just opened the door. Life will never be the same."

Kenison, who still plays "Johnny B. Goode" and numerous other Berry classics, continues: "Chuck Berry was a poet--the greatest rock 'n' roll poet of all time, period. The sounds of his words, the rhythmic power, the images: 'jukebox blowin' a fuse,' 'move on up just a trifle further' [both from 'Roll Over Beethoven'], 'rainwater blowin' all under my hood, I knew that I was doin' my motor good,' 'the Cadillac sittin' like a ton of lead' [both from 'Maybellene']."

"Chuck Berry's voice was golden," adds Kenison. "It projected joy."

And then there were the visuals.

"We've seen the film clips a million times," says Kenison, "Chuck Berry playing guitar while doing a low 'duck walk,' his head springing front and back double-time. The guy was super-human--the original rubber band man. I tried to imitate him best I could in Dr. Bop, but of course, you never can get there."

But as versatile guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino notes, Berry, who served time in a reformatory as a high school student and prison as an adult, was by no means the poster boy for spotless rock 'n' roll conduct.

"Having spent my formative years in the blues under the tutelage of [frequent Berry pianist]Johnnie Johnson, I had many encounters with Mr. Berry--some good, some bad, but all memorable," says Vivino. "He was--as everyone knows--an S.O.B. But he was the S.O.B."

Indeed, Berry was renowned for among other things, demanding cash upfront before playing, and playing with unrehearsed pickup bands when he did play. Keith Richards, who backed Berry on guitar in the celebrated 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (which he also co-produced), tells of Berry punching him in the face after he caught him playing his guitar in his dressing room.

"Here come the tales," tweeted the Turtles Howard Kaylan. "Bye, old friend. You invented rock 'n' roll and gave me an excellent life. I owe ya one. I'll slip it under the door."

Via Instagram post, Richards, who also inducted Berry into the Rock Hall, said, "One of my big lights has gone out. I don't even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don't think he does. It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck's records. It's when I knew what I wanted to do."

Tweeted Mick Jagger: "I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry's passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved inside us forever."

Back on Facebook, Berry's fellow inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Lee Lewis posted, "My good friend Chuck Berry passed today and I will miss him dearly. Some of my favorite memories on the road are times I spent with Chuck. Goodbye friend."

Another '60s rock 'n' roll great recalled sharing the same dressing rooms with Berry back in the day.

"Chuck Berry's impact on music reached out across the world and became a staple for every teenager," said Lou Christie, also via Facebook. "We may not have heard the word 'Beatles' or [known of] the Stones if it weren't for Chuck Berry. He knew it and he played to it."

Dion, who followed Berry and Lewis into the Rock Hall three years later, remembers becoming friends with Berry back in the '50s when they performed at the Brooklyn Fox Theater.

"I always admired Chuck," says Dion. "He was our elder statesman, and I loved his music and style—and we had great respect for each other."

But Dion also notes how "many people did not understand Chuck Berry, [though] I got him [and] found it easy to be around him and enjoy his company. I will miss him big-time. He was a great guy."

"We all learned to love Chuck unconditionally in exchange for all he gave us as guitarist, songwriter, singer, performer and most of all, poet of our generation," notes Vivino, echoing Christie. "There's no rock 'n' roll--no Beatles, no Stones, and more importantly, no Dylan without him--and he knew that."

Evoking Berry's 1956 hit, Vivino concludes, "Farewell 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man.' He, in truth, will live on forever."



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