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The Blues Had A Baby - Chuck Berry & The Invention Of Rock N' Roll

31 August 2019

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” John Lennon

In 1977 the Voyager 1 SpaceCraft was launched by NASA, this unmanned space probe exploration still continues its mission to this day.  Its purpose, to send data back to earth regarding the outer reaches of the universe. On board are two, gold vinyl records known as the Voyager Golden Records. These discs contain images and music surrounding the culture, and life on Planet Earth. These messages in a bottle flung into the oceans of space contain only one rock and roll song, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”.

The significance of this is a testimony to the impact and influence Chuck Berry had on the music of the 20th Century. By no means a perfect human being, like most innovators he was flawed, and at times arrogant. Luckily the art is not overshadowed by the questionable character of Berry. A trailblazing showman who brought performing along with possibilities of coloured musicians to a new height. A coloured man who broke down the race barrier of 1950s America, crossing the ocean to influence the minds of the post-war British ‘baby boomers’, launching a thousand white rhythm and blues bands. 

The view of most aficionados in the sector of  Chuck Berry, consider Chuck Berry Is On Top perhaps the first great rock and roll album of the last century, one that defines rock music, setting the format the genre should take. One which has influenced so many to pick up a guitar not only in America, but across the globe. The album tracks have been widely covered from bands such as the Rolling Stones, The Animals, Tom Petty, The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, David Bowie and ELO

Given that scope of artists who not only drew inspiration from Chuck Berry Is On Top, but also paid a tribute in covering the tracks is an example of how this album towers over most other standard long-players of the day. The invention of rock and roll cannot be put down to one person, it’s formation was a combination of many coloured players in the game. Although history books and even music magazines might whitewash the story, naming Elvis Presley as the genres hero when he never stated that fact. Fats Domino, Little Richard cast a huge net of influence, but it was Berry who put the pieces together, creating rock and roll as the singer songwriters territory, and main vessel for their craft.

Highly influenced by country music greats such as Jimmie Rogers, Berry created the instruction manual with twelve easy steps, the highpoint of his career which created a sound, covered and copied to this very day. Chuck Berry Is On Top is in actuality an album, the track list would easily lead to believe it as a “greatest hits” package, six of it’s twelve tracks were released as singles, with four ‘B’ sides, ultimately almost all the album exists on singles. “Johnny B.Goode”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Around And Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” and of course “Little Queenie”. 

This album falls in the same territory as the Stones Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers, a short burst of energy from start to finish without any filler, roots music at its rawest. Even Elvis could hardly manage such a feat, then again Elvis never wrote the songs he performed, and there you have the difference. This is the line that separates Berry from Presley. Chuck Berry wrote songs that he could perform that he could shape, and call his own.

Indeed, the cast of players added to the loose sound, blues giants such as Willie Dixon on bass and Bo Diddley on second guitar fattened up the rhythm section. And then of course Johnnie Johnson, the piano player. Chuck Berry’s silent partner and musical collaborator for almost twenty years. Even as all the tracks on this album are credited to Berry, there have been times when Johnson was an uncredited part of the songs structure, a co-composer throughout his,and Berrys working career a fact disputed strongly by Berry.

A lot of the album tracks were released as singles prior to the album by Chicago based Chess Records between ’55 and ’57, it was not until 1957 that Leonard and Phil Chess began to release the album as a format. This began with the stable acts Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, making Chuck Berry is one Top only Berry’s third long-player release and his most realized and praised release. What followed however, secured not only his legacy but that of rock music as a genre. 

In 1960 Chuck Berry unleashed Rockin’At The Hops, another masterstroke of influential power. Not as well-received as the previous, nonetheless, he was still hitting a creative peak, and the Rolling Stones still owe a debt of gratitude to Berrys inventive and groundbreaking style. This is the moment when it happened, where rock and roll lost its roll, and we had a new era in music, Rock Music.

This claim is reinforced by the release in January 1960 of the single “Let It Rock”. On its release in the UK in 1963 it peaked at number six in the singles chart. This is Chuck Berry’s very own Velvet Underground moment that one song which started a chain reaction, every budding young musician bought it, played it, and picked up a guitar to emulate it. Clocking in at one minute forty seconds, short, punchy and to the point, a signpost for what was to come in the seventies’ era of punk.

The song itself “Let It Rock” was covered and released by the Stones on their 1971 single “Brown Sugar”, then again so many others from MC5 to Motörhead covered the track. This is the evidence of its appeal across the music spectrum and the influence that clings to it. With the boogie woogie piano of Johnnie Johnson driving the track like a locomotive gliding beautifully rhythmic on the tracks. Although, with a similar sound to the massive hit “Johnny B.Goode”, but this time the guitar playing is more refined, and blues based. 

Berrys focus obviously tightened from his hefty performing and touring schedule, he was fitting nicely into his new skin, and this loose feeling that flows through the track. The album that followed is glowing with the significance of an artist finding a groove that works and flogging it with ease. The album itself Rockin’ At The Hops weighed in at a mere twenty-six minutes, of its twelve tracks only four were not released as singles. This is not however the strong collection of songs similar to his previous effort, instead this was a more blues based approach. The shift in direction may not have appealed to the record buying rock and roll audience of the time but the albums worth is it’s influence.

Covering songs such as the 1945 Johnny Moore track “Drifting Blues” along with the Big Maceo standard “Worried Life Blues”. Chuck Berry had the skill to turn more deep-rooted blues numbers into a reworked rock and roll format, this again solidified the rock sound he was aiming for and showcased in “Let it Rock”. Another track on the album that was faithfully covered by the Stones on their ’64 release Five By Five, the number “Confessin’ the Blues”. A cover of the Jay McShann track but the Stones took Berrys approach to the song, whether they knew it was not a Berry original.

The final cover on the album was Will Bradleys “Down the road a piece”, in a way Berry paid a homage of sorts to the string influences that affected his sound and style, in a way almost Chuck Berry’s Hunky Dory moment, a salute and a step forward in the same strike. This was still the early days of rock and roll, but like the innovators of the day, the boundary was consistently being pushed forward, changed, taken apart and reinvented. Through experimentation, this would be a constant in music from the moment “Let it Rock” was released, and right up through today’s modern formula of rock music.