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Johnny B Goode

Johnny B Goode

 

Everywhere I went today, people were talking about Chuck Berry. In the church parking lot, at the little Mexican restaurant my mom and I go to breakfast, at my songwriters’ meeting, at the gym and later in the evening at dinner. Everybody had a story, something they had heard about him, a performance they had seen. Everybody knew something about the most important icon of rock and roll. Chuck Berry was much more important than Elvis. Elvis was a prop. Chuck Berry was the real thing.

Chuck Berry was born in 1926. Twenty-nine years later, Maybellene went to number five on the Hit Parade and it sounded the death knell for pop stars like Perez Prado, Billy Vaughn, Frankie Lane, Perry Como and even greats like Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra. In 1955, there were other faux rock and rollers like Pat Boone and Bill Haley, doo-woppers like the Crew Cuts, the El Dorados and the Moonglows and blues based acts including Bo Diddly and Little Richard, but Chuck Berry was pure rock and roll.

In short order, Chuck Berry rattled off fifteen or so hits and, although he didn’t have a number one hit until 1972 with a live version of My Ding-a-Ling from the album, The London Chuck Berry Sessions, he was the first inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Not just inducted into the first class, but the first person. Other accolades followed, the Voyager space mission where he shared a disk with Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky. I remember a Saturday Night Live bit where it was reported that aliens had actually discovered the disk and sent a message to earth saying “Send more Chuck Berry.” Perfect. He received accolades from the Grammys, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Kennedy Center, BMI, numerous arts entities, music groups and literary concerns from around the globe. The first home he purchased in 1950 is on the historic register. His tune, Johnny B Goode, was judged to be the number one rock and roll song in the world.

 

Even with all that, he could have done better. Chuck Berry was ripped off by almost every record company he ever signed with and nearly every live venue he went through. After he became “the” Chuck Berry, he began to manage himself with the help of his wife of 68 years. He booked himself, made his own travel and hotel arrangements and wrote his own contracts and, most importantly, collected his money. His contracts were simple. There was to be a Lincoln waiting for him at the airport. He would drive himself to and from the venue. The venue would supply a drummer, bass player and piano player who knew his songs and everything was played in B-flat. Most importantly, the minute he walked into a venue he was paid in full in cash. If not, he would turn around, drive himself back to the airport and get on a plane headed for home. Musicians who take control of their own destinies do so because Chuck Berry showed them the way. He showed us that a healthy distrust of club and venue owners is a good thing.

Chuck Berry’s legacy is every kid who ever picked up a guitar. Everything guitar players play, he played first. Every rock and roll riff is a derivative of his work. Every rock and roll dream ever dreamed was to be Chuck Berry. Even those kids who never heard of him know who he is.

 

I get the feeling that Chuck Berry never really wanted to be Chuck Berry, rock icon. I think he just wanted to make a living. At the end of Taylor Hackford’s film about him, Chuck Berry is seated in his garage singing a sweet song entitled Cottage for Sale.  That is Chuck Berry in a nutshell.

Copyright 2017 by Jose Antonio Ponce

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Jose Antonio Ponce
Author. Actor. Musician. Songwriter.

Jose is the author of three books, Lunch Hour, 53 and From father to son and has been a working actor and musician for the past 35 years.

1 comment to Johnny B Goode

  • Don Frankel

    Interesting point there. There are the artists, their success, the success we might want for them and what they wanted. Those things are probably never the same.

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