Roots of Rock 'n' Roll
Watching the movie “Cadillac Records” last week (for the third or fourth time) reminded me that I haven’t written anything on my blog page in a long time! It’s been too easy to go on Facebook and post a video or put up a comment on someone’s post. If you haven’t seen “Cadillac Records,” it chronicles the life of Leonard Chess and his record label (Chess), and explores the musical era from the early 1940’s to the late 1960’s through the music recorded by the label’s artists. I don’t know how much of the script is based on fact, but I knew so little of the personal lives of blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Etta James that it was interesting to see the portrayals bring these musicians to life.
I do know something of one of the artists depicted in the film—Chuck Berry. But then, almost everyone who has ever lived in St. Louis has stories of encounters with Chuck. In fact, almost every musician I’ve ever met has a story about performing with Chuck!
I remember hearing Chuck’s music on the radio in the `50s, and buying those Chess records (on 45 rpm) in the `60s. Even though Chuck was born in 1926, his lyric-writing ability as a man in his 30’s seemed to perfectly reflect the thoughts of teenagers in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. The color of the singer didn’t matter…”Maybellene” sounded great on the radio. (It might not have been as successful if Chuck had kept the original title—“Ida Red.” I guess Maybellene struck a responsive chord with Chuck, since he had worked as a hairdresser before he began his recording career.)
According to “Cadillac Records,” his skin color was a problem for the people buying concert tickets in 1955. A concert promoter thought Chuck was a white, hillbilly singer and refused to let him perform for a white audience that expected a white, country singer. According to the 1978 movie, “The Buddy Holly Story” (starring Gary Busey as Holly), Buddy and the Crickets had the exact opposite experience when they were booked to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1957. Although I’m a Buddy Holly fan, I don’t think I would have have mistaken Buddy’s voice for that of a black man (except for maybe “Midnight Shift”—which wasn’t really a hit). The movie showed songs like “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” winning over the black audience that night at the Apollo. Maybe Chuck Berry was noticing a similar phenomenon in the `50s that could never happen in the 21st century of niche formats and “boutique” radio stations. Chuck knew how to "read" an audience, even back when he was playing mostly blues and ballads with the Johnnie Johnson Trio in Missouri and Illinois bars. He noticed that they got a better audience response from white bar patrons when they played music that leaned country. After some initial resistance to the “hillbilly” songs, even his black audiences began to appreciate Chuck’s danceable mix of country, blues and ballads.
Chuck was a major star by the end of the 1950’s, but a relationship he had with a 14-year-old Apache waitress in New Mexico was the start of legal problems. Chuck served about three years of a five year prison sentence in what was a questionable conviction (according to many sources).
By late 1963, the British Invasion began in the U.S., and English bands were recording songs by Chuck and the other great Chess artists. The Beach Boys even completely ripped off Chuck’s “Sweet Little 16” to turn it into “Surfin’ USA.” The song was originally credited to Brian Wilson, but subsequent pressings included Chuck Berry as the composer.
My first meeting with Chuck was in Washington, Missouri, in 1965. Chuck had been booked for two shows at the movie theater in Washington, and my band was one of the opening acts. I saw him drive up to the back entrance of the theater in his bronze Cadillac DeVille, with two beautiful women he introduced as his “secretaries.” He seemed preoccupied, so I offered to carry his amplifier in for him. Later on, I had a chance to talk to Chuck as we waited backstage before the show. I was a huge Beatles and Rolling Stones fan, and I knew they had recorded Chuck Berry songs. I asked Chuck what he thought of the Beatles recording his song, ”Roll Over Beethoven.” He looked at me with a frown, and just said: “I don’t think nothin’ about it!” I figured that was the end of that conversation and I decided I’d better go tune my drums…or something. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Chuck had never had a #1 record (until “My Ding a Ling” in 1972), and these young white guys from England had the top five records on the charts in the spring of 1965. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones (as well as many other groups) were making millions of dollars on recordings and playing concerts in stadiums all over the country, while Chuck was struggling to fill the seats in the first of two shows at a movie theater in Washington, Missouri! Combined with his experience with the legal system in Missouri, I can understand why he would be a bitter man in 1965.
You’re probably aware that many black artists had similar experiences of having their songs “covered” by a white singer. Although Little Richard was successful with songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” Pat Boone was getting rich doing the same songs…Have you heard Pat Boone sing “Long Tall Sally?” It’s embarrassing to any self-respecting musician!
Little Richard didn’t get airplay on the Top 40 radio stations in St. Louis in the 1950’s, but Pat Boone’s vanilla versions were my first exposure to that music. Once I found the original versions (frequently on the juke box in my dad’s restaurant), I couldn’t believe what I had uncovered! Not only Chess Records in Chicago, but Atlantic and Stax in Memphis—listening to Ray Charles, Sam & Dave and Rufus Thomas—I realized what “soul” music was!
Since Chuck Berry was usually paid in cash for his shows, he ran into some accounting difficulties with the IRS in the 1970’s. He pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and served four months in prison. Chuck recorded an album called “Rock It” (on ATCO Records) in 1979. It wasn’t real memorable, but he visited radio stations all over the country to promote it. I was the midday dj at KSLQ in St. Louis when he visited our studios on his tour. I didn’t mention my 1965 backstage conversation with him, but I reminded him of that show fourteen years earlier and proudly told him: “...And I carried your amplifier in!” He laughed and said: “Well…I’ll pay ya…I’ll pay ya!”
I saw Chuck perform many times in the `80s and `90s, and even got to do a set with him one night! I was the drummer for Billy Peek in 1982. Billy had been discovered by Rod Stewart when he was performing on the “Midnight Special” with Chuck in 1974. It took Rod six months to track him down, but he brought Billy in to play on the album “A Night on the Town” that was released in the summer of 1976. Billy toured and recorded with Rod for five years and five albums (including playing all the guitar parts on “Hot Legs”).
When Billy was not on tour, he would play local bars with guys like me backing him up. We were at the London Pub in Florissant, Missouri, when Chuck Berry walked in one night. We talked to him when we took a break and Billy asked him to get up and play. He said he didn’t really want to, but would stick around to hear our set. One or two songs into the next set, Chuck just walked up and asked Billy for his guitar! Chuck doesn’t really talk to the musicians who back him up…We asked what he was going to play, and he just said: “Chuck Berry songs!” Naturally, we’d been playing Chuck Berry songs since we were in high school. The problem is, Chuck doesn’t say which songs he’s going to play…or when he’s going to stop one song...and start another! You just watch his foot. The band had better stop when he stomps his foot…and then you’ve got about five seconds to figure out which song Chuck is now starting with his signature guitar lick. It’s always satisfying to follow him, and know that you didn’t screw up the song!
All rock musicians owe so much to guys like Chuck Berry, who paved the way. Chuck is the closest thing to the “father” of rock ‘n’ roll. And that is really what I want to talk about…
Chuck Berry and Little Richard played the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in 2002 (when it was called the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts). 97.7, The River, was in its previous incarnation as “Magic 97.7—Good Times, Great Oldies.” I wanted to see the show and volunteered to be MC for the show…to get on stage before the concert to welcome the audience and give a plug for the radio station.
I didn’t say much, but I wanted to show my gratitude for the path that Chuck and Richard had blazed, almost fifty years earlier. If I never get on stage again, I’ll be happy that I got to look out at the audience and say: “…We wouldn’t have rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today, if it hadn’t been for Chuck Berry and Little Richard!”