In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Chuck Berry is universally acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll. By the 1980s, however, Berry’s status as a legend had almost been cancelled out by his infamous live performances.
This was the drill: having specified beforehand that the promoter would provide amplifiers and a local backing band, Berry would arrive alone and head straight for the promoter’s office to collect his cash. After counting the money, Berry would walk onstage, plug in his guitar and start playing, often without speaking to the band or advising them of the evening’s setlist. He was known to occasionally fire band members mid-song if they couldn’t keep up. Eventually, at the climax of the nights’ final number, Chuck would launch into his famous duck walk and disappear into the wings. He would be in his car and speeding down the highway before the last guitar note had finished echoing around the room.
“I’ve been so disappointed in Chuck Berry’s live gigs for years and years and years,” said Keith Richards in the documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987). “Because he didn’t give a damn. If he made a mistake he’d blame it on the band, and he’d just wing it and get through, and he’s got such a powerful personality that he’s managed to get away with it!”
It wasn’t always this way. Charles Edward Anderson Berry had established himself in the early 1950s as a member of pianist Johnnie Johnson’s Sir John Trio in St Louis, and shortly arrived at Chicago’s Chess Records via a personal recommendation from Muddy Waters. Here, Berry would cut the vast majority of his classic sides, backed by a rotating cast of first-rate musicians including Fred Below, Willie Dixon, Matt Murphy, Lafayette Leake, Otis Spann, and right-hand man Johnnie Johnson.
The music Chuck Berry recorded at Chess between 1955 and 1965 needs no introduction: “Nadine,” ‘Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Around and Around,” to name just a small sample. Most of this material was the kind of driving rhythm & blues that Berry is usually associated with, but one of his earliest Chess recordings, the Tin Pan Alley-esque “Together We’ll Always Be,” revealed the influence of one of Berry’s biggest heroes: Nat King Cole.
“He was a real fan of the Nat King Cole Trio,” Richards wrote in Rolling Stone after Berry’s death on this day in 2017. Berry seldom penned anything in the style of “Together We’ll Always Be” again, but he did record a cover of Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” in 1961, replacing the gentle swing of Cole’s original version with an insistent rock ‘n’ roll beat.
While it rarely manifested itself in his original compositions, Chuck Berry’s love of jazz standards remained undimmed throughout his career. “I like to hear him play those ballads, and things like that. I know that’s deep in his heart,” says Eric Clapton in Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll.
During the filming of the documentary, director Taylor Hackford stumbled across Berry quietly running through some old standards with Johnnie Johnson. Seizing a rare opportunity to capture the usually defensive Berry with his guard down, Hackford quickly set up some cameras and started filming.
Berry played a “A Cottage For Sale” (originally recorded by The Revellers), “Heart And Soul” (first sung by Larry Clinton), “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (originally recorded by Gertrude Niesen) and “You Go To My Head” (also first recorded by Clinton), before reverting back to rock ‘n’ roll mode for a rip-roaring “House Of Blue Lights” (originally sung by Freddie Slack and Ella May Morse). “A Cottage For Sale” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” had also been recorded by Nat King Cole.
Hearing Berry talk about these songs in the film is illuminating. “All the beautiful songs I used to sing, before I ever got into rock,” he says, wistfully. “I love ’em. In fact, that’s what I grew up with. But then I heard Tommy Dorsey do “Boogie Woogie.” I heard Count Basie do “One O’Clock Jump.” I heard Glen Gray do “No Name Jive.” And I got into some boogie woogie.”
The standards medley Berry plays in the film also unintentionally previewed a song that would appear on his final album, Chuck, thirty years later. A collection of recordings Berry had made over the course of a long hiatus from releasing new music, Chuck was mostly comprised of original compositions. One of the two exceptions was a blues version of “You Go To My Head” featuring Berry duetting with his daughter Ingrid.
In a Los Angeles Times interview conducted in 1987, Berry was asked if he could have imagined himself having a career as a singer of standards, like Nat King Cole. “Oh, I’d have been ecstatic,” Berry replied with a smile. “I’d never have touched rock ‘n’roll…” Music fans all over the world are very glad that he pursued the path that he did. The great album of Chuck Berry singing the standards of his youth, however, remains a tantalizing prospect that was unfortunately never meant to be.
Read more about Chuck Berry in our Five Good Covers feature.