Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Always in Lights

When he’s singing “Johnny B. Goode” nowadays Chuck Berry usually sings “Maybe some day your name will be back in lights,” as if a comeback is in store.

When I was a kid I used to think the song “Sergeant Pepper” described Berry’s situation.

They’ve been going in and out of style,
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

But the truth is that Chuck Berry never went out of style. His name has always been in lights, in part because he worked like a hero to keep it that way, doing show after show, night after night for 55 years.  (Wait-- it didn't start with Maybellene.  Make that 60 years!)

The records didn’t always sell. He had three clear bursts of record sales— 1955-1960, 1964-1965, and 1972, and it probably would have been an uninterrupted selling spree from 1955 to 1965 if it weren’t for a prison sentence that he didn’t deserve.

But in between and after the record sales he was always out doing concerts, keeping his fans happy and keeping name “in lights.”

Almost as soon as he got out of prison in October 1963 he recorded one of the best live shows I’ve heard him do at a Michigan casino. The 10 song set—with backup by a group of Motown studio musicians-- is included on the boxed set “Chuck Berry: You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966.” It’s the reason I bought that package, and made it worth every dime to me.

In 1964 he made two tours of Europe, focusing, it seems, on England, where his influence was huge and fresh. Groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many others were recording his songs and talking up his music to the press.

In October 1964 he was part of the T.A.M.I. show, a live concert that included Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Bo Diddley, and the Rolling Stones. It came out as film, probably in 1965. (Berry’s performances are short but very sweet—but unfortunately the cameras focus on the go-go dancers behind him.)

Then, in 1966 or 1967, things take a new turn. Berry is courted by San Francisco’s Bill Graham and becomes a staple headliner at the Fillmore. The pay sounds incredibly bad to me, but the venue introduces Berry to an important audience—boomers born a bit too late for the original hits, but who probably heard “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” as teeny boppers. This is a big wave that runs from brother Stevo, who introduced me to Chuck Berry, all the way to me, and “My Ding-a-Ling.” (Actually his ding-a-ling. My curse.) Berry was suddenly bigger than ever, playing mega-shows like the Toronto festival, and able to let his music mature a bit. He played more blues, and his guitar playing matured. For me, these are the golden years of Chuck Berry guitar playing.
And he kept making records—some of the first I was able to buy, including “Back Home,” “San Francisco Dues,” “The London Sessions,” and “Bio.” Only “The London Sessions” was a big seller, but all of these albums were good, all got reviews in the major magazines, and all of them probably sold decently.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he kept touring regularly, always a headliner now. He was part of the Richard Nader “Rock and Roll Revivals” (got himself into serious tax troubles) and worked as a single doing shows all over the country with a pickup band or, if you were lucky, with The Woolies.” Then Casinos, and State Fairs. And Europe—always Europe, and Asia.

One of the problems he faced in the early 1970s was the classification as an "oldies" act.  It never made sense.  He was still making great records-- and his music is too fundamental and fundamentally sound to be oldy or moldy.  Its roots in the blues are too deep, and the lyrics are too good.  It's just great music-- the U.S.A.'s most enduring legacy.

And then 1986-1987 and another burst—the movie, and the The Autobiography, and a decent soundtrack album, all of which got noticed.

Now the legend began to grow. His music has already been launched into outer space.  He get's a Lifetime Grammy.  He's honored at Kennedy Center by the President (dear God I hope it wasn't Bush!)  He's first into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame.  (http://www.rockhall.com/) He was and remains a fixture in Rolling Stone’s incessant lists of “greatest.” Best Guitar Songs—“Johnny B. Goode” comes in at number one. It’s on the “best songs” list as well, and he’s way up there on the lists of “best guitarists” and “all time best.” He even gets a credible shout out on the “best singers” list.

In the 21st century books started coming out, including two full scale biographies, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” by Bruce Pegg and “Chuck Berry” by John Collis. There are also a couple of books about the music, including “Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy,” by Fred Rothwell.

And finally, Blueberry Hill, one of his coolest moves ever, where month after month Chuck Berry has played shows at a tiny venue in his home town of St. Louis that can’t be too profitable, but which have become legendary for their spirit—fun, loving shows with a stable house band and fans that come from around town and around the world to see and hear a legend.

All told, nearly 55 years—an incredible legacy— and the name has been in lights just about the entire time. Pretty cool.

And no accident. In this case, I’d say 99% inspiration, and 101% perspiration.

Good job, Mr. Berry. And thank you.

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