Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Long Live Chuck Berry!

Maybe it’s just me—but as a Chuck Berry fan I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Elvis Presley.

I like some of his music a lot. And he’s an interesting character. I wonder what he was like. Like the rest of the world I like looking at him, hearing him, watching him dance.

At least in the old days. Once he donned white capes and glitter I was less interested. And I definitely wasn’t interested in any of the color movies. (“Jailhouse Rock” is another story. When I’m told he choreographed the inmate dance scene I can’t help but take interest. It’s good stuff. And I’ve seen a few minutes of the story and liked that, too.)

Who wouldn’t like hearing “That’s All Right,” “Heartbreak hotel,” “Hound Dog,” Blue Suede Shoes,” or “even “Burnin’ Love?”

But I found Chuck Berry in the early 1970’s—either 1970 or 1971. I first saw him on stage backed by a local Sacramento band. He was in jeans and an orange shirt. He had a red guitar. He seemed sad. He played blues. And he played rock and roll.

In those days Elvis had a hit with “Burnin’ Love,” and I remember attending a movie of his live Vegas performances that I actually enjoyed despite the costumes. That movie’s recent re-release on DVD prompts this article.

A Brazilian who is a fan of both Chuck Berry and Elvis wrote something on the Chuck Berry website wondering why the song “Johnny B. Goode” had been stricken from the film on re-release. Just seeing those names together—Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry—cause another re-release from deep inside me: a re-release of the vague resentment I’ve always felt about the so-called “King” of rock and roll.

According to the title is undisputed. (Ask Little Richard if that’s true. I have a great Little Richard record from the 1970s where he sings that he’s the King of Rock and Roll. As I recall, the song begins with a Chuck Berry guitar intro!)

Elvis’s hardcore fans include people I can’t ignore, like John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

(Then again, no less an authority than Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother told Jerry Lee that Chuck Berry was the true King of rock and roll. If she told that to Jerry Lee, she would surely have taught Bobby and John the same thing.)

And I don’t dispute the “King” of rock and roll stuff.  In the 1980s I wrote an article about Chuck Berry for a local rock and roll magazine, The Rocket, where I said:

“Let Elvis be King. Let him have the pomp and circumstance. Chuck Berry, the lean man with the conked hair and cherry red guitar, is much more than a figurehead—he’s our father. Single-handed he gave us rock guitar’s vocabulary. Single handed he made intelligent, witty lyrics a tradition in rock ‘n’ roll. His songs are alive today as they ever were. Keith Richards keeps stealing his licks, and Sweet Little Sixteen, in bell bottoms when I was her age, is back in tight dresses and lipstick again.”

But the “King” stuff always hurt, anyway. Sam Phillips, who is as much of a father of rock and roll as anybody, purportedly said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” He found Elvis—and RCA made a billion dollars.

And that’s all right—that’s all right! Because Chuck did the same thing as Elvis. Or maybe Leonard Chess did the same thing as Sam Phillips. He found a black singer who had a bit of the white sound.

Elvis and Carl Perkins were Country singers who sang Blues and R & B. Chuck Berry was an R & B singer who dabbled in Blues and Country. That melding of forms is where the best stuff nearly always happens: Sharon Jones singing Woody Guthrie; Sly Stone yodeling Jimmie Rodgers; Little Richard doing a Hank Williams song; Chuck Berry mimicking Benny Goodman’s clarinet on a guitar; Otis Redding singing the “Tennessee Waltz.”

And in the case of Elvis and Chuck, it created the foundations of rock and roll.

But calling Elvis “King?” It always bugged me.

For one thing, by the time he got the moniker he was no longer playing much rock and roll. He was singing ballads and catching under-panties.

Chuck Berry never, ever stopped playing rock and roll. He’s still doing it now—and getting more punk all the time!

Then there was the question of talent. Elvis is probably the better singer, and both knew how to dance on stage and entertain a crowd. But I always remember that vaguely insincere question Chuck Berry poses to Little Richard and Bo Diddley during the interviews for “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It was something like: “Could Elvis really play that guitar?”

Chuck Berry knew the answer to that one, but he asked it with a feigned naivete.

On stage Elvis strummed a prop. Chuck Berry invented a language.

He’d deny it. He’d tell you something like (made up quote) “No, I took bits of Carl Hogan and T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian and mixed it up thus and so. Nothing new under the sun.”

But by mixing, and twisting and bending and doubling and reinventing and adding bits of this and that he created something absolutely new under the sun, and then did it while dancing and duck-walking. (He’d credit the splits and behind the back playing to T-Bone, who’d probably say it was all Charlie Patton’s fault!)

And then there are the songs. I don’t think there’s any rock and roll star (Johnny Rivers certainly tried) who’s gone farther on other people’s material than Elvis Presley. He even recorded a half a dozen or so Chuck Berry songs.

But Chuck Berry wrote his own.

And they were rock and roll poetry.

So if there were justice, (there never has been!), the whole “King” thing wouldn’t even be an issue—or at any rate, Chuck would be on top of Elvis in the line of succession.

But rock and roll isn’t a monarchy. It’s the most democratic music I know, created in basements and garages, often by incompetents. You don’t need to be able to sing, play or even entertain—although all of that certainly helps.

Anyway, I think I once heard Chuck Berry address the issue of rock and roll royalty, and he did it just right. He said if he wasn’t the King, he was probably the prime minister.

I like that.

And just to make amends:


Anonymous said...

1955 Elvis did Maybelline live before his was famous.
1956 The Million Dollar Quartett recorded Too Much Monkey Business and Brown Eyed Handsome Man.
1963 Elvis recorded Memphis Tennessee
1973 Elvis recorded Promised Land
1969-1977 Elvis did Johnny B. Goode many times on his live concerts.

Elvis was a great singer but never wrote a song.Chuck Berry was his idol from the beginning to the end of his career.

Chuck Berry is The King, Songwriter, Guitarplayer and Singer.
Chuck Berry has it all for over 55 years now.
Beat that :-)


Anonymous said...

I forgot Too Much Monkey Busines Elvis recorded in 1968 :-)

Peter said...

Peter, you're a scholar. I have to admit, I don't own an Elvis Presley record and never have. I just hear what I hear on the radio. But I HAVE found a lot of those Chuck Berry covers on youtube-- and some of them are pretty good!

Anonymous said...

Peter, I found the information on:

A lot of covers are good but the original songs are the best :-)

Elvis performed in St Louis 10 times in the 50's

and 3 times in the 70's

Maybelline was played 2 times in the 50's

Johnny B. Goode was played live 378 times between 1969 - 1977

School Days 235 times live

Promised Land 18 times live

Memphis Tennessee 5 times live

It would be great to have databases like that with Chuck and other artists who made covers.


Peter said...

Peter-- Hope these "links" work-- they did before I pressed the publish button. Thanks for all the research! (Other) Peter