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Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Hello Troubadourians! As I sat down to write this column, my daughter broke the news that Chuck Berry had died. The King is dead! Long live the King! Yes, to me, Chuck Berry always was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Always will be. And I’m in good company there. John Lennon once said that, “If you had tried to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Now, while the actual circumstances under which Lennon delivered this famous quote—he was reading from a cue card while introducing Chuck Berry on a segment of the Mike Douglas Show on which the two rock legends met for the first time—Lennon goes off-script by adding his own spontaneous “Right!” just after delivering the required introduction. Well, John, I’m in full agreement with you. Chuck Berry is rock ‘n’ roll. Inventor, Mentor, King.

I’m not going to get too deep into the historical and biographical of Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Rather, I’d like to talk about how he influenced me and my music, both directly and indirectly. I grew up in a home dominated by country, or “hillbilly” music as it was often called. That included bluegrass and it was through a cover of Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” by Flatt and Scruggs that I found Chuck Berry. As I recall, their version was fairly close to Berry’s original arrangement, including tempo, groove, and overall “feel” of the song. That would seem quite a stretch for a bluegrass band, but I think that it’s more of a tribute to Berry’s songwriting skill, that one of his songs would appeal to musicians from a different genre of music so much so that they would cover it essentially intact. And while it also says a lot about the skill—and taste—of Flatt and Scruggs, this instance demonstrates that the music Berry created drew from many genres of American music all while remaining completely rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, it was evident to anyone listening that even while defining rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry was redefining music in general.

From that nascent introduction, I learned as many Chuck Berry songs as I could (as many as my mother would let me get away with), and I adopted as much of his stage persona as I thought I could get away with. Chuck played Gibson ES-type guitars exclusively, and he wore them on his right hip like a six-gun, ready to fire off a one-of-a-kind riff that always fired-up the “boys” and made the “little girls” swoon. That spoke to me on a level that I was previously unaware of and made me realize that showmanship was as essential as musicianship. I learned to play like I meant it and that attitude often carried me when my playing wouldn’t or couldn’t. The big Gibson guitars became my trademark as well. Chuck started with ES-335s but more often favored the more deluxe ES-345 and ES-355 models. Always red, always completely stock. (I was able to find one picture of Chuck playing a Stratocaster while standing among a group of other guitarists in what was obviously a staged jam at some show or other. I seriously doubt that it was his guitar.) I adopted the ES-335 for my music but I had to settle for a brown finish on my guitar. I used that 335 for just about everything I played for many years. Some gigs were a harder sell as a lot of folks listen with their eyes, so I did have a Telecaster and a Les Paul, but that 335 was my favorite. Whenever I was called upon to do my “Chuck Berry thing,” that guitar was the perfect fit both sonically and physically. All the moves looked and felt just right with the 335. Eventually, I had enough confidence in myself and my playing that I sold everything and, with some financial backing from my grandmother, I purchased a 1960 vintage Sunburst ES-345. That guitar instantly became an extension of my body and when I played it I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do or play. I remember playing a gig in a restaurant lounge with a showband trio called Showmotion. It was somewhat of a residency and a lot of the San Diego-area musicians would come by on their off nights to listen to us and occasionally sit-in. One night, a respected keyboard player came in to see us. After the set, he said to the drummer, who was the bandleader, and just loud enough for me to hear, “I like your guitar player all except for one thing; doesn’t he ever make a mistake?” I was that at “home” on the 345 so it was easy to appear mistake free, even when I wasn’t. I remember thinking, “Thanks Chuck.” A few years later, married-life finances forced me to sell that guitar. But that guitar was, and is, the benchmark for every other guitar I would ever own.

Musicians, especially guitarists, often miss the point of Chuck Berry and how he actually played his music. While it is certain that Chuck was always ready to defend his title of “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in any fashion or manner required, be it physical (Jerry Lee Lewis) or verbal (Keith Richards), Berry’s influences were wide and varied. In his songwriting, Berry had a facility with lyrics that even today fill other writers with envy. Words and phrases were tossed off with a jazzman’s cool and a surgeon’s precision. And this was reflected in his guitar playing as well. Practically every guitar player I’ve ever seen or heard play a Chuck Berry song does it wrong. Inevitably they use too much distortion in their tone (Chuck always played clean), and too much “slop” in their technique (Chuck’s technique on the guitar was as precise as his diction with the English language). In all things musical—in fact in all forms of communication—Chuck wanted to present an air of education or command of form, perhaps even sophistication. To overlook this part of his character was to miss the essence of Chuck Berry entirely. For him, it was all about respect. Respect the music, respect the business, respect the audience. Yes, he was a hard-nosed asshole when you had to deal with him musically or in business, mostly because of the experience of a lifetime of disrespect, but he respected his audience and we loved him for it. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! The King is dead! Long live the King!

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