Happy Birthday to Chuck Berry October 18th, 2013!
Concert series at Blueberry Hill quickly approaching 200th show (January 2014)
Chuck Berry Facebook Fan Page surpasses the 1.000.000 member mark September 2013!
Voyager 1 leaves the Solar System with Johnny B. Goode along for the ride.
Chuck Berry Facebook Fan Page surpasses the 500.000 member mark April 2013!
Chuck Berry Tours South America April 2013
Chuck Berry Rocks Moscow February 2013
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The crowd was equally ecstatic. Berry traveled to Cleveland for a tribute concert in his honor, which included performers Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Joe Bonamassa and Lemmy Kilmister. At the end of the night, Berry accepted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Masters of Music Award, wrapping the Hall of Fame's weeklong celebration of Berry's life. The reclusive Berry seemed to love every minute of his Cleveland stay, spending Saturday afternoon at the Hall of Fame, where he checked out his exhibit with his family and held a rare interview with journalists in a Hall of Fame conference room, praising President Obama and discussing his health.
He was in for some surprises. Whether it was DMC retooling "School Days" as a pro-education hip-hop anthem or Haggard putting a twangy spin on "Memphis," the night highlighted just how far Berry's influence reaches. Between performers, classic Berry performance footage was shown on a massive screen and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart put the songs in historical context. "[Berry] was a lightning rod," he said. "Rock & roll was still being born and he came out the way he did. Unbelievable."
Setlist-wise, you couldn't go wrong; Berry has one of the greatest catalogs in rock & roll history; vivid, witty storytelling over rollicking rhythm. Seventy-four-year-old Ray Sharpe, who has been recording since the late Fifties, growled a soulful "No Money Down" soaked in Texas twang, backed by the ace house band. Rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson howled a loose, chugging "Beautiful Delilah" and bounced across the stage through "Around and Around." "It's ridiculous that I'm here tonight," McPherson said, grinning. The New York Dolls' David Johansen and Earl Slick tore the roof off with a smoky, fuzzed-out take on 1961's "I'm Talking About You" and invited out Ohio's Rick Derringer for a heavy "Back in the U.S.A."
The night rolled on with John Fulbright, who sat at a keyboard and played harmonica on "Downbound Train." Malina Moye played Berry deep cut "Stop and Listen," full of wah-wah and feedback-drenched guitar. The number concluded with Moye by raising her Stratocaster above her head and twirling around in her lengthy dress. It didn't sound anything like Berry, but it made an impression. More fancy fretwork came from Bonamassa, who played a gorgeous, hushed "In the Wee Wee Hours" and a raucous "Oh Carol."
Lemmy Kilmister attacked "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Let It Rock" with his whiskey-soaked growl. Sitting backstage sipping a Jack and Coke in his dressing room, Kilmister said Berry was one of his first heroes. "I liked his attitude. He had that sort of smile on his face and that pencil mustache, sort of a lothario, you know. He's always got that innuendo in the vocals when he's talking about chicks. He was always a horn dog, basically, and so was I."
At 77, Ronnie Hawkins proved he's still a powerhouse showman with "30 Days" and "Roll Over Beethoven," the Hawk whooping and howling during instrumental breaks. San Antonio rockabilly singer Rosie Flores was one of the most impressive acts of the evening, performing endearing, country-flavored takes on "No Particular Place to Go" and "You Never Can Tell." Flores was also the only performer brave enough to playfully attempt a duck walk.
Next to Berry, Merle Haggard was the biggest legend in the room. His set started rocky due to some technical difficulties; there was a pedal board in front of his microphone. "You guys put something in front of me that's not supposed to be here," he said, pointing to the board. "Can you come to move it?" The move made Haggard's guitar short out, and he threw up his arms in frustration. He overcame the problems with his classic "Workin' Man Blues," grinning genuinely at his son Benion's tasteful Telecaster mastery. Next, the duo played a raw "Memphis," Haggard rattling off Berry's lyrics with his axe slung across his back. "It's great to be part of the fanbase of the great Chuck Berry," Haggard said. "Its even better to be asked to play here."
Next, Ernie Isley played a heavy version of "Rock & Roll Music" while McDaniels took one of the night's biggest risks, performing his own version of "School Days" backed by a DJ and the house band. "Chuck Berry's been rapping before rappers been rap!" McDaniels said in a speech; DMC and Ernie Isley soon mashed rock and hip-hop, sampling Berry's vocals in their own take on "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."
At the end of the night, Stewart announced "the man of the hour" and the curtain rose, as Berry stood onstage with his band to a massive standing ovation. He kicked straight into "Johnny B. Goode" before getting lost for a moment, while his daughter Ingrid sang the lyrics. He soon joined back in and the song picked up steam. "What's the second song?" he asked the band afterward. He kicked into "Reeling and Rockin'" to huge applause, but soon raised his hand and stopped the song, then eased into it again with the rhythm a little slower. Berry was full of energy, hitting stellar double-string licks, duck-walking and holding his Gibson high in the air above the piano with a twinkle in his eyes.
The night finished up when Berry graciously accepted the Hall of Fame's award, and, in a rare move, invited his wife onstage. "Ladies and gentlemen, Themetta Berry, my wife of 62 years," he said. "It's going to be 63 in June!" Most of the night's performers returned to the stage for "Rock & Roll Music," a fun mess that was led by Isley as Berry returned to the stage halfway through the song, playing rhythm next to Lemmy Kilmister and high-fiving the Motörhead singer. Earlier in the day, Berry told Rolling Stone that his singing days have passed. But, true to character, he's still full of surprises.
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Like a lot of guitarists of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was so blown away by the way those bands were playing these hardcore rock & roll songs like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Around and Around." I'd looked at the labels, under the song titles. I'd seen the name "Chuck Berry." But I was fortunate enough, again like a lot of guys from my generation, to have a friend who had an older brother, who had the original records: "If you like the Stones, wait until you hear this!" I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top — and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else. It's not so much what he played — it's what he didn't play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you're ready for the next verse.
As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what's going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.
He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "School Days" — how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words "rock & roll" in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. "Johnny B. Goode" is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands — everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it's also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff.
It's funny — when my son, Roman, was 12, he came back from his guitar lesson one day and I said, "What song were you learning today?" He said, "We're learning 'Johnny B. Goode.'" That's the essence of the appeal of Chuck Berry. When you're a young guitar player now, you're confronted by all these guys: Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page. But you can sit down and get your guitar to sound like Chuck Berry in a very short amount of time.
The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It's not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural.
I still listen to Chuck Berry Is On Top. The whole thing just rocks out. That's why I love it — for the same reason I love AC/DC records. They just don't stop. That was another thing he did: He stayed in that groove. He could have done one or two of those "Johnny B. Goode"-type songs, or a couple like "Maybellene," then gone off and done whatever. But he stayed in that place, that groove, and made it his own.
I also have a bunch of different compilations, and I hear the direct influence on me. The way he phrases things, that double-note stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound — that's what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It's a little bit of technique, but it's mostly phrasing.
And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it's punk rock. It's the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.
People will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.
I've had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I've never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, "It's Chuck Berry over there." Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.