Rock & Roll pioneer, Chuck Berry died today. RIP King of Rock & Roll, 1926-2017; he was 90.
(Phil Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records, the 1950’s Chicago indie rock & roll label that recorded Berry’s great records, correctly called Berry, not Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll. And that’s nothing against Elvis, who sampled and remixed 1940s blues wonder Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup through white rockabilly with all due respect and reverence. It’s just a lot about Berry himself, who sampled and reinvented the blues with an electric concoction of styles. Phil Chess, who was present for Berry’s original experiments, died late last year.)
This afternoon’s eloquent obituary by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles contrasts Berry and Presley this way: “While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.”
Pareles also has a perfect description of Berry’s secret ingredient: “The drummer eagerly socks the backbeat, and the pianist — usually either Mr. [Johnnie] Johnson or Lafayette Leake — hurls fistfuls of tinkling anarchy all around him.”
(It’s true. Listen to the crazy piano in the background of all Berry’s early Chess sides. Workhorse rock & roll historian Charlie Gillett pointed this out in his landmark 1970 book, The Sound of the City, writing: “The basis of Berry’s rhythm was an alternation of guitar chords comparable to the ‘alley’ piano style of the Coasters ‘Searchin,’ but the effect was complicated by frequent lead guitar figures and by a piano that seemed to be played almost regardless of the melody taken by the singer and the rest of the musicians. Apart from a few vocal groups such as the Five Satins, few rock ‘n’ roll performers dared to challenge the conventions of harmony in this way, and part of the immediately recognizable sound of Berry’s records was the interesting piano playing.”)
With songs like “Maybellene,” “Wee Wee Hours,” and “Roll Over Beethoven” (talk about kooky piano playing), Chuck Berry is all over my “Indie Rock Singles: 1945-1957” Playlist.
“Maybellene’s” combustion engine guitar solo and desultory piano aside, my favorite Berry song is probably his 1958 song “Around & Around.”
I once wrote a mini-essay about Berry’s “Around & Around”, identifying it as the great connection. Here it is:
I have been trying to figure out the connection between two of my favorite musical moments: 1) The “race record” underground of the late 1940s/early 1950s—Muddy Waters, Lloyd Price, Wynonie Harris recording at indie labels and playing in bars and 2) The sine wave weirdo white composers of the late 1940s/early 1950s—Messiaen, Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Boulez, working in their dissonant computer lab studios. These two musical movements were completely oblivious to one another even though they were happening at the exact same time. And they both blew up the 20th Century.
Listening to a Chuck Berry CD on Sunday, I finally figured out the connection: Minimalism.
Now that I’ve figured it out, the connection is pretty easy to hear in the white minimalist composers’ subsequent work in the 1960s, who were combining the experiments of their art-school predecessors from the 1940s & 50s with the rock music that had taken hold in the 60s.
Chuck Berry foreshadowed the whole thing, combining the two schools, in the 1950s themselves.
Listen to the repeated lead guitar line in his 1958 rock and roll hit “Around & Around.” It comes in on the first beat of the third measure as an electric response to his opening vocal, “They say the joint was rocking.” And it drags into the 1 beat of the following measure.
This lead guitar line persists in different shapes throughout the whole song. When he starts singing the second verse, “Oh, it sounded so sweet,” he alters the guitar motif slightly by bluesing the second and fourth notes—I think with a half step. Then, for the third verse, “Well, the joint started rocking,” he delays the response until the 2 beat, adds the pedal tone, and just bangs out the full chord, launching into a 24-measure break. When he comes back for the 4th verse, “12 O’Clock,” the response hits from the 1 beat again. And it’s stripped back down to another lead guitar line—a combination of the motifs from the first and the second verses. This combo motif sounds like something Steve Reich or Philip Glass would do, overlapping two related lines so one is a motif and one is relegated to a background figure. Although, there’s no double tracking here, so it’s all in your head. He ends up at “But they kept on rocking,” strumming the full chord again.
And this last move is brilliant: Since the full chord version starts from the 2 beat, you have room to imagine the lead motif coming in on the 1 beat—even though it’s not really there. So you “hear” the guitar motif—maybe the one from the first verse, maybe the blue noted one from the second verse, maybe the combo from the 4th verse—over the chorded version. In your mind, you’re hearing three or four overlapping guitars. —Hex Message blog, 4/7/08
*A footnote on Pareles’ obituary: It’s disappointing, even irresponsible, that he isn’t specific about the influence that late-1940s jump-blues hero Louis Jordan and his Tympany 5 guitarist Carl Hogan had on the great Chuck Berry.
**Okay, they posted a follow-up article…a list of 15 essential Berry songs…that does cite Jordan’s influence: “The stinging introduction (pinched from the jump-blues star, and Mr. Berry’s greatest influence, Louis Jordan’s ‘Ain’t That Just Like a Woman’) set a standard that every rock guitarist still chases.” And their write up here of 1958’s “Carol” made me tear up: “A simple story about a boy who needs to learn to dance to hold on to his girl, the description of the club they go to is so vivid you can practically smell it (‘A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma’am/Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed’).”