It’s 1955, I’m in grade school playing in the little tree in front of our apartment in “Carver Homes” housing project in Atlanta Georgia. My visiting Grandmother sitting on the front porch is tapping her feet and clapping her hands. I already was addicted to music so I had to run over and see what she was listening to. The radio next door was blasting “Maybellene, why can’t you be true.” I sat there listening to it with her, we loved it…It was maybe a month later that I found out this guy’s name was Chuck Berry. Throughout my childhood and teens I got to see and hear a lot about this guy. By 1965 I’m a teen but already making money as a musician ..for a lot of my peers Chucks era is already over. But as a drummer I cut my teeth on those beats in his songs and even at that age I got picked to be the drummer at what they were already starting to call “oldies” shows .It’s 1970 I’m in the Black Panther Party I have gotten into the habit of showing up at “Rock “ concerts….meaning music shows for the white kids and selling the Black Panther Party newspaper. Back then we actually lived on the money we made doing that…and those “hippies” thought buying our paper was really cool. On this day the show was headlined by Chuck Berry, with Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes as the opening act and Berry’s back up band. Of course we had no money to get in. And the old “Hill street “ arena where the concert was held was not exactly a negro friendly place. When the show was over I was waitng for my ride when these nasty looking white boys on motor cycles roll up and ask …”how many papers you sell”…one of them says “how much money you got?…a voice to the side of me said …”none of your god damn business”….I didn’t know until they got on their bikes and road off that it was Mr. Berry……with what looked like an ax handle…I admit …I was shaking..he put a hand full of bills in my hand and said it was to pay for breakfast for them kids,
Chuck Berry was indeed a genuine “badass” and he took that right on stage with his guitar…I was not listening to a lot of music at that time other than my newly discovered Taj Mahal records. But for about five years or so after that I started haunting swap meets and yard sales buying up Chuck Berry records ..making up for the years when I was mostly into STAX and Motown…Cut to 1975..I now live in Philadelphia , but drive back to Atlanta about twice every year..My old 1970 Mustang…the first car I ever bought with my own money only had an AM radio..and for some reason it seemed every town we drove through from Philly to Atlanta …we heard some station playing …”My Ding-a-Ling”… I have come to hate that song. Chuck didn’t write in but this “novelty” song got him gigs at all the white colleges…and think about how many of his contemporaries couldn’t get a gig..It seems like Berry went the whole trip…from being a scary figure bringing that “dangerous jungle negro rock and roll” into the homes of America…( and trust me from about 1955 until the mid sixties you could always find editorials and documentaries about this dangerous music.) To being kind of “frat boy” joke at that time. But in his heyday Chuck Berry who was older than Elvis or Little Richard …who were both almost a decade younger..was aiming his music directly at Americas kids. To them he was no kid ….but as they ..the white authority, used to say a “full grown buck” out to get our children… I lived through that 1950s “cold war” years and I can tell you white people were scared of EVERYTHING, commies, bombs, comic books, the growing civil rights movement…and now in the middle of all that these negroes are spreading this “jungle music” to our kids’…And in those days it did not help that so much of Berry’s music was about school days…and sweet little sixteen year olds…It today amazes me that he was so defiant…and did as he pleased..knowing he was always being watched …particularly for whether he was some how corrupting some of their “ youths”….And for a time it looked like Berry was cooperating with the police…Chuck went to jail and or paid fines for corrupting some “little girl” often in those days..even being convicted under the Mann Act…the act made it a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Berry continued to perform on a regular basis well into the 1980s.Doing anywhere from 70 to 100 one nighters a year .And I read last month that he is releasing another record featuring his son Charles Jr. and his daughter Ingrid. I was saddened when I heard that Berry was found yesterday “unresponsive.” Rock and Roll …still lives…….sort of anyway..it has today “morphed” into what is largely marketed as a “white” musical genre..But even that still holds some of the old element of “danger” and rebellion . But when we see “rock” artist today..they still depend for the most part on a lot of the guitar riffs and “swagger” that Chuck Berry brought to the table. I really hate it today when people try to argue about just who invented Rock and Roll music . There was no person who invented Rock and roll music. It grew out of the sheer intensity of post WW II American culture. The growing numbers of young people who would by the records …and YES I will say it. The Black music that was the heart of Rock..Yeah a lot of that “swagger” and attitude we really do owe to Chuck Berry.and to Little Richard…who by the force of his musicianship…as well as his very personality and his “crazyness” refined the culture of the “outlaw” musician…Elvis …well Elvis really has more in common with acts like .”The Monkees” due to the fact that in many ways he was a “manufactured” artist..you know the old Sam Phillips line “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'” …well they found a boy who was almost there and built the rest..Not to take anything away from Elvis..after all he had to get out there and “do it”…And if it were not for him the “marketing” of Rock and the world wide phenomenon it became may have never happened…So we say goodbye to Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry (October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017) but in many ways ..he will always be with us. I think the best tribute to just how important Chuck was is that fact his music..”Johnny B. Goode” went into the depths of outer space on the Voyager space probe ..representing a big part of the culture of human beings…I would love to see the reaction of the first alien who hears it.