Saturday, March 18, 2017


Chuck Berry just died at age 90.

Johnny B. Goode, man who rolled over Beethoven with Rock & Roll music, chased Nadine and Maybeline for 30 days shouting "you can't catch me!" to Sweet Little 16 back in the promised land of the U.S.A. during school dayz, the man who gave us the "duck walk," has gone, leaving us with a most impressive legacy: Rock n' Roll.

Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard; each one of these men were founding fathers of Rock & Roll, that defining turn of popular music, the blending of white and black styles that defined the boundary between Everything that Came Before and Everything that Came Since. Along with Chuck Berry, each one deserves a piece of the glory of being pone without whom, it would not have happened. Each one is unique int heir own way, each one with their own contribution, not just to the sound, but the spread of the music that was to define a generation.

The uniqueness of Chuck Berry's unique contribution among this pantheon was his songwriting and guitar virtuosity, which combined around basic rhythm and blues chord changes and country music brightness to bring something fun to the table.

Other music writes have, and will continue to write about his genius, how he changed rock & roll forever, how his white-sounding voice enabled him to get over on white radio, how many famous rock & rollers, from the Beach Boys to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton to Bob Seeger to Bruce Springsteen to AC/DC to the Stray Cats to the Blasters etc were inspired by him, how his marathon tour schedule brought him to the people, how he would show up at gigs asking for $10,000 in a paper bag and expecting the house to provide a backing band that knew his material, and if they were good, he would give the band $1000, about the several ways he was screwed over in his career, etc, etc, etc, and he deserves every word of it. Even the inevitable legendary exaggerations and fabrications.

I first discovered 1950's rock & roll when my favorite babysitter gave me a Bill Haley album that led off with the theme song from "Happy Days," that TV show that came on after "Emergency" or "Fire House" that my mom would never let me watch. It grew slightly when Elvis Presley died, and more when I saw "Grease" and "American Graffiti."

But a greater appreciation and understanding of the forms and sounds that set the world a'rockin really came when I discovered WABC-AM, and then WCBS-FM.

When I was growing up, my mom kept the radio on classical stations and news radio. Sometimes it would land on a "lite" radio station (or whatever they called it in the 1970's), basically elevator music, The Thousand Strings, etc. I was somehow aware of country-western music, and that I liked it, and of course I was made familiar with Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand and the world of folk music thorugh children;s concerts and played my mom's Smithsonian folk music album collection over and over again.

The death of Elvis and the 50's nostalgia movement made me think it was cool to know about popular culture of the past. For a while I got confused between '50's rock & roll and "Nostalgia" music, that is, pop music of the 1920's, '30's, '40's, and '50's, and listened to WNEW-AM. It's great music, and a lot of it inspired the early sounds of rock & roll, but it is not rock & roll.

Then, by the 5th grade, the NY Yankees, whose games had been broadcast on WINS newsradio, moved to WABC, a rock & roll radio station. That was when I started listening to rock & roll. the 1980's had not yet arrived, and the idea of "the evolution of rock" was a new concept, one which WABC pioneered.

When WABC switched to an all-talk format (the week after I graduated from the 8th grade), I had to find a new radio station. I had gotten a Sony Walkman FM radio as a graduation present, and played around with a few stations, WAPP, WNEW, WBIS (during a period in which I was trying to get past the friend zone with a punk stoner chick), but the only place I could reliably find the sound that thrilled me, that genuine, raw, early rock & roll sound, was WCBS-FM. True, sometimes I had to wait through some Big-Chill-era stuff, and of course the requisite Beatles and British invasion stuff (all of which is very good in its own right), but then a Chuck Berry song would come on, and I would perk up my ears and listen to every note, every syllable, absorbing the sound until I could play it in my head.

In my sophomore year of high school I got a Sanyo C4 home/portable stereo set, which I could plug into my mom's record player. So when I started making enough money to do so, I started buying records. After seeing "Streets of Fire" I became a big fan of the Blasters. When I asked a musician friend of mine if he could play their song "Rock and Roll Will Stand," he replied that it was just "Johnny B. Goode." That got me to realizing that lots of early rock & roll songs were just that same melody. When Marty McFly played "Johnny B. Goode" in "Back to the Future," I would fantasize that it was me up there, rocking out. When I learned how to play harmonica I re-wrote the words to "Johnny B. Goode" to make applicable to a harmonica player on the Lower East Side.

 As my knowledge of 50's rock & roll grew, so did my record collection. It got so I started to build a compete collection of the classics by the greats so I could make the perfect cassette of '50's rock & roll music, because every compilation album or "the greatest hits" collection was always loaded down with ballads and stuff that just didn't "rock." Among the first of these albums was Chuck Berry's "The Great Twenty-Eight."

A Village Voice writer wrote an article titled "Chuck Berry: A Theory of Fun." It was a cover story. It made perfect sense to me. The man was a genius. His music is not about seeking a sublime higher level of existence, it is about taking life as it is and enjoying every moment on Earth.

I saw a triple feature of Alan Freed movies ("Rock, Rock, Rock," "Go, Johnny, Go!" and "American Hot Wax" at the Thalia Soho. Chuck Berry was in all of them, and if there were any justice in this world, he would have been in more.

(Note Alan Freed's hot drum licks in this clip from "Rock, Rock, Rock!")

Now you can't hear 1950's music on the radio anymore. Even the "Oldies" stations don't play anything before the Beatles, and we are the poorer for it.

He is gone now, may he find a well deserved reward in whatever afterlife goes to musical geniuses who have changed the world, and may rock & roll never die!