Chuck Berry – Opher’s World pays tribute to a genius.

Chuck BerryChuck Berry is a one-off. He arrived in Chicago at the age of twenty seven already fully fledged. Who knows where he’d got it from? He’d either paid his dues at the crossroad or had it all fermenting in his head. He was a rare breed in that he was a black guy from Memphis who was equally at home with Country and Jazz as much as Blues and R&B.
Muddy Waters was his first port of call and through him it was Chess Records. They snapped him up.
Chuck was intelligent and astute. He had already sussed out that the Blues had had its day. He had his eye on the burgeoning teenage market. Rock ‘n’ Roll was about to break. He aimed to be at the crest of that wave. He rode the zeitgeist like a seasoned surfer. He put all that knowledge of Country, Blues and Jazz to good use and seasoned it liberally with imagination. He wrote his own songs in a new, brash distinctive style based round those searing guitar runs that we are all now so familiar with because they have permeated the fabric of popular music. They weren’t there before Chuck invented them. But that wasn’t all. Chuck wrote poetic lyrics to go with it with songs about fast cars, dances, school, romance, cruisin’ and hotrodding, and the new Rock ‘n’ Roll. It hit the spot. His crazy new style was aimed at just the right spot and his clear diction made it all accessible. He was singing about the like that American youth was living. They could identify with it and loved the exhilarating delivery. With Jimmy Johnson on piano to create the stability and help hone the material Chuck was about the hottest thing to hit the charts.
He was so original he could not be mistaken for anyone else.
In those days in the 1950s there was no limit to Chuck’s creativity. He homed in on that new white teenage market with poetry that punched holes in the head and guitar licks that burned the ears; coupled with that he was a unique showman. He took the tricks of the Blues buskers and adapted them into a series of unique performances that were all his own: there was the classic duck-walk with his knees bent as he strutted the stage with his head jerking back and forth; the machine gun stance as he rattled notes like bullets at the audience; the splits with the guitar held up and every note played true; the pad-foot as he raised one foot up after the other, all accompanied with facial grimaces and wild eyes. The crowd went berserk.
Chuck created high power songs that resonated with the post-war white kids who were craving excitement. For a long while he could do no wrong. The songs flowed out of him like ice-cream cartons out of Ben & Jerry’s. These were the classics that still form the bedrock of every aspiring R&B bands repertoire.
Then it all went wrong.
Chuck said that all you needed in order to write songs was an understanding of maths and a book of rhyming words. It was most unlike Chuck to be so self-deprecating. It was also very short of the mark. What you needed in abundance was an imagination and musical creativity. Songs like ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ were a million miles away from simple number and rhyme; they put Chuck at the pinnacle of Rock Poetry. Nobody else was doing stuff of that lyrical magnitude in the fifties. There was a subtle mental process guiding the genius, sorting the right themes, arranging the notes, words and rhythms to create music like nobody had ever heard before. At the end of the fifties the natural process in Chuck’s head went haywire and the brilliance dried up. In the sixties there were only sporadic masterpieces like the wonderful ‘Nadine’, ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Run Rudolph Run’. The rest of the output was mediocre. He proved that you needed more than just maths and rhyme.
This drying up was probably due to the way Chuck had been treated by the white establishment who ran things, including the Music Business. The politicians did not like the new youth culture of the fifties. They saw it as breeding delinquency and wanted it shut down. There were all sorts of measures taken. Chuck was imprisoned on what was likely a trumped up charge of taking a prostitute across a State line.
Chuck also claimed that he’d been ripped off by promoters and his record label. He never really recovered. When he got out of prison he held on to that resentment and cultivated it into a big chip that sat firmly on his shoulder. He saw all the musicians stealing his sound and the white business stealing his money. He’d had enough. Everyone was against him and he was not receiving the credit or remuneration for his efforts.
Chuck took to touring around with cheap pick-up bands. Under-rehearsed and giving short sets he regularly short-changed his audience. He demanded payment up front before going on and gained a reputation for being surly and awkward. The whole business had become a prostitution.
It was a great shame because if he had done it properly he would have found that most people were on his side and it would have been more productive and fulfilling. The standard would have improved and it might have sparked those creative juices so that we might have got even more of those masterpieces. Chuck seemed content to rest on his laurels and go through the motions. The heady brew of resentful biochemistry clogged up his creativity.
Even so, running on auto was still pretty good. I saw him when he was about eighty and he was incredible.
Chuck is an extraordinary pioneer of Rock. Few have produced such a distinctive sound and penned as many classics.