Sunday, 19 March 2017

Chuck Berry

Charles Anderson 'Chuck' Berry died yesterday at the age of 90. He was survived by: Themetta, his wife of 68 Years; four children, Ingrid, Chuck Junior, Aloha and Melody; and by Rock'n'Roll to which he gave birth on a lonely road outside Chicago Illinois in 1955.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. It was Chess Studios and not a lonely back road.  The song was Maybellene and without it things might have been so different.

Charles was born into a Middle Class black family in St Louis Missouri on 18 October 1926.  His father, Henry Berry was a carpenter and a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church while his mother, Martha was one of the few black women of his generation to go to college.  In those days, St Louis was so segregated that, growing up in the Ville, a self-contained community where all businesses and churches were run by black people, Chuck was three years old before he saw white people for the first time when some white firemen came to put out a fire.

One musician who said Chuck Berry was a great influence, was Keef Richards.  Although I'm pretty sure Keef never did the duckwalk like Chuck.  As well as Keef, Chuck Berry often played with other musicians, such as John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), Tina Turner and even Gerry and the Pacemakers

I think my favourite song from Mr Berry was 'Memphis Tennessee': yes despite the cutesy or creepy (depending on point of view) ending.  In 1972, he recorded a version for Top of the Pops on BBC TV which was one of the funniest attempts at making the miming obvious, not equalled until the Stranglers.

Of course, Chuck famously sang Can't Catch Me back in 1956 but the truth is, he did get caught and was incarcerated several times, in 1944 for armed robbery while still at high school.  He served three years in a reformatory during which time he learned to box (something Keef Richards would later learn to his regret) and formed a singing group.

He was released from the reformatory on his twenty first birthday but he also had further periods in jail as an adult.   1n 1959, after he allegedly had sexual intercourse with a fourteen year old girl who he had hired as a hat check girl and transported across state lines he was sentenced to five years in jail.  However, his appeal that the judge was biased on the grounds of his racism was upheld and after a retrial with a different judge, he was sentenced to three years of which he served 18 months in 1962 and 63.  As a result of his conviction, when Chuck was awarded the Polar Music Prize in 2014, Queen Sylvia and her youngest daughter Princess Madeleine of Sweden refused to attend the award ceremony in Stockholm.

In 1972, Chuck released a novelty single "My Ding-a-Ling" which he had often played as "My Tambourine".  This was castigated by Mary Whitehouse' Viewers and Listeners Association, now known as Mediawatch-UK who claimed it was about masturbation.   Chuck never lost popularity though, even playing in the White House for Jimmy Carter in 1979.

A month after playing for the President, Chuck again went to prison, this time serving 4 months and 1000 hours of community service (the latter consisting of free concerts.)

He continued performing write until the end but on 18 March 2017, police were called to his house and found him unresponsive and he was declared dead at 10:40AM (17:40 GMT).

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