Sunday, May 1, 2011
The bells of St. Berry
By Al Tays
Remember how in 1977 NASA launched its Voyager spacecraft, and included phonograph records containing sounds meant to represent the diversity of life on Earth? (You don't? Well, you're just going to have to trust me on this.)
The sounds on the records included music from artists including Beethoven, Mozart and Chuck Berry.
Saturday Night Live did a skit in which it was reported that aliens had come across the records, and sent back their reply:
"Send more Chuck Berry."
Now, aside from the fact that advanced space civilizations are unlikely to still be using turntables (these days it's hard enough to find them on Earth), the sentiment that Chuck Berry has (literal) universal appeal is one I concur with.
His guitar riffs are one of the first snippets of music that I recall sending shivers up my spine. Of course, the first Chuck Berry guitar riff I ever recall hearing was actually played by Carl Wilson, the intro to "Fun, Fun, Fun." And my introduction to "Roll Over Beethoven" came via the Beatles, not Berry.
Eventually I became exposed to the genius himself, duck walk and all. (And much, much later I learned that the "Johnny B. Goode" griff was an adaptation of the horn intro from Louis Jordan's "Ain't That Just like a Woman.") Here's a live performance from 1958: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ofD9t_sULM&feature=related
I still love to watch how effortlessly Berry seems to play, even today in his 80s.
Why Chuck Berry? Why today? Because it's the first of May, the month in which, in 1955, Berry signed with Chess Records on the suggestion of Muddy Waters. His first go-round with Chess produced such classics as "Maybellene" (1955), "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957) and "Johnny B. Goode" (1958).
Berry had his problems, too, including a couple of jail terms, more convictions, sloppy live performances and a reputation as a difficult artist to work with. And please, I'd rather not talk about "My Ding-a-Ling" -- which was previously discussed here at the Sanctuary.
But with a Gibson in his hands, Chuck Berry will always be the guy who "could play the guitar just like ringin' a bell."