Hail, hail Chuck Berry, still putting out new music at 90

KENNEDY CENTER HONORS
Chuck Berry listens for the crowd to sing with him during a performance of his hit song "Johnny B. Goode" at a 1995 Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland.

The best thing about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize - besides his being so unimpressed that he's reportedly not answering the committee's calls - is that he was alive when it happened.

That meant that along with envious authors arguing that the bard's body of work doesn't count as literature, there was a spontaneous celebration by people gleefully typing out favorite Dylan lyrics on the social media platform of their choice.

We're getting used to these convulsive, out-of-the-blue fetes of favorite performers' work. Usually, though, the breaking news is heartbreaking: Our deeply appreciated artistic hero - Bowie, Prince, Haggard, Phife Dawg - has died, and left us with nothing but a digitally streamable oeuvre to take solace in.

Which brings us to another rock lyricist who enjoyed a not-tragic social media moment this month. The man whom Dylan has called "the Shakespeare of rock and roll," and who also, as much as any one individual can claim, invented rock and roll itself: Chuck Berry.

Last week, Berry, the oldest among the music's 1950s foundational architects still breathing, celebrated his 90th birthday. And, at first, the milestone seemed likely to pass sans foofaraw: "Chuck Berry turning 90 without much fanfare," read the subdued USA Today headline.

But Berry had a surprise. He used the occasion to announce Chuck, a new album to be released in 2017 that will be his first since Rock It in 1979. It's dedicated "to my beloved Toddy," his wife of 68 years, Themetta, he said. "My darling, I'm growing old!"

So let's appreciate him while we've got him. (Also, let's celebrate three piano-pounding life forces: New Orleans R&B giant Fats Domino, 88; the outrageously gifted and transgressive Little Richard, who's 83; and cold-eyed rockabilly killer Jerry Lee Lewis, a spring chicken at 81.)

Although he continued to play live shows into his 80s - usually with pickup bands, and never hitting the stage until he got his cash up front - Berry has kept a low profile in the decades since Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, the 1987 Taylor Hackford documentary. That movie chronicles two Keith Richards-helmed 60th birthday tributes (and their argumentative rehearsals: Berry, who once socked Richards for daring to touch his guitar, has roughly the same attitude toward "practice" as Allen Iverson).

Contrasting Berry with Elvis Presley, his only equally impactful '50s rock-and-roll progenitor, is useful and inevitable. Elvis detonated a youth culture revolution with performances that brought the sexual energy of black rhythm and blues to unsuspecting white America. Duckwalking Chuck was more circumspect, always well-dressed in a jacket and tie, a fabulous performer, but one who needed to be cautious, lest he scare the bejesus out of the audience his music effortlessly crossed over to.

The beautician turned bluesman was already 29 when he scored his first groundbreaking hit with "Maybellene" in 1955, and he quickly got on with the business of detailing the lives of high schoolers from a cool distance.

With economy of language, he chronicled that post-World War II American creation: Teenagers. "Sweet Little 16, she's got the grown-up blues / Tight dresses and lipstick, she's sportin' high-heel shoes / Oh but tomorrow morning, she'll have to change her trend / And be sweet 16, and back in class again."

Always conscious of career interests, "Sweet Little 16," took special note of the Dick Clark-hosted program that was the star-making machine of its day: " 'Cause they'll be rockin' on Bandstand / Philadelphia, Pa."

Berry shaped the biggest bands in the world. Keith Richards first approached Mick Jagger because he saw him holding a Chuck Berry record on the train. "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry," said John Lennon, who had Berry as a guest when he and Yoko Ono cohosted The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia in 1972.

As with Presley, Berry's music was woven together from black and white sources. When Berry first recorded for Chicago's Chess label - one of whose founders, Phil Chess, died last week - he and pianist Johnnie Johnson cut the lackluster blues "Wee Wee Hours," and a hopped-up version of "Ida Red," a country hit for western swing bandleader Bob Wills. Phil's brother Leonard changed the title to "Maybellene," got the song to Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (who took 25 percent of the publishing) and the rest was history.

Some of that history was sordid.

In 1959, Berry was arrested on Mann Act charges for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for "immoral purposes," taking him out of pop culture circulation at the same time Presley was in the Army, and unthreatening Philadelphia teen idols ruled the charts.

Berry wound up serving 18 months in prison, but as with R. Kelly, an underage sex scandal didn't destroy his career. In the mid-'60s, after the Beach Boys used a speeded-up Berry blues riff and melody for "Surfin' U.S.A.," he continued to have exquisitely crafted hits like "No Particular Place to Go" and "Nadine."

While in prison, Berry penned "Promised Land," later to provide Bruce Springsteen with the title for one of his sturdiest anthems. As historian Andy Schwartz pointed out online last week, "Promised Land" tracks the travails of a "poor boy" on a path that follows the route that civil rights activists took across the South in 1961.

Berry was never overtly political, but he also slyly worked race into "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," the 1956 B-side said to have been inspired by seeing a Hispanic man hassled by police on a visit to California that year.

There are the "hurry home drops" that roll down a child's cheek in "Memphis, Tennessee," and "the coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale," in "You Never Can Tell," the latter featured in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. But "Brown Eyed" contains my favorite Berry wordplay: "Milo Venus was a beautiful lass, she had the world in the palm of her hand / But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match to get a brown-eyed handsome man."

Along with the wit, what makes Berry great is the collection of immediately identifiable riffs that became the building blocks of rock and roll. He has often given credit to forerunners like jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and jump-blues band leader Louis Jordan, but Berry was the one who codified and popularized the rock-and-roll lexicon.

As Leonard Cohen put it when he and Berry - whom he compared to Walt Whitman - were honored by the literary organization New England PEN in 2012: "If Beethoven hadn't rolled over, there'd be no room for any of us."

Hear, hear! And Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry.

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628 @delucadan

www.philly.com/inthemix

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