52 Weeks of Music

Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry Is On Top

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on January 29, 2009

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame puts it “While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.”

Chuck Berry was born in Missouri in 1926. By age 22 he’d spent several years in jail, got married and worked as a factory worker, janitor and beautician. In early 1953 he started playing with Johnnie Johnson’s Trio, covering Nat “King” Cole and Muddy Waters and mixing it up with some country or hillbilly songs.

“Listening to Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction,” said Berry. “The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all, it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.”


In 1955 the band traveller to Chicago and Berry began stealing the limelight in his band with his outlandish showmanship.

Around this time Berry came to the attention of Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records, the label that Waters had recorded with throughout his career. Leonard was concerned about the decline in the popularity of Chicago blues and was beginning to look elsewhere for the next big thing.

Berry’s first track with Chess, “Maybellene” a reworking of a classic country & western hit, was released in August 1955. The song went to #5 and in doing so changed the course of music history.

The song was significant not just because its musical style hinted at the rock and roll that was to follow, but also because it signalled the start of “black” music gaining wide spread popularity with mainstream, young, white America.


Throughout the late 1950’s Berry continued to record with Chess with considerable success. This week’s album “Chuck Berry Is on Top“, Berry’s third album, was recorded at peak of his popularity in 1959.

During this period Berry’s band was made up for a number of blues legends and pioneers of the emerging rock and roll scene including Fred Below, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Johnnie Johnson. Their contribution to Berry’s success should not be discounted and the lack of credit passed on to them has been the subject of some dispute.

Beyond the catchiness of his tunes, much of Berry’s appeal lay in writing  lyrics that described the experience of being a teenager in the Fifties. As he put it “Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening.” His broad popularity was at least in part because his music was truly of the time – girls, dances, riding in cars and getting in trouble at school are all regular themes.

The influence of this music is hard to overstate. The Ramones and the Beach Boys, not to mention half the top acts of the sixties and every Rockabilly band ever, are only a heartbeat away from these songs. It’s a fair bet that anyone who has played rock and roll learned these songs at some point and the list of people who have covered these songs ranges from David Bowie to NoFX, Queen to the Grateful Dead.

But while pioneering and influential, the album stands on it’s own above all as a fun collection of music. Enjoy!


Allmusic Review

While this may be merely a collection of singles and album ballast (as were most rock & roll LPs of the 1950s and early ’60s), it ends up being the most perfectly realized of Chuck Berry’s career.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7096481


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