“As I was motivating…back in town.
I saw a Cadillac sign saying ‘No Money Down’.”
Chuck Berry is the King of Rock N Roll. He is the first artist to merge the musical stylings of country, blues and R&B. Writing his own material, he is considered the first true ‘singer songwriter’ of the modern rock era. By taking this new music to both white and black audiences, he made the leap to mainstream American radio and television, the first black artist to break through the racism pervasive in the radio and recording industry. He led the charge in a Societal, Artistic and Cultural Revolution that set the stage for the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. There is not one artist to come after him that doesn’t owe him a great debt, as does the audience that he served so well during his early years. To become familiar with Berry’s best work, one needn’t look any farther than the greatest hits package “The Great 28” on Chess Records. The 28 singles contained on this release are not only a Chuck Berry retrospective, but a history of early rock n roll itself. Any self respecting music fan would be able to quote songs such as “Maybelline”, “No Particular Place to Go”, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode”. By writing and performing the standards of his era, he has become an icon of not only popular music, but of 20th century American culture as well.
With so many classic singles to his credit, it is easy to forget that Chuck Berry was one of Chess Records’ most prolific recording artists, writing each song himself. His songs have a consistency that lead you to believe, upon hearing his B Sides and album cuts, that all of his songs were possible hit material. Bolstered by the incomparable Johnnie Johnson on piano, the music had a heft lacking on the pop charts, yet rooted in the Chess Records sound. ‘No Money Down’ was a single in 1955, the year of his first Chess single, ‘Maybelline’. The song has a bluesier tinge than his other songs, yet that is what makes it unique among his body of work. He describes in minute detail the process by which he, the narrator, drives into a Cadillac dealership with his ragged old Ford and drives out in a yellow convertible with “wire chrome wheels”. One listen and you can feel yourself driving that car. It is this feeling that conveys the magic of all Chuck Berry songs. He writes from the perspective of his audience, identifying their dreams and aspirations. The lyrics are written in such a detailed fashion that you don’t have the broad generalizations of other writers of the 1950’s. Instead, you get an almost poetic depiction of teenage life in rock n roll’s golden age, as described by one of the most lyrical writers in modern musical history.
Chuck Berry continued as Chess Records’ top selling artist through the 1960’s, riding his wave of million selling albums from 1955 to 1964. It wasn’t until 1972’s ‘My Ding A Ling’, however, that he finally attained a Billboard Hot 100 #1 single. He toured continuously through this period, experiencing popularity through the 1980’s with new generations discovering his patented brand of rock n roll music. 1987 saw the release of one of Berry’s most high profile productions, the film “Hail, Hail Rock N Roll” directed by Taylor Hackford. The film documents Berry’s 60th birthday concert in his home base of St. Louis, with a cavalcade of guest stars including Robert Cray, Linda Rondstadt and Julian Lennon. Concert band leader Keith Richards and creative consultant Robbie Robertson bring out a great deal of humanity in Berry, revealing his personal and professional triumphs and tragedies. What comes across to the viewer is a realistic depiction of the man as he is today: one of the most gifted and intelligent writers of the rock era passing his gift to the new generation of players.
(Original 1955 Chess Single)
(Great performance from the 1987 film “Hail Hail Rock N Roll”, available as a must-see 4 DVD set on Image)