The immortal rock ’n’ roller transformed songwriting and guitar playing, and helped America bridge the racial divide.
If all Chuck Berry had done was write the brilliant, guitar-driven, 3-minute operettas that stoked the flames of early rock ’n’ roll—“Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “School Day (Ring Ring Goes the Bell),” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode”—between the summer of 1955 and spring ’58, his place in history would be assured. But Berry did much more. His writing was clever and articulate, and fractured the Tin Pan Alley-version of songwriting, in which Svengalis of the pen and piano manufactured songs for artists.
Berry’s personal vision of the popular song, with his detailed, literate language and emphasis on relatable storytelling, paved the way for future do-it-all musician laureates like Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And electric guitarists who claim to not have been influenced by Berry are either lying or ignorant of how deeply his distinctive style is embedded in the core DNA of the instrument’s sound and vocabulary. His chugging and sliding chords, slurs, multi-string bends aimed at creating light brushstrokes of dissonance, and the punctuation of his phrasing—where the influence of his hero T-Bone Walker shined particularly bright—expanded the experience of hearing and playing the electric guitar beyond its role in the jazz, blues, and pop of the early ’50s. On one hand his playing was virtuosic; on the other, accessible enough—versus the intricacies of players like Les Paul and Chet Atkins—that any aspiring Johnny B. Goode with a paper route could suddenly dream of saving up for a guitar and leaving home behind, with or without a gunny sack.
And there’s more to the importance of Berry, who died at his home in Wentzville, Missouri, on Saturday, March 18, at age 90. His music and his concerts are where black and white American mainstream culture in the age of Jim Crow met. At a time when the racial divide was sharply and institutionally defined, teenagers were united in the joy of sharing Berry’s music, which was not always an easy thing for the duck-walking entertainer to accomplish. Thanks to his unaccented diction and across-the-board acceptance on emerging rock ’n’ roll radio, Berry would turn up at Southern concert halls, touring behind his No. 1 smash debut “Maybelline” or one of its chart-busting successors, and watch redneck promoters turn whiter when they realized they’d booked an African-American.
Berry had his own word for describing the kind of receptions he frequently received down South early in his career: “hospitaboo,” a blend of hospitality and taboo. Berry and his band got their first taste of hospitaboo when they were verbally demoted from men to “boys” upon arrival at the Duval Armory in Jacksonville, Florida, in September 1955. Maintenance workers roped off the auditorium’s central aisle, creating a racial no-man’s land that was only crossed at the show’s finale, when white and black audience members stormed the stage together, and exchanged hugs and kisses with Berry and his group as the authorities glared.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a middle-class kid but developed a troubled streak that deposited him in prison for armed robbery by age 18. When he got out, he married and, driven by his love for Jay McShann—whose music he sang in a high-school talent show—and other blues and R&B artists, he began to learn to perform and play guitar.
Although his famed shuffling duck-walk was a move that came naturally to him as a child, Berry copped his other stunts—playing over his head, picking with his teeth, dropping the guitar low to the floor between his legs—from T-Bone Walker. Berry’s first big break came on New Year’s Eve 1952, when he was hired by pianist Johnnie Johnson to fill in for an ailing guitarist. He stayed on, and Johnson’s strong rhythmic playing became a foundation of Berry’s music. Although they switched roles as leader in 1955, when Berry got his second big break and signed a contract with Chess Records, they played together steadily until 1973.
In addition to blues and R&B, Berry was a fan of country music, and noticed that when he began incorporating elements of country into his performances, audience enthusiasm increased. His Chess debut, “Maybelline,” was a rewrite of a tune called “Ida Red” that Bob Wills had first popularized. And from ’55 to ’61, Berry put 28 singles on the R&B charts, with a dozen landing in the mainstream Top 40 and forever casting his style of singing, writing, and playing guitar in platinum and gold.
Berry’s initial hits reveal the essential elements of his classic 6-string sound. He played Gibsons throughout his life, using a pair of ES-350 T’s in the period between “Maybelline” and “Johnny B. Goode.” His first was a 1955 with P-90s and the second a ’57 with humbuckers. When the ES-335 was unveiled in 1958, Berry was an early adopter, and he played 335s, 345s, and 355s for the rest of his career. Of course, in the ’50s and early ’60s his guitars were strung with flatwounds, yielding the distinctive “twop” heard on his key singles. And while most rock and blues songs are in common guitar keys, like E, A and G, Berry’s tunes were often in favorite piano keys, like Bb, Ab, and Eb, probably due to Johnnie Johnson’s impact on him. Berry also employed the time-honored African-American church- and blues-music approach, call-and-response, in exchanging vocal lines with his guitar. “School Days” is a perfect example. And he was the first master of the guitar-riff-as-hook, inventing repeating rhythmic figures, like the opener for “Johnny B. Goode,” that were pure ear candy.
Berry leans into a lick with one of the many Gibson ES models he’s played over the decades. He was an early adopter of the ES-335 when it was released in 1958, the year of “Johnny B. Goode.” Photo by Ron Akiyama/AtlasIcons.com
By 1958, Berry was a high-rolling success and invested in real estate around his native St. Louis. He turned one property into Berry’s Club Bandstand. At the end of the next year he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, a federal law established in 1910 to prohibit sexual slavery, for allegedly having sex with 14-year-old Janice Escalante, who he transported across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl at the club. After several years of appealing the conviction, he was compelled to serve 18 months in prison.
In part due to the negative publicity, Berry’s record sales declined, but he was riding another wave of popularity by 1964 thanks to British Invaders like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who considered him a profound influence and recorded his tunes. In ’64, Berry also scored with his own salvo, whacking “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine” up the charts. Although he remained a popular concert draw, Berry’s next and final hit came in 1972, with the unlikely novelty tune “My Ding-a-Ling,” which reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop singles countdown. But many of his fans saw his prison term as a turning point for Berry, who blamed his vigorous prosecution and sentence on racism.
For the rest of his touring career, Berry had a well-deserved reputation for erratic live performances and brusqueness. He would fly into cities to play, checking his guitar in as luggage, and when he landed, his contract specified a rental car in his name waiting at the airport. He drove himself to the gig, got paid in cash before the performance, and often stepped onstage with pick-up bands he’d never met before. Regardless of how well the band learned his songs from records, Berry would often switch keys—occasionally mid-song—and sometimes barely spoke to his accompanists. Before the applause faded he’d typically be driving back to the airport.
A shining exception were two concerts held on October 16, 1986, at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. An all-star band including Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, and Steve Jordan were assembled, under the musical direction of Keith Richards, and the shows and rehearsals were captured by director Taylor Hackford for his film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll. Even for that night, though, Berry didn’t entirely stick to the book, and he and Richards are caught debating one of his infamous key changes onstage. That year Berry was also among the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Two years earlier he’d received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2000 he was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award. And despite the many erratic performances in his wake, when the stars aligned Berry nonetheless remained capable of brilliance onstage. He ceased touring regularly after a 2008 European jaunt, and until 2014 he played monthly gigs at his current St. Louis club, Blueberry Hill.
Improbably, Berry died with his final album in the can. To celebrate his birthday last October, he announced the still-unscheduled 2017 release of Chuck, his first collection of mostly original songs in nearly four decades. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Berry said, referring to Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
TA brown-eyed handsome man: Berry exudes the charisma and stunt-playing guitar skills that made him a star in this 1958 television appearance, on a Gibson ES with a trapeze tailpiece.
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Flare is a dual-function pedal with a tube-like booster and a 1970s-style ring modulator effect that can be played separately or together.
Flare’s ring modulator is based on the iconic tone of the original Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. This vintage classic was made famous by Frank Zappa who loved the unusual modulations created by generating a harmonic octave over notes. Messiah’s version offers two control knobs: a “Sparkle” tone attenuator and output Level control. Its taupe-gold body, purple and green knobs and stick-figure rock ’n’ roller holding up a flame convey an appropriately rockin’70s vibe.
In a unique twist, Messiah’s Flare pairs the ringer with a warm tube-style boost instead of a fuzz. Flare feeds the booster into the ringer for an extra punch, while preserving the Green Ringerspirit. The ringer side also turns any fuzz into an octafuzz, and it has the ability to quiet signal background noise fed through it.
The booster side features a single Boost knob to control the MOSFET circuit, making it very tube-amp-friendly with a warm, organic boost and gain of up to 32dB.
The pedal is a distinct improvement over the 1970s pedal that inspired it. “Most ringer pedals don’t track well,” Tom Hejda, owner of Messiah Guitars. “The player can’t rely on repeating the same effect even with the most consistently played notes. We carefully matched the components, so our ringer follows your every move, producing that slightly dirty octave you expect on demand.”
Messiah developed this vintage octave pedal with flexible features so that people who love that messy, dirty Zappa-esque sound can get there with ease but there’s also something for those who have not fallen in love with fuzz or the Green Ringer alone. Flare offers an array of sonic options while retaining simplicity in the controls.
Each Flair Pedal Includes:
- 3 control knobs: Boost, Sparkle, and Level
- Two effects – Ring Modulator and Boost – can be used together or separately
- Space-saving top side jacks
- Durable, cast aluminum alloy 125B enclosure with fun artwork
- Easy to see, illuminated True-bypass foot switch
- Standard 9V pedal power input
Flare Pedal Demo
Messiah Guitars pedals are designed with an explorative player in mind. Like their custom guitars and amplifiers, Messiah’s pedals are hand-crafted in Los Angeles for a long life with guaranteed quality.
Flare retails for $199.00 and can be purchased directly at Messiah Guitars or you can hear it in person at Impulse Music Co. in Canyon Country, CA.
For more information, please visit messiahguitars.com.
This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal.
If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and QUACKS like a duck, then it must be a duck. That's how we came up with the name for our new envelope filter. This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal. Trevor explains how this is possible in the launch video, as well as gives a demo on Le Canard’s operation.
The attack control determines how quickly the filter responds to the envelope, and the decay sets how quickly the filter releases afterward. The range controls which frequency spectrum the filter does its magic on. Add to this relay-based full-bypass switching with failsafe, and you've got one crazy little quacky beast. It is so expressive that you'll want to give up on your rocker-wah forever.
The MayFly Le Canard envelope filter features:
- Super fast responding envelope follower. Touch it and it jumps!
- Range control to dial in the character of the filter
- Attack control to control how fast the filter moves on that first touch
- Release control to control how slowly the filter slides back to baseline
- Full bypass using relays with Fail SafeTM (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with groovy artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD)
Introducing the MayFly Le Canard Envelope Filter
All MayFly pedals are hand-made in Canada.
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
Available in two sizes, NOMAD ISO is a compact, versatile tool that offers the convenience of a fully powered board plus the additional freedom of not having to plug into an outlet. NOMAD ISO is ideal for stages with limited outlet availability, quick changeovers, busking outdoors, temporary rehearsal locations, and more.
NOMAD ISO builds upon the legacy of the ultra-convenient and reliable NOMAD rechargeable pedalboard line originally launched in 2018. The brand new NOMAD ISO editions feature eight isolated outputs (1 x 9V DC, and 1 switchable 9V/12V DC) for even more versatility and clean, quiet power. With an integrated lithium-ion battery pack boasting 12800mAh capacity, NOMAD ISO can fuel a wide array of pedals, and will last over 10 hours* on a single charge.
Each NOMAD ISO pedal board includes adhesive hook & loop pedal-mounting tape, eight (8) standard DC connector cables, and one (1) reverse polarity DC cable, giving you everything you need to build your ultimate "off-the-grid" rig. A rugged, road-ready padded gig bag with shoulder strap is also included, to safely protect your gear while you're on the move.
NOMAD ISO S
NOMAD ISO S: MSRP $309 / MAP: $249
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 5 ¼"
NOMAD ISO M
NOMAD ISO M: MSRP $349 / MAP $279
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 11"
More info: https://www.outlawguitareffects.com.