Thursday, October 19, 2006

Happy Birthday, Chuck Berry!

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Rock music pioneer Chuck Berry marked his 80th birthday on Oct. 18, but music fans should be the ones celebrating.

You see, Berry was the original rock 'n' roller. Whatever happened in pop music since he arrived wouldn't have happened without him.

While Elvis had a longer career, Berry's was equally influential and, unlike Presley, he wrote his own songs. In fact, Berry combined his poems and music in such a perfect way, you might say he invented rock 'n' roll.

As he observed his 29th birthday in 1955, Berry's debut, "Maybelline," hit number five on the Billboard singles chart. You may recall the invigorating lyrics: "As I was motivatin' over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville. Cadillac rollin' on an open road, but nothin' outrun my V-8 Ford." He followed with "School Day" and "Sweet Little Sixteen," in a chart run that included 27 entries.

Nearly every band learned Berry's songs, including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. John, Paul, George and Ringo made "Roll Over Beethoven" into an international hit, while Mick and the boys did the same with "Carol." Even headbangers Judas Priest recorded "Johnny B. Goode."

Successful bar bands included lots of his material in their sets. While plenty of cover bands played Berry songs, I saw the master himself perform just twice.

The first time was in the fall of 1972 during a free outdoor show on the campus of Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. The veteran musician and his back-up players, (The Woolies from East Lansing, famous for "Who Do You Love") plowed through the Berry catalogue and capped the show with a sing-a-long version of his number one "My Ding-A-Ling."

I witnessed a second Berry performance in 1995 during the all-star show for the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Deservedly, he both opened and closed the prestigious concert.

At the age of 68, Berry demonstrated an agile version of his signature "duck walk." To a roar of approval from the crowd of 65,000, Berry squatted and hopped along on one foot while continuing to play his guitar. Adding some class to the program, he played his timeless classics "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock & Roll Music" dressed in a white tuxedo while most of the other stars wore casual apparel.

Berry has had some noteworthy birthdays.

Federal officials gave him a special gift for his 37th birthday on Oct. 18, 1963, when they released him from prison. Berry had been convicted under the Mann Act for transporting an under-age girl across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Many think the musician was set-up by authorities during a racist era. (He was incarcerated again in 1979 for income tax evasion.)

Still, following his release from the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Mo., Berry issued six successful singles he had written in prison, including "Nadine" and "No Particular Place To Go," reviving his career at the peak of the British music invasion. Ironically, many of those upstart bands gained their popularity by releasing their own versions of Berry's records.

For Berry's 60th birthday, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards spearheaded the filming of a documentary, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll." An all-star cast of musical greats played at the 1986 concert at the Fox Theater in Berry's hometown of St. Louis. Performers included Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Everly Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, and Little Richard. Berry was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same year.

Despite his contributions to modern music, Berry has also been the victim of prejudice and harassment from the government, leaving him an embittered man. While he's given us such a great legacy, it's a shame rock 'n' roll hasn't always been kind in return.

So thanks Chuck for a lifetime of great songs about cars and girls and other important things. Your seemingly simple yet insightful lyrics and innovative guitar riffs are seared into my brain and the skulls of millions of other rock 'n' roll fans.

As you blow out those candles, here's a happy birthday wish to you. Rock on!

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