A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hooptedoodle #255 - Goodbye, Johnny B Goode

I would be embarrassed to be seen to offer up another me-too tribute - it's an activity I disapprove of. Private feelings are nicer and somehow more sincere when they remain private.

I am reminded by yesterday's news of the passing of Chuck Berry that - rather to my surprise, in the long run - he was a sort of hero of mine. Someone who made my life a little richer, in the influence he wielded as much as by his own work.

Already the media are wheeling out all sorts of has-beens from show business to make over-inflated utterances about pop music as Great Art, and all that. I really wouldn't know, and would hesitate to attempt an academic assessment.

Berry is especially significant for what he represents. A black man from St Louis, he began recording for Chess Records in the mid 1950s. Chess, bear in mind, were a specialist blues label who published artists like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley - primarily for black audiences - and a worse fit than Berry with the accepted marketed image of the popular music world of the day is hard to imagine. The spending power of the record-buying teenager was a new phenomenon, and major record labels in the US were struggling to push coiffed, sterilised, parent-approved products such as Johnny Tillotson, Fabian and similar - white, acceptable to the church, not overtly masculine. He was surprisingly old, too - if I recall correctly, his first commercial success, Maybelline, was released in 1955, when he was 29. That is positively ancient.

He was not an admirable character, in many ways. He had spells in prison - notably for tax evasion and (once) for statutory rape (a charge which looks a bit like police entrapment, all these years later). He is famous for being difficult to deal with, complicated, devious. I read his autobiography some years ago and was disappointed - it wasn't a great read, overall, and he came across as an unusually self-obsessed character. I suspect that I wouldn't have warmed to the great man's company. I saw him once, live - he was excellent, a consummate showman, but he was accompanied by a disappointing English tour-band which did nothing for him at all.

There is a definite thread of racism through many of the bad breaks which he suffered - especially in the early years, though his combative personality cannot have helped. He came through a hard school. I read that in the dance-halls and the provincial theatres he got into the habit of threading his guitar lead through the handle of his guitar case before plugging into his amplifier - thus making it impossible for anyone to steal the case without the matter coming to his attention. He also would not play until someone put actual cash into his hand. Incongruously, he still insisted on these technical safeguards when he was appearing at the Paris Olympia - a quirk which is not without a certain rough charm.

It would be wrong to claim that his records were history-changers in their own right - famously, he was very fortunate in that his music impressed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the (white) rock bands that swept to power in the 1960s. Without that connection, Berry and a lot of his contemporaries would probably have disappeared without trace decades ago. This has all been much-discussed in the past - however it worked, it worked. I love him because of the unpretentious nature of the music (though he did tend to release thinly-disguised rehashes of his earlier successes), and his cute, street-poet lyrics, which offer an interesting social history of American youth.

This is getting close to a tribute, and I wouldn't want that.

Thanks, Chuck. That's really all I wanted to say.


  1. Public or private, tribute or not, your eulogy (perhaps "retrospection" is more apt?) for Barry is hard-hitting and reduces the many, soon-to-follow accolades on his life down to its roots. You have captured the man and the period in which he lived admirably in a few, well-chosen words.

  2. Yes, well said. I have spent many, many happy hours watching bands play Johnny B. Goode with varying degrees of success. There was a reason they included the original on the Voyager Golden Record.

    1. Yes, that first, clean melodic riff in JBG is timeless.

  3. Berry's recorded output, for me, divides into the period before his first gaol term (with Johnny Johnson and a double bass) and after (with bass guitar, and a cast of thousands). I'm very partial to some of his classics - Around and Around, Nadine, Schoolday. Memphis Tennessee - but have also been a lifelong enthusiast for the drinking game of spot the lesser-known Berry tunes - Beautiful Delilah, Wee Wee Hours, Down the Road Apiece, Jo Jo Gunne, No Money Down, It Wasn't Me, many others.

    Berry's greatest single characteristic, I think, was meanness - YouTube is stuffed with live performances from the 70s - mostly rough as hell, because Chuck wouldn't pay for good players, and certainly wouldn't pay for a rehearsal or a proper sound-check. There's some live stuff from the BBC in 1972 where the session band clearly have no idea what's going on, and mostly couldn't care anyway.

    You have to love it.

  4. Although not one, a great tribute to a great musician, my personal fav is Too Much Monkey Business, amongst a host of others.......

    1. Thanks Ray - yep - great number - great lyrics, and very jazzy, in fact!

      Talking about You, Promised Land, Betty Jean, I Got to Find My Baby, Carol, Go Go Go....

      Your turn?

      Cheers - Tony