323. Chuck Berry – My Ding-a-Ling (1972)

As mentioned in my blog for Mouldy Old Dough, the UK seemed to be having a nervous breakdown as far as its number 1 singles are concerned in late-1972. Here’s further proof. Rock’n’roll pioneer Chuck Berry, one of the most influential guitarists in musical history, at the top of the charts for his one and only time with his nadir – a live recording of tawdry jokes about his penis.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born 18 October 1926 in St Louis, Missouri. He grew up in the middle-class area known as the Ville. Berry was into music from an early age, and he gave his first public performance at Sumner High School in 1941. He was still a student there when he had his first of several run-ins with the law. In 1944 he was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City, Missouri. Berry was sent to a reformatory, where he spent his time learning to box and performing in a singing quartet. He was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

Berry married a year later and became a father for the first time in 1950. To support his family he worked in car assembly factories and as a janitor, and he also trained to be a beautician. To help make ends meet he also played blues with local bands, and learnt riffs and tips on showmanship from T-Bone Walker. By 1953 he was performing in pianist Johnnie Johnson’s Trio, a relationship that endured, and would win over skeptical black audiences by playing country music, mixed in with ballads, blues and R&B. Soon white audiences were attending too.

Everything changed when Berry met Muddy Waters in 1955. The blues legend suggested Berry get in touch with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Although he thought they may like his take on the blues, Chess loved his version of traditional tune Ida Red, which Berry called Maybellene. There is a strong argument for rock’n’roll beginning right here.

Classic after classic followed. In 1956 there was Roll Over Beethoven and You Can’t Catch Me (inspiration for The Beatles’ Come Together). In 1957, as rock’n’roll peaked, School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell), became his first chart hit in the UK. He went on tour that year with other greats including Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers.

Berry’s classics kept coming for the rest of the 50s, including Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode and Memphis, Tennessee. For some reason, only Sweet Little Sixteen and Memphis, Tennessee charted over here – was this down to distribution problems? Whatever the reason, by the end of the decade he was a huge star, had starred in films, opened a racially integrated nightclub and invested in real estate. But in December 1959 he was arrested for alleged underage sex with a girl he had transported over state lines.

The 60s got off to a terrible start, with Berry sentenced in March 1960 to five years in prison. He appealed and claimed the judge was racist, but he was convicted again, and a further appeal failed. His last single before jail time was Come On in 1961, which became the first single by The Rolling Stones.

Fortunately for Berry, his release from prison in 1963 coincided with the rise of The Beatles, who covered his material, and The Beach Boys Surfin’ U.S.A. reworked Sweet Little Sixteen. Although he never reached the same commercial heights as the 50s again, there were still some great songs, and UK hits with No Particular Place to Go and You Never Can Tell in 1964. The latter of course is now best known for its use in 1994 Quentin Tarantino smash Pulp Fiction. After that his career went on the slide. He jumped ship to Mercury Records and earned a reputation for erratic live performances.

Berry returned to Chess in 1970 with the appropriately named LP Back Home. His album The London Chuck Berry Sessions was a mix of studio tracks and three live performances recorded on 3 February 1972 at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry. Amazingly, the venue of the festival, the Locarno, was also the site of The Specials’ live EP Too Much Too Young The Special A.K.A. Live!, a number 1 in 1980. Berry was late for his slot, which annoyed headliners Pink Floyd as it meant they were an hour late for their set. In his band were guitarist Onnie McIntyre, drummer Robbie McIntosh, who went on to form Scottish funk outfit Average White Band, and bassist Nic Potter from prog-rockers Van Der Graaf Generator.

I’d thought in the past that My Ding-a-Ling was likely an off-the-cuff skit by Berry, but no, it’s an actual cover of a song by Dave Bartholomew, writer of many rock’n’roll hits including I Hear You Knocking, the Christmas number 1 by Dave Edmunds in 1970. Bartholomew released it first back in 1952. Berry first recorded it as My Tambourine in 1968.

I of course was within my rights to think this was a skit, of course, because it’s bloody awful. Thankfully hacked down from over 11 minutes on the album, it may well be that Berry had no say in the release of this as a single, but whether it was him or Chess, what the hell made them think it was a good idea, and more to the point, why did the UK prove them right? An eager audience including Noddy Holder (Slade were one of the acts on earlier that day) lap up every minute of this Carry On-style ditty disguised as a playground rhyme. Believe me, I’m all for that type of humour at the right time, but this is just terrible. Perhaps there was just a lot of nsotalgic affection for Berry at the time, with a rock’n’roll revival ongoing and bands like T. Rex paying respect?

And once again, it’s unavoidable to think of My Ding-a-Ling without context, without thinking about all the light entertainment and pop stars since outed as paedophiles and Berry’s many misdemeanours with women… it makes jokes that weren’t funny to begin with even worse.

My Ding-a-Ling reached number 1 here and in the US, but thankfully it didn’t stick around long enough to reach the Christmas number 1 spot in 1972. Unfortunately it was beaten by an even worse song…

Another live track from the album, Reelin’ and Rockin’, was Berry’s final hit. He spent much of the 70s touring along with his Gibson guitar, relying on local bands wherever he went, which often did his reputation damage, but along the way, pre-fame Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller were among those helping out. Springsteen later revealed Berry didn’t give the band a setlist and didn’t interact with them afterwards, but it didn’t stop him helping out again when Berry was entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

The ‘Father of Rock and Roll’ ended the decade with a gig at the White House for President Jimmy Carter in June 1979, but that year he was also sentenced to jail again – four months and 1,000 hours of community service for tax evasion.

The 80s saw Berry continue his one-man tours. In 1986, documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll covered two concerts for his 60th birthday featuring Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Etta James, among others. But he just couldn’t keep out of trouble. In 1987 Berry was charged with assaulting a woman at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. He pleaded guilty to harassment and paid a fine. Three years later, he was sued by women who claimed he had installed a video camera in the cubicle of his restaurant. Although his guilt wasn’t proven he opted to settle… with all 59 women. 59 women. During this scandal his home was raided and police found a huge stash of pornography, videos, slides and books, some of which appeared to show underage girls. The child abuse allegations were eventually dropped, and seem to have been largely forgotten in many of his obituaries.

In 2000, Johnson sued Berry, claiming he deserved co-writing credits on over 50 of his songs but the case was dismissed when the judge said too much time had passed. He continued to tour, and played festivals across the globe, but on New Year’s Day 2011 he passed out with exhaustion and had to be helped off stage.

On his 90th birthday in 2017 he announced he would be releasing his first new studio album since Rockit in 1979. Chuck featured his children Charles Berry Jr and Ingrid and was dedicated to his wife Toddy, who had remained all those years. It was to be his swansong, as Berry died of a cardiac arrest on 18 March. Chuck was released to critical acclaim two months later.

Without Chuck Berry, who knows which direction pop would have gone in. He inspired some of the greatest musicians of all time, and his iconic duckwalk is fondly remembered. Sadly, he was also a sex offender and maybe a paedophile, and this lone number 1 really doesn’t help his legacy.

Written by: Dave Batholomew

Producer: Esmond Edwards

Weeks at number 1: 4 (25 November-22 December)

Births:

Labour MP Dan Jarvis – 30 November
Scientist Ewan Birney – 6 December
Footballer Nicky Eaden – 12 December
Comedian Miranda Hart – 14 December
Actor Jonathan Slinger – 14 December
Labour MP Sarah Jones – 20 December
Labour MP Gloria De Piero – 21 December

Deaths:

Composer Havergal Brian – 28 November
Scottish novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie – 30 November
Writer LP Hartley – 13 December

294. Dave Edmunds – I Hear You Knocking (1970)

As 1970 drew to a close, November’s number 1s seemed to symbolically bid farewell to the 60s. So, what next? Glam was around the corner, but in the meantime, the Christmas number 1 looked back to pop’s past, as Welsh singer-songwriter spent six weeks at the top with a cover of a 50s R’n’B tune.

David William Edwards was born in Cardiff on 15 April 1944. Musically gifted as a child on the piano, at the age of 10 he formed The Edmund Bros Duo with his elder brother Geoff. They both formed The Stompers around 1957, with Dave on lead guitar and Geoff on rhythm. From there the younger Edmunds had brief stints in several groups before becoming lead singer of rockabilly trio The Raiders, who formed in 1961.

In 1966 Edmunds, following a brief spell in The Image, shifted to a blues-rock sound and formed a short-lived outfit called Human Beans, who mutated into the trio Love Sculpture. Their second single, a novelty high-speed reworking of Sabre Dance, which climbed to number five after getting the attention of DJ John Peel. After two albums Love Sculpture split in 1970.

Edmunds returned to Wales and learned how to recreate the sounds of the R’n’B and blues songs of the 50s by himself, and made plans to record a cover of blues classic Let’s Work Together by Wilbert Harrison, until he heard Canned Heat’s version. Around this time he worked with Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets, helping the 80s hitmaker score his first recording contract.

Fortunately, Edmunds heard Smiley Lewis’s I Hear You Knocking while driving, and noted he could use the backing track he’d already recorded for Let’s Work Together and make a cover of Lewis’s song. It was also a track he knew from Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets’ repertoire.

The original, written by New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew (who had co-written the 1959 Elvis Presley number 1 One Night) and released by Lewis in 1955, is a straightforward slice of piano-driven 50s R’n’B, but Edmunds went full on blues-rock. He played every part on his version, using heavy compression to create an unusual, direct sound.

Edmunds’ I Hear You Knocking is a quirky choice for Christmas number 1, but of course, being at the top of the charts on 25 December wasn’t an ‘event’ back then. The weird production is attention-grabbing to begin with. Most unusual of all is the vocal track, which sounds like it’s being sung down a bad phone line, or is coming out of a damaged transistor radio. I’m not sure if Edmunds was aiming for a dated 50s sound, but if so, it doesn’t quite come out like that. It gets a bit annoying after a while, whatever the intention.

The chorus is memorable, and the slide guitar is effective, and I enjoy Edmunds’ shouting out ‘Smiley Lewis!’ and other rock’n’roll star names from the 50s in the instrumental break. I can see why listeners would have enjoyed a bit of basic blues-rock for a while. Not sure how it stayed at number 1 for six weeks, though.

Despite the success of I Hear You Knocking, it took Edmunds two years to release his debut album, Rockpile, which was mostly a collection of more oldies. He had left it too late to capitalise. Or maybe he wasn’t bothered about doing so anyway. He spent the next few years producing rock and blues acts like Brinsley Schwarz, Foghat and The Flamin’ Groovies. However, his two singles Baby I Love You and Born to Be With You reached the top 10 in 1973.

In 1974 Edmunds had a brief role in the David Essex film Stardust, and helped with the soundtrack. A year later came his second solo LP, Subtle as a Flying Mallet. Then his friendship with Nick Lowe from Brinsley Schwarz resulted in their new group Rockpile. Due to being on different labels they were unable to record until 1980 but would guest on each other’s solo material for the next few years.

In 1979 Edmunds scored his last top 10 hit with Girls Talk, written by Elvis Costello. Rockpile only recorded one album, 1980’s Seconds of Pleasure, before splitting up due to arguments between Edmunds and Lowe. Edmunds went back to mainly producing, and worked with big names including Paul McCartney, Status Quo, Stray Cats, The Everly Brothers and kd Lang. He had a US hit with Slipping Away in 1983 though, written and produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne.

Edmunds went into semi-retirement in the mid-80s, but he did tour with Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band in 1992 and 2000. After a couple of albums released online, he began touring in his own right again in 2007. Edmunds performed I Hear You Knocking on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny in 2008 and then Sabre Dance in 2009. His last album was On Guitar… Dave Edmunds: Rags & Classics in 2015, featuring instrumental covers. After a final show in July 2017, Edmunds retired from music.

1970 was an interesting, eclectic year for number 1s, with several well-remembered chart-toppers. Lots were in thrall to the past, though, with the departure of The Beatles leaving the music world wondering what to do. Fortunately, T. Rex were now on the scene, having scored a number two hit with Ride a White Swan. Marc Bolan would soon have his first number 1.

Written by: Dave Bartholomew

Producer: Dave Edmunds

Weeks at number 1: 6 (28 November 1970-8 January 1971)

Births:

Singer Aled Jones – 29 December 
Welsh rugby union player Louise Rickard – 31 December
Football referee Andre Marriner – 1 January
BBC newsreader Suzanne Virdee – 1 January
TV presenter Jayne Middlemiss – 5 January
TV presenter Joanne Malin – 7 January

Deaths:

Olympic athlete Lillian Board – 26 December (see below)
Composer Cyril Scott – 31 December

Meanwhile…

Boxing Day: Olympian athlete Lillian Board, died in Munich, West Germany, after a three-month battle against cancer. She was 22.

New Year’s Eve 1970: Although Paul McCartney had announced his departure from The Beatles earlier in 1970, it was made official when he filed a lawsuit against the other three on this day to dissolve their partnership.

New Year’s Day 1971: The Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into effect, which allowed couples to divorce after a separation of two years (five if only one agrees). This ruling resulted in a sharp rise in divorces over the next two years.

2 January: The new year got off to a shocking start for football fans when a stairway crush at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow during a match between Rangers and Celtic killed 66 and left many more injured.

3 January: BBC Open University broadcasts began.

8 January: Uruguayan left-wing urban guerrilla group Tupamaros kidnapped Geoffrey Jackson, the British ambassador to Uruguay, in Montevideo. He was held captive until September.