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