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

269. Desmond Dekker and The Aces – Israelites (1969)

That week, Marvin Gaye had been knocked from the top of the pops by Jamaican reggae and ska pioneers Desmond Dekker and The Aces. Two black acts at number 1 in a row… clearly, far from the Rivers of Blood that Enoch Powell had predicted, the immigration to the UK in the 60s was opening the UK charts up like never before. The bestselling act of the week didn’t always have to be four white men with guitars.

Desmond Adolphis Dacres was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica on 16 July 1941. He spent his formative years in Kingston, regularly attending the local church with his grandmother and aunt.

As a young adult, after his mother died, Dacres was working as a welder there, and would impress his colleagues with his singing skills. They encouraged him to go into music. After several failed auditions, he signed with Lesley Kong’s Beverley’s label, but it would be two more years before his first fruits were released.

In the meantime, he had spotted another talented singing welder, and took him to meet Kong, who duly signed him up. In 1962, that singer, Bob Marley, released his debut single. Marley never forgot what his workmate did for him.

Dacres’ first single Honour Your Mother and Father was released in 1963, and he chose the stage name Desmond Dekker at the same time. Fourth single King of Ska established him as one of the island’s biggest stars. His backing band on this were The Cherrypies, better known now as The Maytals. Dekker then picked four singing brothers – Carl, Patrick, Clive and Barry Howard – to become his permanent backing vocalists, and named them The Four Aces, then The Aces.

Desmond Dekker and The Aces’ music at this time was the more respectable end of Jamaican culture, extolling the virtues of going to church, education and respecting your parents. However in 1967 he began recording material that commented on the rude boy subculture, where money was hard to come by and ways to get ahead in life were limited. That year they released the rude boy rocksteady anthem 007 (Shanty Town), the title track of their debut album. Its success reached the UK, where it went to number 15.

Around this time, Dekker became inspired to write Poor Me Israelites, as it was known in Jamaica. In The Metro newspaper on 18 April 2005, he recalled, ‘It all happened so quickly. I didn’t write that song sitting around a piano or playing a guitar. I was walking in the park, eating corn. I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needed money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I relate to those things and began to sing a little song – “You get up in the morning and you slaving for bread.” By the time I got home it was complete. And it was so funny, that song never got out of my mind. It stayed fresh in my head. The following day I got my little tape and I just sang that song and that’s how it all started.’

Although reggae and ska were making inroads, and elements of both were in The Equals’ Baby, Come Back, Israelites became the first full reggae UK number 1, climbing the charts following its release the previous year. This pure form of a fast-rising form of music, with its syncopated vocal melody and offbeat sound, was a taste of another way of life for mainstream record buyers. It helped that the melody was incredibly catchy, because the vocals, sang in thick Jamaican patois, were at times inpenetrable to white audiences. It didn’t matter, though, when the music was this good.

I have to confess that I have only just begun to grasp the meaning of Israelites. It doesn’t help that my introduction to the song came from a television advert for the margarine Vitalite. As a boy I loved it whenever the animated sun and accompanying sunflowers came on our TV. And then I became confused by an advert for Maxell cassettes, in the late 80s, in which Dekker (I’ve literally just found out it was him) holds up incorrect lyrics to the song in the style of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video. So for a while, I thought it was called My Ears Are Alight. I was only young, to be fair.

No, Israelites is not about a margarine that’s high in polyunsaturates and low in saturates, and it’s not about your ears being on fire. It’s about, as Dekker described above, a poor guy struggling to feed his family, but the title stems from the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’s association with the Twelve Tribes of Israel from the Hebrew Bible. Rastafarians were ostracized from the more conservative traditional church of Jamaica in the 60s.

So, Israelites is Jamaica’s version of the blues. Its their answer to Sixteen Tons. Dekker is slaving away to put bread on the table, yet his wife and kids ‘pack up and leave’ him. Despite reading that this is the lyric, I remain certain he’s actually singing that they ‘fuck off and leave’ him. ‘Darling she said, I was yours to be seen’ suggests he hasn’t been as appreciative of her as he could have been. He doesn’t want to end up like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I’m assuming, is a reference to robbing and stealing, and not wanting to be shot dead like the infamous duo, back in the public eye after the blockbuster film.

Israelites was not only a success in the US, it made him a name in the US too, reaching the top ten. Dekker decided to leave Jamiaca and took up permanent residency in the UK. It Mek went into the top 10, and then he dropped The Aces, signed with the legendary Trojan Records and very nearly achieved a solo number 1 with his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s You Can Get It If You Really Want in 1970. Dekker was initially reluctant, but was persuaded by Kong.

Unfortunately, his producer and co-writer died in 1971, and some say Dekker never really recovered, but 1972 saw 007 (Shanty Town) featured on the soundtrack to classic rude boy film The Harder They Come, which increased reggae’s exposure and may have helped pave the way for the success of Bob Marley. In 1975 Israelites was re-released and entered the top 10 in the UK once more. His last hit here was Sing a Little Song in 1975.

Dekker signed with cult UK ska/punk label Stiff and released the album Black & Dekker. I don’t know whose idea it was to make a pun on the Black & Decker power tool company, but they have earned my eternal respect. His backing band on the LP was Graham Parker’s backing band The Rumour (featuring Roland Gift, later the singer in Fine Young Cannibals), and they ran through his hits, including Israelites. His next album Compass Point (1981) was produced by Robert Palmer, but he was struggling, and in 1984 he declared bankruptcy.

The Maxell advert brought Dekker recognition once more, and in 1993 he recorded the album King of Kings with the Specials, featuring material by Dekker’s heroes. It sounds like a great idea, but apparently it was a disappointment. His final album was 1999’s Halfway to Paradise.

Dekker continued to perform live right until the end. He was preparing to headline a world music festival in Prague when he died of a heart attack on 25 May 2006, aged 64.

Written by: Desmond Dekker & Leslie Kong

Producer: Leslie Kong

Weeks at number 1: 1 (16-22 April)

Meanwhile…

17 April: The Representation of the People Act was voted in, which would lower the voting age from 21 to 18 with effect from February 1970. It also allowed candidates to include a party label on the ballot paper, and removed the right to allow convicted prisoners to vote.
In other electoral news that day, Bernadette Devlin became the youngest ever female MP when she won the Mid Ulster by-election at the age of 21.

20 April: British troops arrived in Northern Ireland to reinforce the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

22 April: Robin Knox-Johnston finished his solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe via sailing. He was the first person to achieve this feat.