Hail, Hail Chuck Berry

 

BerryEarly rock and rollers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have made claim to the title of king of rock and roll music, a title usually associated with Elvis. However, if there one rocker who can make a legitimate argument for the title, it was Chuck Berry.

berry1Unlike anyone before him, Chuck Berry wrote about and spoke to teenagers. Songs like School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, You Never Can Tell, Reelin’ and Rockin’ and much more addressed the world of America’s youth. Berry’s music, along with new film stars James Dean and Marlon Brando helped create the teen market as a dominant financial force to be reckoned with. While adults brushed aside the teen years as a phase that one would grow out of, the world of rock and roll said it wasn’t just a phase, it was a new world order where the youth market would emerge as a not just an economic force, but political and racial. White teens were listening to Chuck and other black rock and roll musicians. They purchased their records, made friends with blacks and found the world wasn’t going to end. Berry did not do it by himself of course, but he was an important spoke in a wheel that was just beginning to get rolling.

Across the Atlantic in England during Berry’s early days, a group of wannabe rockers heard Chuck’s music and knew that was the world they wanted to be part of. One of those young kids was John Lennon; another was Keith Richard. Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, it might be ‘Chuck Berry’.” Early Beatles recordings paid tribute to their idol with cover versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. One of Lennon’s greatest honors was performing with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show back in 1972.

 

After hearing Chuck Berry’s music, a teenage Keith Richard knew what he wanted to do with his life, play the guitar like Chuck Berry. In 1986, for Chuck’s 60th birthday, Richard assembled a backup band that included Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Robert Cray for a birthday tribute concert in Chuck’s hometown St. Louis at the Fox Theater. Fortunately, it was all filmed and preserved for us to see. Released in 1987, Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford is a must see.

Thanks, Chuck and long live Rock and Roll!

The Importance of Rick Nelson

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Rick Nelson and his band that included guitar legend James Burton (right)

Rick Nelson has always been underrated as a rock and roll singer. He was both helped and hindered by his show business family. Rick was practically raised in the public eye as the youngest and cutest of the Nelsons. The 1950’s TV show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was a mainstay in many American homes. It ran for 14 seasons from 1952 thru 1966. Prior to this, it was on the radio where it began in 1944.(1)  When he first began to sing on the show, Rick was not taken seriously because of his show business background. However, he soon became one of the best-selling artists of the 1950’s.

His father Ozzie had a strong influence on Rick and old Dad hated rock and roll. In the early 1960’s he would steer Rick away from the rockabilly tunes he favored in his early records (It’s Late, Believe What You Say and My Bucket’s Got A Hole in It) toward more standard pop oriented tunes like For You and The Very Thought of You. These songs were old standards from the big band era that Ozzie knew well and favored. The songs were produced with a bit of a pop beat for the teen audiences of the day. With these songs and his cute teen idol looks Rick soon got lumped into the Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Bobby Darin school of boy next door teen idols moving away from the threatening Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Carl Perkins wild boys of rock and roll.

Parents of  lily white teenage girls did not like those wild rockers who sang about a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On or Good Golly Miss Molly who knew how to ball. They preferred their daughters listen to Frankie and Bobby or to virginal Pat Boone who gave us a horrible, just horrible, white bread cover versions of song like Tutti Frutti and Ain’t That a Shame.

Pat Boone’s  pale “clean” version of Tutti Frutti. Notice the change in the lyrics.

Little Richard’s original hard rockin’ version.

Unlike Boone, Fabian and the others, Rick was a true rock and roller. He was an important component in the acceptance of rock and roll during those early days. Parents hated their kids listening to Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Elvis and the other wild men. Suddenly, there was Little Ricky, with a guitar strapped around his shoulder, right there in their living room on their black and white TV screen. Little Ricky! There he was singing, Believe What You Say, with the amazing rock guitarist pioneer James Burton on lead guitar as part of his band.(2)  Hey, maybe rock and roll wasn’t so bad. This wasn’t one of those greasy, long haired boys singing, it was little Ricky. Cute little Ricky who always got into some sort of adorable trouble every week. Let’s face it, if Oz and Harriet liked it, Most of America liked it.

 Rick Nelson brought rock and roll into the homes of all Americans on a weekly basis.  He made it more tolerable for parents to accept.  That was something no other rock and roller of the day could do.

 

Notes:

(1) Rick, and his older brother David, started on the show in 1949. Prior their joining the cast various child actors portrayed the boys. David was 12 and Rick was  8 at the time.

(2) James Burton would go on  in the late 1960’s to become a main stay in Elvis’s TCB band.  Burton ranked number 19 in Rolling Stone magazines list of 100 Greatest Guitar Players.