Saturday, March 18, 2017

EXTRA: Chuck Berry just as much a part of 2120 S. Michigan lore as the most hard-core of Chicago bluesmen

Chuck Berry died Saturday. At age 90, it shouldn’t be a shock.
And while he was a St. Louis native who towards the end of his life spent much of his time and talent at "Blueberry Hill," a Missouri nightclub he owned, the honest truth is that Berry is as significant a figure in the whole Chicago music scene’s history as anyone else.

FOR BERRY WAS amongst the musicians who recorded at the one-time Chess Records studios on South Michigan Avenue that is largely remembered because of the cast of hard-core blues musicians who made their bones there.

That record label’s catalogue is still out there, what with MCA continuing to release the old recordings of artists such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and the ladies such as Etta James and Koko Taylor.

But while Chess Records might well have had the blues of black America at its core of operations, the fact that the record label had a crossover such as Berry on its roster was a significant boost to the label’s bottom line.

You could argue that it was the presence of Chuck Berry that helped keep the record label alive as long as it lasted (into the mid-1970s), and that it might well be Berry’s affiliation with the bluesmen that helped enhance their own legacies.

CHESS AND THE many old bluesmen might well be long forgotten and 2120 S. Michigan Ave. might well be nothing more than an obscure reference used by the Rolling Stones to title an early instrumental number they performed on one of their first records.

The fact was that Berry was the showman who helped put the flash in early rock ‘n’ roll, which is why we remember him while other artists such as the Flamingoes and Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers (all of whom appeared in the 1959 film “Go, Johnny Go!”) are long forgotten.

And why pop culture references to Berry remain humorous.
Berry appeared as himself in cinema

Remember the old Cheech and Chong gag about how Berry was the true king of rock ‘n’ roll because he went to jail for it? Or how in the film "Back to the Future," character Marvin Berry supposedly called his cousin, Chuck, during that zany guitar performance by actor Michael J. Fox’s “Marty McFly” character – implying that Chuck Berry was taught his style by someone who was actually ripping him off!

PERSONALLY, I ALWAYS enjoyed listening to Berry’s guitar playing and thought it a shame that his first “Number One” record was that silly and trivial “My Ding A Ling.” When his solo to “Johnny B. Goode” may well be the ultimate one that any aspiring guitar player tries to rip off for his own.

Personally, I still don’t have it down after all these years of strumming on guitars in my spare time.

And now, Berry is gone. Although the records he created in the Bronzeville neighborhood studios (an era recollected in the 2008 film “Cadillac Man” that even included Berry’s role in the record label’s success) are ones that will continue to live on.

Although the record industry may well be a pitiful shame. Because as it turns out, Berry had been working on a new record album of fresh material – his first new release of the 21st Century.
Mos Def portrayed Berry in '08 film

IT WON’T MATTER how bad it will be; in fact, I’ll bet it probably will be mediocre. But it likely will sell well, and may well turn out to be one of his highest-selling records ever.

We’re good about paying tribute to people once they die and aren’t capable of appreciating or enjoying the praise. Just like the Chicago Cubs' Ron Santo getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously.

The conspiracy-theory part of my mind is almost warped enough to suggest that Berry somehow faked his death to help boost his record sales. Except that common sense tells me rock 'n' roll already has enough "Elvis is Still Alive" conspiracies that we don't need tales popping up of Chuck Berry sightings outside a White Castle on the Sout' Side.
And on a final note, I'll acknowledge a personal favorite when it comes to Chuck Berry's recordings. For me, one of the pleasures of the Christmas holiday is that I can shamelessly overplay “Merry Christmas, Baby,” one of the few holiday-themed songs that doesn’t become monotonous and that I can hear over and over and over each year.


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