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Remembering Rock N' Roll Pioneer Chuck Berry


This is FRESH AIR. When Chuck Berry died Saturday at the age of 90, we lost a musician who was central to the whole meaning of rock 'n' roll. What made him so important was the subject of a profile by rock historian Ed Ward, which we broadcast in 2008, after Berry's entire recorded output from the 1950s was released in the four-disc set, "Chuck Berry: Johnny B. Goode, His Complete '50s Chess Recordings." Let's listen back.


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans...


ED WARD, BYLINE: Say the words rock 'n' roll, and the notes we just heard seem to play in a lot of heads automatically. They were played on January 6, 1958 by a 33-year-old black man, who was a licensed cosmetician as well as a convicted car thief. He was two and a half years into a career as one of the top, popular musicians in the United States and had already written a body of songs, which defined the teenage American experience, "You Can't Touch Me," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "School Day," "Rock And Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Reelin' And Rockin'."

Despite his age and experience, his songs resonated with people half his age and sold significantly better to white audiences. The closer you look at Chuck Berry, the odder he seems. He recorded for a Chicago blues label Chess, to which he had been brought by none other than Muddy Waters - hardly someone you'd go to if you were looking for the white-teenage market.

But one thing Muddy Waters understood was guitar playing. As competitive as he was, he probably realized immediately that not only was this guy good, but he didn't represent a threat to Muddy's command of Chicago blues, which isn't to say that Chuck wasn't a demon when it came to slide guitar playing.


WARD: "Deep Feeling" is, as far as I know, the only recording we have of Chuck Berry playing a Hawaiian steel guitar, instead of his trademark Gibson ES-350T. And it's breathtaking, nor is it particularly obscure. It was the B-side of "School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell)," so there were plenty of copies sold.

Chess was apparently in awe of Berry's guitar playing, so much so that they recorded loads of instrumentals, possibly with the aim of using them as B-sides. Many of them remained unreleased for years. One thing that struck me about the early Chuck Berry recordings was how conservative they were. He recorded a lot of straight, urban blues, as if he wanted a safety net if this whole teenage thing didn't work out.


BERRY: (Singing) I have changed, nothing like I used to be. I have changed, darling, nothing like I used to be. When I cared so much for you, was love blind and I couldn't see.

WARD: That could just as easily be Johnny Moore's Three Blazers from 1953, a sound still popular in black cocktail lounges when Berry recorded "I've Changed" in December 1955. But from the sound of things, the teenage thing was working out.


BERRY: Right back (unintelligible). "Roll Over Beethoven."


BERRY: (Playing guitar).

(Singing) I'm going to write a little letter, going to mail it to my local DJ. It's a rockin' rhythm record I want my jockey to play. Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today You know, my temperature's risin' and the jukebox blows a fuse. Well, my heart's beatin' rhythm, and my soul keeps on singin' the blues. Roll over, Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news

WARD: In fact, maybe it's just listening to this from today's perspective the obsession with teenagers - teenage girls in particular - is a little unnerving coming from a guy in his 30s.


BERRY: (Singing) I got lumps in my throat when I saw her comin' down the aisle. I got the wiggles in my knees when she looked at me and sweetly smiled. There she is again standing over by the record machine, looking like a model on the cover of a magazine. She's too cute to be a minute over 17. Meanwhile, I was thinking. She's in the mood, no need to break it. I got a chance, I oughta take it. If she'll dance, we can make. Come on, queenie. Let's shake it. Go, go, go...

WARD: But as we're constantly reminded, those were more innocent days. And it's likely that nearly everyone missed any hint of impropriety in lyrics like these. And it was the lyrics - literate, funny, tricky and enunciated very clearly that endeared Chuck Berry to a lot of his audience.


GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the new book "The History Of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963." Chuck Berry died Saturday, at the age of 90.


BERRY: (Singing) Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today. We touched ground on an international runway. Jet propelled back home from overseas to the U.S.A...

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be comic Pete Holmes, the star of the new HBO series "Crashing." It's based on his own life when he was getting started as a comic, coming from a Christian background. In the series, his wife has an affair, which ends their marriage. She'd been supporting him, so he ends up crashing on the couches of comics he knows. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


BERRY: (Singing) Did I miss the skyscrapers? Did I miss the long freeway? From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay. You can bet your life I did, till I got back in the U.S.A. Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe, where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day. Yeah, and the juke box jumpin' with records like in the U.S.A. Well I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A. Yes, I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A. Anything you want, they got it right here in the U.S.A. I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A. Yes, I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.