Chuck Berry’s music helped define a generation no longer weighed down by the burden of war.
One of those teenagers at the time grew up to be Roundhouse Radio’s own Terry David Mulligan. He was actually covering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Much Music when Berry was inducted in their inaugural class.
“On the night, when we went to the Cleveland Colosseum, the football stadium, he needed a backup band because he never had his own band, the backup band for Chuck Berry on the night was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I was in hog heaven,” he remembers. “I don’t even have to play the record anymore, I can hear it in my head.”
When he heard of Berry’s passing, Mulligan says his first thought was that he was impressed the icon made it to the age of 90.
“That’s a great run,” he says. “Simply because of the nature of the business. If you live the life, which is supposed to be on the edge and daring and your own person, sometimes it can take you down and kill you. Many of the imitators who wanted to be Chuck Berry, or like Chuck Berry, or have the impact of Chuck Berry went down that same road and never saw the end coming.”
Now Mulligan worries we’ll hear more stories of deaths from Berry’s era: Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. “That first group, they’ll all be gone,” Mulligan says.
Mulligan adds that Chuck Berry’s influence on pop culture runs so deep, he basically defined the modern teenager.
“If you were a teenager back then, still riding the bike to school or taking the bus, he was writing about a race between Cadillac Coupe Deville and a V8 Ford, it got your attention,” he says. “He wrote about school the way knew you about school, how restrictive it was, it would just set your imagination on fire.”
“There was nobody who wrote about the freedom of having your own car better than Chuck Berry,” Mulligan says, feeling that the car industry should have paid him for writing the perfect advertisement.
Berry’s first hit struck in July 1955 with Maybellene, where Rolling Stone magazine wrote “Rock & roll guitar starts here.”
“It took off life crazy, but the impact it really had was in Britain,” Mulligan says. “Britain went crazy for Chuck Berry. The ironic thing was when he wrote Maybellene and recorded it, he was 29 years old, he was 10 years older than what he was writing about.”
“Like all black artists in the early 50’s, he worked the ‘black circuit’, worked those black clubs, but Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had their eyes on the white audience, young white teens. They weren’t nearly as threatening as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis – they were dangerous, Mulligan explains, pointing out that Berry stood out as a guitarist when everyone else was playing the piano. “Guitar can get out there, they can get in front, you can do a duck-walk, people can watch your fingers, you can get right into the audience.”
If you’re looking to explore his discography, Mulligan recommends Chuck Berry’s 16 Greatest Hits album, along with Have Mercy – His Complete Chess Recordings (pictured above). “If you follow the singles through, you can hear him try to figure out how this is going to work. He was writing specifically for a young teen audience, he had to think like them. I think he still felt like he was connected to being a teenager in St. Louis. You can follow him through the licks and chords, see what works, what doesn’t. There is a poem in there, it showed he had a command of words like no other. There is a six and a half minute poem on this set that is unbelievable, that is what I am going to play on “Mulligan Stew” this Saturday.”
After Berry had his first hit near the age of 30, but then he spent 18 months in jail, where he wrote: No Particular Place to Go, Nadine, You Never Can Tell, Tulane and Promised Land. “It probably saved his life and sanity, the prison’s in those days was wicked,” Mulligan adds.
He also recommends finding the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll a tribute to Chuck Berry. “It captures him not at his peak, past his peak perhaps, but what he was like on stage.”
Berry’s music is also traveling the stars. Johnny B. Goode is one of the tracks of music on the golden vinyl records attached to one of the Voyager Spacecraft launched in 1977.
“Somewhere along the way, an alien race will come across this, first of all, they’ll look at the vinyl and go ‘What?’ the second thing is, once they figure out how to play it when they hear Chuck Berry doing Johnny B. Goode, somebody in that alien nation government is going to go ‘Yeah, let’s pass on that planet’.”
Since then, the list of influences runs deep. “Just think about it, Keith Richards and the Stones, you know that Buddy Holly, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, The Beach Boys and Surfin’ USA – they ripped him off and paid for it later in court – The Beatles with Roll Over Beethoven, Come Together, the Beatles’ White Album,” Mulligan continues. “Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business literally influenced Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Bruce Springsteen to this day swears by Chuck Berry. The first song we ever heard from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ was Blinded by the Light, which was his version of Too Much Monkey Business. The influence still to this day is still being felt.”
“The person most affected by Chuck Berry, that showed up in his music was the late, truly great, John Lennon,” Mulligan says. “He loved Chuck Berry, he hung with Chuck, he wanted to play with him. If you look back at John Lennon’s music, the lyrics, the way he sang, it was pure Chuck Berry.”
Terry David Mulligan will host a tribute to Chuck Berry with a rundown of his best hits and music from his on Mulligan Stew this Saturday from 8 to 10 pm on Roundhouse Radio.
“I know there are generations out there who have no idea who Chuck Berry is, or it’s just a name, but before rock & roll was ever rock & roll, when there was no voice for teens in the world, along came Chuck Berry and became their voice, even though he was 10 years older than everybody he was writing about,” Mulligan says. “To that, I say – bye bye Johnny.”