Chuck Berry: Electric Shakespeare

Forget Elvis, God bless him. It was Chuck Berry—with his motormouth tales of hot rods and romance, and his freight-train take on T-Bone Walker—who invented rock ’n’ roll, shaking country and blues until they shattered and clattered out of radios all over the world. To this day, Berry is the guitarist all good guitarists must pass though. There is no getting anywhere down the road of rock ’n’ roll without paying a toll to him. The slurring doublestops that honk from his big Gibson jazz boxes and semi-hollows like a whole horn section, the revved-up shuffles of his right hand, the shouts of go, go! It’s about the best sound rock ‘n’ roll ever offered.

It is the poetry of history that Muddy Waters pointed Chuck Berry toward his first deal, with Chess Records. Berry, already a hit in the rowdy blues bars and nightclubs of St. Louis, had traveled to Chicago to see Waters perform, and after the show introduced himself to his idol. Waters told Berry to go see Leonard Chess over on Michigan Avenue.

At Chess Studios, Berry performed a high-octane story of a car chase called “Ida Red,” a name cribbed from an old Bob Wills tune. Texas swing and Chicago blues, performed fast and loud by a preacher’s son hoping to dodge a life of hairdressing and housepainting: If that isn’t the birth of rock ’n’ roll, what is? Chess liked the song, heard money in its weird country two-step, and renamed it “Maybelline,” cribbing the new title from the lipstick ad in the magazine on his desk because he thought the kids would like it better. They did—from Liverpool to London, from Hibbing, Minnesota to Memphis, Tennessee. It was 1955, and Chuck Berry was inventing electric Shakespeare for teenagers.

Berry followed up his debut single with one classic after another. “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Around and Around,” “Carol,” “School Days,” and the anthem that NASA chose to send up with the Voyager space probe so Martians would know we were cool: “Johnny B. Goode.” If Chuck Berry had written just one of those songs, he would have earned a reputation as one of the greatest of all time. The fact that he wrote all of them—and dozens more—makes his contributions beyond measure.

In the fascinating 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll director Taylor Hackford (Ray) offers a heartfelt, but unflinching portrait of Chuck Berry, the icon and the man. Chronicling the events leading up to Berry’s triumphant 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, where he fronted an all-star band led by musical director and diehard Berry fan Keith Richards, the film has now been released on DVD by Image Entertainment as a four-disc treasure trove.

In addition to the newly mastered original film, there are three discs of unbelievable outtakes: Never-before-seen rehearsals and interviews with Richards and Eric Clapton, footage of Berry reminiscing with Robbie Robertson as they flip through Berry’s personal scrapbook, and more than three hours of interviews with Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others. Throughout it all, Berry comes across as gifted, suspicious, tough, loving, difficult, determined, and brilliant. It is an amazing portrait of a musical genius as he looks back on the triumphs and tragedies, rewards and rip-offs that came with blazing a musical trail the whole world followed.

-Ari Surdoval


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