I have in front of me an LP whose white cover features comic-book-style illustrations. Pop Origins is easily one of the best compilation albums ever released; it was put out by Chess in 1969 to introduce younger children to the vastly more talented black artists whose songs—"Spoonful," "Little Red Rooster," "Susie Q"—had been covered by popular rock groups of the last decade. Rare for an album released so late in the ’60s, it features the original mono mixes.
This was the first thing that I thought to pull off the shelf when I learned a few hours ago that Chuck Berry had died at the glorious age of 90. I own his first three Chess LPs and two compilations, but somehow the ethos of this album, as suggested by the artwork, seems to me to sum up Berry.
The brief write-up in the New York Times—the full obituary is due later—in which I learned of his passing had the misfortune of mentioning Elvis in the third paragraph. How much more appropriate it would have been to have named one of his Chess label-mates, Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. Neither of these men ever attained, or even, I think, aspired to Berry's chart success with white teenaged audiences, but they were part of the same milieu and, just as important, in the same class of ability. I know that this is still a contrarian opinion in this country, but Elvis was a popularizer of middling talent.
Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis. The son of a contractor who was also a Baptist deacon and a school principal, he was solidly middle class. He began performing music as a student; at age 18, he was arrested for armed robbery. In prison he sang in a quartet and boxed. Upon his release he worked a series of jobs in his hometown before marrying and becoming a beautician, a trade in which he prospered. It was not until 1955 that, after playing music on the side for half a decade, he went to Chicago and met Leonard Chess, for whom he recorded a teenaged car chase ballad called "Maybellene," the title a nod to his background in cosmetology. In a sense the story could be said to end there."Maybellene" was an instant classic, topping the R&B charts, selling more than a million copies—the first of many.
Berry would go on to make more wonderful music and do some rather sordid, even wicked things—he served part of a three-year prison sentence from 1962 to 1963 after being convicted of a crime whose details I will not discuss here under the terms of the Mann Act. After his release the British Invasion groups came around and cemented his legacy; his recording career declined—I have no patience for his famous novelty song of the early ’70s—but he continued to tour, often without a permanent band, which meant that hundreds of small-town musicians across the country had the pleasant surprise of learning that they would be backing this genius at their local minor-league baseball stadium.
There is a good deal more that could be said about the life, of course, but what I would rather think about now are the songs, the ones he spent decade after decade singing to grateful audiences in all those bars and skating rinks and Masonic halls: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Carol," "Memphis Tennessee," even, despite John Travolta's best attempts to ruin it, "You Never Can Tell." This is fun and decent music for children. It is stupid, of course, which is why they love it. Young people need stupid harmless things. It is very difficult now, for those of us who have grown up in a pop-saturated world, to think what credible—by which I mean, non-race-based—objections anyone could have had to this music halfway through the last century. Is it possible that the decline into obscenity was inevitable, that "Maybellene" contained within itself the germ or kernel of "I Wanna F— You"? Maybe. It's hard to say, and even harder to care. John Lennon put it best when he said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'"