Plain and simple, my life might have been a whole lot different without Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry passed away last month. It is bittersweet for me to acknowledge both the influence of my childhood mentors decades later and the realization that they too have aged and will not live forever. Chuck Berry certainly didn't get cheated by the vagaries of time at least, finally ending his final encore at age 90 and releasing a new recording too!

According to his bio at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, "After Elvis Presley, only Chuck Berry had more influence on the formation and development of rock & roll." John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'."

It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Chuck Berry taught me how to play guitar. When I was first starting out at age 12, I tried to make barre chords with little success. Instead of barring all 6 strings, the opening licks to "Johnny B. Goode" and "School Days" feature a "GIVE ME YOUR ATTENTION NOW" 2 string barre figure that helped me learn how to play my first bits of lead guitar (and reach for the volume control too).

I started playing guitar so I could play in a band. Everyone I knew was in bands, including my dad. There were at least a half dozen bands at any given time in our small eastern Connecticut town - it was just "what you do". So with fellow 8th grade buddies David Tarrant and Joe LaRoche, we started a band and gradually over a few months learned to play "Johnny B. Goode." Our first performance was at an elementary school in the nearby hill town of Sterling - at a Gong Show.

People came from all over out of the woods, and we were certainly all kinds of nervous. We managed to avoid the Gong, and in fact we came in 2nd to an Elvis impersonator. Somebody has that trophy someplace. In the many years of playing in bar and wedding bands, putting myself through college and high school, I lost track of how many times I played "Johnny B. Goode."

Joe LaRoche, David Tarrant and Andrew pose with their Gong Show Runner-up trophy

I was in my mid-teens when I had that revelatory Chuck Berry moment though. My dad's guitarist Peter Haselbacher brought in "Maybelline" to one of their rehearsals, and I was hooked. It wasn't just the tune - it was the way Pete played it, infusing both the vocal and the guitar part with his own style. In a way, it was my first real introduction to how one interprets a tune and brings it into their own voice. It's a lesson that I have drawn upon many times in my own career as a guitarist and songwriter.

Chuck Barris died the same week as Chuck Berry. Chuck created The Gong Show and it ran for 13 years. It was the 70s birthplace of America's Got Talent. I suppose you could say he created a genre too.

It's been a long time since I've played "Johnny B. Goode" or "Maybelline". But it's not a stretch of the barre chord finger or the truth to say that they were pivotal cornerstones to this crazy career in music with which I have been blessed. Rest in peace Chuck - thanks for the lessons, thanks for the life.

Finally mastered those barre chords too :).

Andrew playing a nice barre chord during his High School Talent Show - and yes, the same Stratocaster he is still playing with Andrew McKnight & Beyond Borders!

* * * * * * * *

Chuck Berry rocking to the end. Hear "Big Boys" from his final album Chuck, coming out in June.

Comments

holly turkovich May 01, 2017 @08:55 am

:D

John Loiselle April 03, 2017 @08:33 pm

Wonderful essay, Andrew. I can't imagine learning any instrument without playing a CB song. My first was Roll Over Beethoven followed by Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music and, yes, Maybelline. All standards on any wedding band's set list. And Chuck Barris kept us all in stitches as we watched The Gong Show after school. Thanks for capturing these memories and reminding us of them so eloquently, as only you can do. Rock on!

Lisa LaRoche Thomas April 03, 2017 @06:27 pm

Terrific essay and grateful for the memory of Joe and photo of him. So long ago, truly a lifetime ago. I'm so blessed to call you my friend.

David April 03, 2017 @06:20 pm

Great article from a great friend.

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Tour Dates

  • 08/23/2017
    Epicure Cafe - Fairfax, VA
     
  • 09/03/2017
    Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church - Burke, VA
     
  • 09/07/2017
    Isis Music Hall Lounge - Asheville, NC
     
  • 09/09/2017
    Unitarian Universalist Congregation - Blacksburg, VA
     
  • 09/10/2017
    Unitarian Universalist Congregation - Blacksburg, VA
     

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Andrew is a grateful Endorsing Artist for Elixir Strings and Fairbuilt Guitars, and a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts Touring Artist Roster. He also is a member of The Standing "O" Project and Concerts in Your Home.

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