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