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RIP Chuck Berry

March 20, 2017

Over the weekend, Chuck Berry died at the age of 90. Here are some facts you may not have known about one of the architects of rock n’ roll.

  • Berry came up in an era in which record labels, music publishers, and concert promoters mercilessly cheated musicians—especially African-American musicians. Result: Berry always demanded to be paid for his performances beforehand…in cash.


  • Another performance contingency: The concert venue had to be close to an Indian restaurant.


  • Berry influenced pretty much every rock guitarist that came after him, but who influenced him? A teenage guitarist named Tommy Stevens. They were classmates in St. Louis, and they teamed up to perform a song called “Confessin’ the Blues” on the school’s stage. Berry sang, but Stevens’ soulful, technically proficient guitar playing made Berry want to learn to play the guitar, too.


  • Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Good” takes its inspiration from Johnnie Johnson, an early collaborator and bandmate of Berry. Johnson wrote songs on the piano, and then Berry would transcribe them to guitar and add in the lyrics. They first worked together in 1953 in Johnson’s band the Sir John Trio.


  • In 1956, Berry invented one of the most famous stage moves in rock n’ roll history. Nicknamed “the Duck Walk,” he was actually trying to hide the wrinkles in the rayon suit he was wearing.


  • Berry is strongly associated with the 1950s, but he enjoyed the biggest hit of his career in 1972. Naturally, it was something of a fluke. Berry performed the obscure, double entendre-laden 1950s novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” live at a music festival, and it was recorded. A Boston disc jockey got a hold of the song and started playing it on the air. The song went all the way to #1, the only chart-topper of Berry’s life.


  • Berry was among the first class of nominees voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. When the actual facility housing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland in 1995, organizers held the first Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a seven-hour jam session for the ages featuring inductees past, present, and future. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band served as the backing band for Berry, winding up their set with Berry’s classic “Rock and Roll Music.” At one point, Berry started improvising without giving any indication to Springsteen and the other musicians that he was going to do so, forcing them to fall in line as he rapidly changed keys four or five times. By the end of the chaos, the band itself was playing in multiple different keys. Having successfully pranked the band, Berry “duck walked” off the stage, into a car, and off to his hotel.


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