NPR logo

Chuck Berry: Father of Rock 'n' Roll

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89184737/89184719" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Chuck Berry: Father of Rock 'n' Roll

Chuck Berry: Father of Rock 'n' Roll

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89184737/89184719" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Who really invented rock and roll? Did it start with bluesmen deep down in the Mississippi Delta? Was it Elvis who jumpstarted the genre with his rockabilly flair?

(Soundbite of song, "Rock 'n' Roll Music")

Mr. CHUCK BERRY (Singer): (Singing) Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music...

CHIDEYA: Or do the real props go to a St. Louis guitar whiz with an oil-slick pompadour and duck-walk dance moves? Maybe Chuck Berry didn't create rock and roll, but rock and roll wouldn't have been nothing without Chuck Berry.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock 'n' Roll Music")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I took my love on over 'cross the shack so she could hear my man a-whalin' sax. You must admit they have a rockin' band. Man, they were blowing like a hurricane. That's why I go for that rock-'n'-roll music...

CHIDEYA: Berry launched his recording career in the mid-1950s with Chess Records. The Chicago label was once home base for gospel and blues greats Etta James and Muddy Waters.

Chess is where Berry laid down some of his classics, including "Maybelline" and "Johnny B. Goode." That last title is also the name of a new four-CD box set. It's the most comprehensive CD collection of Chuck Berry's Chess recordings.

Grammy-award-winning producer Andy McKaie produced the whole thing, and he's here with me now. Hey, Andy.

Mr. ANDY McKAIE (Producer): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So this is great, great to have you in the studio, and let's talk a little bit about his upbringing. Chuck Berry was in St. Louis, in a mostly black community. How did he get into hillbilly music to the point that he was playing it for black audiences?

Mr. McKAIE: Well, I think it was in the air. It's music that was most immediate on radio, especially from that area, and to hear the latest sounds coming through the - over the radio and meld it with the blues sounds that was in the neighborhood, and he came up with something unique.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Little Rock-'n'-Roller")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Only nine years and sweet as she can be...

Mr. McKAIE: It's a unique melding. What he came up with was much different than what was going on at the time in any black, white or any kind of music.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Little Rock-'n'-Roller")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) ...and away she goes, her daddy must be proud 'cause there's so many places young folks aren't allowed. And it must be good 'cause bad things don't draw crowds.

CHIDEYA: Now, I mentioned in my introduction the Chicago record label Chess. So what was that outfit like? Why did it become a home base for so many important recording artists?

Mr. McKAIE: They were two Polish immigrants, Phil and Leonard Chess. They moved into the black community in Chicago and identified with the black community, and one of the artists they had was Muddy Waters, and that leads us directly to Chuck Berry because Chuck Berry came to Chicago, looked up his hero, Muddy Waters.

He told Muddy that he'd like to make a record, and he said go see Leonard Chess, and Leonard Chess said, do you have a demo? And he said no, but I'll be back in a week with one.

He went back home, made a demo to a song called "Ida Red." He came back with it, and Leonard said it's a lot of fun, but this title, "Ida Red," doesn't work. And they chose "Maybelline," changed the name of the song, the name of the woman, and it became one of the biggest, the fastest-selling Chess record to date.

(Soundbite of song, "Maybelline")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) As I was motivating over the hill, saw Maybelline in a Coupe deVille, Cadillac rolling on Old Glen Road, nothing outrun my V-8 Ford. The Cadillac was doing about 95. It was bumper to bumper, rolling side to side. Maybelline, why can't you be true...

CHIDEYA: You know, when you think about why the style was so viral, what was unique about the way that Berry played?

Mr. McKAIE: He used a unique mixture of the different kinds of music, plus he was the first great poet laureate of rock and roll. He tapped into the explosion in teenage years, especially.

(Soundbite of song, "Childhood Sweetheart")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Yeah, you was only sixteen, so young but yet so fine. Yeah, you was only sixteen, so young, yet so fine. You said when you'd finish school, darling, you'd let me take and make you mine.

CHIDEYA: "Sweet Little Sixteen" has, you know, it lays a footprint for like The Beach Boys.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Little Sixteen")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) They're really rocking in Boston, and Pittsburgh, P.A., deep in the heart of Texas, and round 'Frisco Bay...

CHIDEYA: Was this a ripple effect that carried forward into other musicians?

Mr. McKAIE: Absolutely. Essentially he made the map. Buddy Holly maybe made the map for a band; Chuck Berry made the - he created the format, though, for rock and roll, from the lyric content to the guitar riffs to the rhythms.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Little Sixteen")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) All the cats wanna dance with Sweet Little Sixteen...

Mr. McKAIE: He was the architect. That's the term that some people use.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Little Sixteen")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) She's got the grown-up blues, tight dresses and lipstick, she's sporting high-heeled shoes.

CHIDEYA: Here's another one of Berry's songs, probably his most famous, "Johnny B. Goode."

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny B. Goode")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode...

Mr. McKAIE: The amazing thing about "Johnny B. Goode" to me is that it sounds like a folk song. It sounds like a song that came out of the generations, just honed over generations, not written by an individual, and yet it's written by an individual.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny B. Goode")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack, go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track...

Mr. McKAIE: Sort of the apex of it to me, the apex of Chuck Berry's songwriting, because it sounds so natural, just something that any one who was the greatest songwriters of any generation would be proud of.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny B. Goode")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Go go, go Johnny go, go, go Johnny go, go, go Johnny go, go, go Johnny go, go, Johnny B. Goode.

CHIDEYA: Now, if you remember the '80s film "Back to the Future," Michael J. Fox does kind of a faux performance of this song. You know, miming a guitar, lip-synching, and it brings up the whole relationship between black rock and roll, white rock and roll, imitation, stealing, all this stuff.

Sometimes history is told as a one-way street. Black artists created the style, white musicians like Elvis Xeroxed it, but the real story is probably more complicated. How did the black and white musicians in early rock and roll days interact with each other and each others' sounds?

Mr. McKAIE: Well, they seem to be - I wasn't there. I'm not quite that old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That's a good place to start.

Mr. McKAIE: I'm not quite that old.

CHIDEYA: We can just say in research terms, given your ample experience, how did they interact?

Mr. McKAIE: They seemed to interact wonderfully. They seemed to love each other. They fed off each other.

CHIDEYA: How did Berry's audience reflect all that cultural mixing, I mean in terms of white audiences, black audiences? Who were his audiences?

Mr. McKAIE: Well, I think the audiences were very mixed. From what I've seen, it's an extremely mixed audience. They were - in the South, when he played down there like any other artist at the time, they were actually, you know (unintelligible) lines down in the sand as well as in reality - on side black, one side white.

In the North, it was generally, for the most part, an integrated audience and a good audience, solid audience. I was a little too young, but at the same time, you know, my neighborhood was primarily Italian-Americans in New York City, and Chuck Berry was one of our heroes.

(Soundbite of song, "Almost Grown")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I don't run around with no mob, got myself a little job. I'm gonna buy me a little car, drive my girl in the park...

CHIDEYA: Do you think that Chuck Berry gets enough credit for shaping rock and roll, that, you know, people who may be in their 20s and 30s really know enough about him?

Mr. McKAIE: Probably not, but at the same time, anybody who delves into the music at all for any length of time usually stumbles into Chuck pretty quick. I mean, Elvis is certainly the leading - the most popular artist from the era, still, but Chuck Berry's not that far behind in so many other respects.

CHIDEYA: Well Andy, thanks so much.

Mr. McKAIE: You're very welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Queenie")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) I got lumps in my throat when I saw her comin' down the aisle...

CHIDEYA: Andy McKaie is senior vice president, A&R, at Universal Music Enterprises. He produced the new four-CD box set "Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings." He joined me here at our NPR West studios.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Queenie")

Mr. BERRY: (Singing) Looking like a model on the cover of a magazine. She's too cute to be a minute over seventeen. Meanwhile, I think she's in the mood, no need to break it. I got a chance, I ought to take it.

CHIDEYA: And you can check out some of Chuck Berry's classic performances on our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.