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Tribute to Chuck Berry (1926- )

Rock & Roll Legend Chuck Berry
Rock & Roll Legend Chuck Berry

Allow us to briefly share a memory—one that speaks to the power of a musician, or any artist for that matter, to leave behind an enduring legacy with a relatively small number of hits—all created with a dazzling burst of creative energy over a short period.

On a recent evening, we were at the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, Florida, listening to the excellent Miami-based blues singer and guitarist, Albert Castiglia.

At one point, we asked if he would play Chuck Berry’s rock hit, Johnny B. Goode (A Rolling Stone magazine poll ranked it among the Top 10 greatest rock & roll songs of all time…and Berry among the 100 greatest artists). Castiglia’s eyes remain closed in the dimly lighted room as his guitar continued to wail. Our request didn’t seem to register amidst the din of the crowd. Perhaps he was too young to remember Berry? Maybe he just wasn’t up to it?

We stayed awhile longer, then, the hour being late, decided to leave. As we walked down a slippery, exterior staircase (it had just rained), we suddenly heard the opening bars of one of the most remarkable guitar riffs of all time—the intro to Johnny B. Goode. Castiglia knew the song after all! He’d just been waiting…waiting, perhaps, for the right moment.

We raced back up the staircase and onto the club’s dance floor [read more…]Others crowded the space, including a gentleman, already on his knees, who was mock playing an imaginary guitar in a state of blissful reverence. Our feet were light, and we forgot the hour was late. Johnny B. Goode, with its driving rhythm, simply makes people want to dance—even non-dancers—and, not just dance, but dance with abandon…as if it were one’s last chance to let loose the demons within!

Chuck Berry wrote and performed, in the mid-1950s, several songs that truly changed the world of music. Those in-the-know hail him as the “father of rock & roll.” In fact, Beatle John Lennon said: “ If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”  (You can find several recordings of his music on Amazon, including re-mastered originals).

Johnny B. Goode is, arguably, the greatest of Berry’s songs— and it became his signature number. The lyrics are somewhat autobiographical and express the great American Dream: a talented, young person of modest means makes good.  “Down in Louisiana close to New Orleans…there lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode. He never ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play the guitar like ringin’ a bell.”

Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones said, “I don’t know if he knew how he influenced us…I don’t know if Michelangelo ever did…but when I first heard Chuck Berry play, I knew then that’s what I wanted to do!”

Now 85, Berry lives near family in his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. He’s featured in a recent issue of Esquire magazine. Writer Luke Dittrich reports that Berry still performs monthly at Blueberry Hill, a club much like the ones in which he got his start long ago.

Referring to evenings at the club, Dittrich concludes, “And what Berry invented, those world-changing first songs of his, well, he still uses them himself, for his own reasons. Every month, on this little stage, alongside his son and his daughter, playing late into the night, until the show ends and they turn up the lights, and all that’s left is a noise in your ears like a ringing bell.”

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