Chuck Berry Live at The Heat, NYC 3/1/80 (c) Robert Barry Francos
After having heard Elvis Presley being called the king of rock’n’roll for my whole conscious life, the possibility of seeing Chuck Berry in the 1980s was very exciting to me. I’ve come to believe that while Elvis’ (pre-army) music could be hard-hitting, he was overrated. What made him so big, from my perspective, was he bridged “white” pop music and what was then commonly known as race music, or rhythm & blues.
In the pre-Elvis 1950s, if black artists wanted their music to be played on “mainstream” radio or television, they had to not only sell away their rights, they would have to let a white musician play it, with all the “slang” and soul eradicated – hence, the popularity of the largest-selling bridge-stander of the period, Pat Boone. Have you ever heard Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” or Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” (reduced to “What Did I Say”)? I remember a taped, televised image of Boone singing “Tutti Frutti,” snapping his little fingers and trying to look so cool while actually looking uncoordinated and rhythmless, with a big, goofy smile across his face. Surely, the bridge on which he and other white musicians stood was the backs of the black artists, who were measly compensated for the use of their material.
Elvis, on the other hand, was a white musician who whitewashed the sound of a song. This made the possibility of soulfulness of the black artists more acceptable to the mass 1950s white audience, presenting it in a way imaginable to opening the door to more competent musicians who could actually play their instruments and write their own songs. Elvis famously yearned to be Dean Martin and Bobby Darin. He didn’t necessarily want to be a rock’n’roller; he wanted to be a pop crooner.
Even before the popularity of Elvis, he was not the first sincere white “bridge” bringing the soulful music of rhythm and blues to a mainstream white audience; some pioneers include songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, disc jockeys Zenas “Daddy” Sears (Atlanta), “John R.” Richbourg (Nashville), Hunter Hancock (Los Angeles), Dewey Phillips (Memphis), and Alan “Moondoog” Freed (Cleveland, then New York), and record producers and label owners, such as Leonard Chess (Chess Records, Chicago) and Sam Phillips (Sun Records, Memphis).
I see rock’n’roll having a whole different hierarchy of royalty. The true king of rock’n’roll is Chuck Berry. It was Berry that brought an “almost grown” rock’n’roll sound to the fore. While based on basic I-IV-V R&B and Blues chord structures (“Johnny B. Goode” is one example) with a mixture of pop and even some country, Berry was also intelligent in his use of manipulating and playing with language (“As I was motor-vatin’ over a hill/I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille”), witty in his phrasing (“Roll over Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news”), and steamrolling. He expressed the sheer joyousness of the music for the music’s sake: “Hail, hail, rock and roll/Deliver me from the days of old/Long live rock and roll/The beat of the drum is loud and bold/Rock rock rock and roll/The feeling is there body and soul.” And I agree with his sentiment that “It’s gotta be rock and roll music/If you wanna dance with me.”
The “queen,” or diva of rock’n’roll is Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. This is not meant in any reference to Richard’s varying sexual preferences, but rather that he brought a “fem” edge of flamboyance: glitter and bouffant hair, the make-up and the whooping, and a strong flavor of sexual tension that was different than any previous rock’n’roll headliner. In one “whooooo,” he could convey more overt sexuality than Elvis did with any hip wiggle. He brought to rock’n’roll a sense of camp and grandness.
The brother of the king (next-in-line) is Jerry Lee Lewis. His stylings are similar to Little Richard’s, both being heavily influenced by a combination of R&B, gospel and boogie, but Jerry Lee’s message was devious, less subtle, and a whole lot hornier. While Little Richard was the sex object from the ying perspective, saying, “take me” (“You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in/Come back tomorrow night and try again”), Jerry Lee Lewis – nicknamed “the Killer’ – was pure yang, into being the seducer and predator (“C’mon baby, don’t be shy.../You leave me/breathless-a”). Both also used the piano (along with their own physicality) as a raucous instrument of tension, frustration, and longing. Marshall McLuhan probably made a notation somewhere about the piano being a different kind of extension of these two artists.
The crown prince is Buddy Holly (during and post-Crickets). He managed to merge mainstream pop with country and swing, codifying his sound with emotion and meaning that people like Pat Boone could never achieve. It also explains Buddy’s successful gig before the infamously demanding audience at the Apollo Theater in New York. His message was one of innocence mixed with longing and, well, a Lubbock-fed Texas twang. His phrasing, both musically and lyrically, was unique (“Well All Right,” “True Love’s Ways”), sounding simple while actually being built upon innovative, complex and intricate rhythms. To take a slogan out of context, on the sexual battlefield, Buddy wanted to make love, not war in the musical arena.
Elvis, being a bridge, albeit an important and groundbreaking one, even while pre-dating Holly’s rise (and literal fall), actually brought the least to the table, except for his voice. He did not write his own music, and his guitar playing was nothing more than rudimentary. I tend to think the importance of the big “E” as the messenger, spreading the gospel of rock’n’roll to the masses, sort of like the role Paul was to Jesus. What he brought was important, but he was not the innovator.
There were also many strong women who had a pull on the direction of rock’n’roll as well, such as Big Momma Thorton, Wanda Jackson, Etta James, and Ruth Brown, but because of the period of history in which rock and roll developed and came to the forefront, women’s roles were mostly marginalized. There were more women with power behind the scenes than there were in front of the microphone. This included production, session musicians (such as bassist Carol Kaye, who, for example, played the intro to the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”), promotion (British series Ready, Steady Go was produced by Vicki Wickham), and especially in the area of songwriting (Delores Fuller, Elli Greenwich, Carol King). It was not until the folk scene in the sixties, which had a heavy focus on both class and gender politics, did women start getting the acknowledgement they earned. Punk, too, would be heavily have a female influence, such as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry. But even then, many were treated as second class.