Chuck Berry died this week (2017 time) at the age of 90. I am not the first to point out that if rock’n’roll had a Mount Rushmore, Chuck would be on it, along with Little Richard and some combination of Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, or maybe Ike Turner.
That last would be a controversial choice, as Ike is more remembered for the bad things he did than for his contributions to music. With Chuck Berry, for some reason, it’s the other way around; he tends to get a pass for his misbehaviors and be praised for his art. It helps, I think, that he never beat up Tina Turner, which it turns out is about the worst PR you can get. But in addition to his shenanigans with underage girls (hi Jerry Lee!), Chuck did secretly videotape women doing their business in the ladies’ room of the restaurant he owned. That is not only morally repugnant but just plain gross.
In the realm of music, though, Chuck Berry was a titan. He sang, he played guitar, he duckwalked, and he wrote songs that were like short stories you could dance to. His influence on The Beatles was substantial and well-documented; they covered many of his songs and used elements of his work to help create “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Back in the USSR,” and “Come Together.” He was similarly idolized by all the British Invasion bands, especially the Animals and the Rolling Stones.
Chuck was not 100% pleased with all this; he tended to see it as a case of some white boys getting rich off his ideas while he drove around the country playing state fairs. And he was not without justification; like many artists, especially the African-American artists of his era, he got the royal shaft from the crooked music business. In Chuck’s case as in others, his younger acolytes did what they could to help him get his due, but the injustices could never entirely be undone.
In a weird footnote to the Berry/Beatles relationship, John Lennon ended up getting sued by music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” This should have been laughed out of court, if you ask me; “Come Together” quotes a couple lines from “You Can’t Catch Me” as a tip of the hat, but otherwise there’s no similarity between the two songs. But for whatever reason the judge ruled in Levy’s favor, with the settlement stipulating that Lennon would cover three songs from Levy’s catalog. Which is why, to bring things full circle, John ended up covering “You Can’t Catch Me” on his album Rock and Roll.
In any case, John and Chuck are both gone now. They did their bits and they made their mistakes. We still have the music, thank goodness. Today you might want to take a listen to Chuck’s original “You Can’t Catch Me,” or John’s cover, or “Come Together.” You might want to see a clip of the two of them performing together in 1972 and being interrupted mid-chorus by Yoko’s awful wailing, causing Chuck’s eyes to bug out in shock and dismay; then again you might not. It’s a free country.