Song of the Day: Chuck Berry “You Can’t Catch Me”
It is with a heavy heart today that we remark on the passing of Chuck Berry over the weekend at the age of 90. Berry was the architect of rock and roll and embodied the very sound of the 20th Century. To that end, “You Can’t Catch Me” is one of my absolute favorite songs by Berry. It features a slinky beat, a tasty guitar figure and some of Berry’s most playful and poetic lyrics. This is the sound of a genius and musical architect firing at the absolute top of his songwriting game: tapping both into the long history of the Blues and American roots music while also reaching forward to something new and wonderful.
The song clearly has other admirers also, most notably John Lennon, who cribbed the tune and several of the lyrics for “Come Together“, the lead-off track on The Beatles‘ Abbey Road. Of course this is almost to forget that without Chuck Berry, there would be no The Beatles, no The Rolling Stones, no Elvis Presley, no Jimi Hendrix, no The Beach Boys, no The Ramones and likely no rock ‘n’ roll as we know it. Never mind that for many of the groups mentioned above, their initial careers consisted largely of banging out Chuck Berry covers.
A friend of mine recently described Berry as follows and I can think of no better words to honor this great musician and innovator:
A sociologist with a keen eye for teenage attitudes, a poet long before [Bob] Dylan made it fashionable, and a man who wielded a guitar like a chisel around a melody. He made music which was urgent and beautiful but that throbbed with what they called “the beat.”
Indeed, because Berry was so responsible for the sound of rock ‘n’ roll that he became something of a victim of his own success: he was so widely imitated that people tend to forget just how important he was in establishing those sounds. That said, the shock wave of the marker he laid down continues to be indirectly felt in ripples of virtually all Western music that came after him.
Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. He had something of a tough upbringing, including a stint in jail for armed robbery in his late teens-early twenties. After getting out of jail in 1947, Berry opted to go straight, working in an auto assembly plant by day and playing music at nights. He had played blues guitar since his early teens and began working the club circuit in order to make some extra money. Berry was immediately a draw, taking the showmanship techniques from such blues luminaries as T-Bone Walker (a musician well known for playing behind his head, while dancing on stage and even while doing the splits) and combining it with a fast, shuffling rhythm and blues sound. It was during this period that Berry not only honed his playing, but also perfected his trademark “duck walk“.
By 1953, Berry had started working with pianist Johnnie Johnson. Johnson proved to be highly influential on Berry, pushing him towards a country/hillbilly music repertoire along with the rhythm and blues. The blending of these two influences were responsible for the initial sound of rock and roll. Johnson remained an important collaborator for Berry and the two would record extensively and continue to work together right up until Johnson’s death in 2005.
In 1955, Berry’s big break came when he was signed to Chess Records where his first single was a reworking on an old hillbilly tune called “Ida Red” about an unfaithful woman. Berry reworked the lyrics to the lyrics to the song and working with Johnson on the piano cut what would prove to be his first hit: “Maybellene“. The song quickly sold over a million copies and proved to be the beginning of Berry’s imperial period, where-in he turned in a string of hits that lit up the R&B charts at the time. Berry used the proceeds from his early success to open up a racially integrated club and began touring with white acts as well as other black ones. This included striking-up a close friendship with touring-partner, Carl Perkins, upon whom Berry was clearly a strong musical influence.
While Berry’s career was occasionally interrupted by legal problems and additional jail stints, (several that Berry claimed, likely correctly, were racially motivated), his music remained central throughout his life. He was among the initial batch of inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was the feature of the 1987 combination documentary and concert film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (where Berry performed many of the highlights from his long recording career accompanied by several of the musicians that he had influenced, including Keith Richards, Etta James, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt and of course, his eternal sideman, Johnnie Johnson). He continued to perform and tour right up until his death and was even working on a new album: his first since 1979.
Berry’s influence remains impossible to fully articulate He was a genius and a legend whose music has given joy to hundreds of millions of people over the years. Rest in peace, Mr Berry.