American Routes Shortcuts: Chuck Berry
Though the late Chuck Berry wouldn’t fit under the currently popular definition of singer/songwriter, he has provided us with the quintessential images of America in his songs. Growing up, Chuck Berry changed my view of music with his words about downhome people seeking love and glory in big cities and small towns across the country, all backed up by that riveting guitar, poised perfectly between country and blues. He created a roadmap for early rock and roll, duck walking across concert stages and TV screens. We spoke to Chuck Berry nearly twenty years ago. He told us about his first performance as a kid in St. Louis.
Chuck Berry: I sang a song in an all men’s review in high school. I sang “Confessing the Blues.” And the minute I said the first five or six words, you know, “Baby here I stand before you with my heart in my hand,” by the time I said “before you,” they knew what the song was, and I got a big ovation. I was the only one singing the popular songs in the program. So I bought a guitar and that gave me inspiration to follow through.
Nick Spitzer: Chuck, what do you think in your upbringing made you the kind of person that could tell stories and song and reach so many people?
CB: Music was in our home. My dad and mom sang in the choir in church, we had a piano since I was born. My sister Lucy was a contralto, I don’t know, but she always got the piano instead of me because I would be wanting to play boogie, and she played opera and stuff. And my brother was a trumpet player, so I guess I got it from there.
NS: You’re coming up with boogie-woogie, what about the blues? Is the blues important to you?
CB: The blues part of my life came in high school when I discovered girls and wanted to sing or do something to get a friend. When you don’t have a girlfriend or a companion, you can become mighty blue, kind of melancholy. And you sing the blues. So by that time, we were hearing these blues by Muddy Waters and Little Walter and John Lee Hooker, and they really turned you on. Then Nat Cole comes on the scene with these beautiful love songs, and what can you do but want and yearn and hear and play if you could.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.