Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry: His Career and His Guitars

Chuck Berry playing a Gibson ES-335
Chuck Berry passed away on Saturday, March 18th, 2017 at his home in St. Charles County Missouri. He was 90 years old.

1950's publicity photo
For those of us that grew up in the era of the 1960’s and who learned to play rock guitar, it was essential to learn Berry’s songs and guitar licks. The Beach Boys hit song Surfin USA was set to the music of Chuck Berry’s song Sweet Little 16. Even the intro to the Beach Boys song "Fun, Fun, Fun" was cobbled together from the intro to Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven".

In the Beach Boys song "Do You Remember", Brian Wilson wrote "Chuck Berry's got to be the greatest thing that came along, He wrote the guitar beats and the all time greatest song". Chuck Berry essentially defined early Rock and Roll with his 3 chord songs, guitar introductions, and lyrics.

Young Chuck Berry
Berry grew up in St. Louis and by high school showed an interest in music and guitar. During those years he got in trouble with the law and spent 3 years in a reformatory. He worked briefly in an automobile assembly plant, before meeting Blues musician T-Bone Walker, who was impressed with Berry’s guitar riffs and showmanship. Walker encouraged him to get into the music business.

With Jimmy Johnson Trio
 Chuck holding his Gibson ES-295

In 1955 Berry traveled to Chicago and began performing with the Johnny Johnson Trio. It was there where he met Blues player Muddy Waters. Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records who signed Chuck Berry to the label.

Chuck’s first hit song was Maybellene, which was an adaption of an old Country song called Ida Red. The recording sold over one million copies and was on Billboard Magazines’s Rhythm and Blues chart list. This lead to more hit songs and a lucrative touring career.

Chuck Berry in the 1950's
Berry had hits in the mid 1960’s, No Particular Place to Go, You Can Never Tell, and Nadine never matched the chart toppers of his earlier songs such as Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, and Rock and Roll Music.

Chuck Berry inducted into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Chuck Berrry was ranked fifth on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Chuck Berry with an ES-335
However his success became an encumbrance for him. His income was derived from touring and he was playing the same three chord songs night after night. In an interview he stated that his success stripped him of an artistic credibility. He felt as if he were a relic people came to see. Touring became so mundane that he stopped using his own band. When he did a show he played with whatever local band the promoter had hired to back him.

Westbury, NY Fair 2004

I knew a keyboard player that once backed him up at a state fair show. He said that Berry pulled up in a rented Cadillac convertible with his guitar in the back seat. He walked on stage, plugged into an amp that was already set up, and began playing to the crowd.

When his set was over, he thanked the crowd, walked off stage without saying a word to the band, and drove off.

Doing the Duck Walk
Berry was not just an excellent singer/songwriter, but a consummate performer and showman. His “duck walk” and facial expression he did while playing guitar became his trademarks. And he was an excellent player. He often borrowed “Hillbilly” guitar licks, inserting them into his songs. Throughout his lifetime Berry had some skirmishes with the law, but eventually came out on top.

Chuck Berry
playing a Gibson ES-350TN

When Chuck Berry first started out he is probably best known for playing a 1956 Gibson ES-350TN (thin natural finish) on several TV appearances. In fact he is probably best known for playing Gibson electric guitars.

'59 Gretsch 6121

He also owned and played a 1959 Gretsch 6121 Roundup in appearances.

With Gretsch
stereo White Falcon

For a movie called Rock! Rock! Rock!, Berry is seen with a stereo Gretsch White Falcon, however that was possibly a prop guitar provided by the production company.

Berry also played an early to mid 1960’s model of a Gibson ES-335. He is seen playing a number of different ES-335’s. Possibly some were provided for him so he didn’t have to fly with his own instrument.

Berry with Gibson ES-335

The most iconic and photographed guitar he played was the Gibson ES-355. You can tell this guitar by the split diamond inlay on the headstock. He played a number of versions of this instrument. Some had Maestro vibratos, some had Bigsbys, and some had no vibrato.

Berry with Gibson ES-330

Berry can be seen playing a Gibson ES-330 hollow body electric.

With '67 version of a Flying Vee

There is but one image of an older Chuck Berry playing a red 1967 Flying Vee.

Berry playing a Gibson Lucille model

Berry was also known to use a Gibson B.B. King Lucille model guitar.

Chuck Berry with Gibson Super 400

And Berry brought this guitar to the 2012 Awards for Literary and Lyrics Excellence.

As for amplifiers, Chuck probably insisted on the venue providing one. He was fond of Fender Dual Showman amps with reverb, and Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers. In fact a concert rider states the venue should supply: "Two Dual Showman amplifier heads and two Dual Showman speaker cabinets. Any alternative equipment must be in above watts and speaker size."

Chuck Berry's amps - Dual Showman - Pro Amp - White Dual Showman - Ampeg - 2 Dual Showman Reverb Heads
However he was also photographed playing through a Marshall amplifier, and a large Ampeg amplifier.

Themetta (Toddy) and Chuck Berry
He married his wife Themetta in 1948 and the two were still married at the time of his death.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Henry Marlow said...

Marcus, another timely and interesting blog. Living outside of St. Louis, I regret never catching one of Chuck's gigs at the St. Louis club called Blueberry Hill where he would make monthly appearances until he stopped about a year and half ago. He did have a dark side side though. There's an alleged sex tape out there on the internet and back in the late 80's a restaurant that he owned here was found to have hidden cameras in the ladies' restroom. Despite that, he will always be remembered as a rock god and legend. If you haven't done so, catch his 1987 Tonight Show appearance on Youtube. Johnny cancels his other guests and Chuck dominates the show with anecdotes and three classic songs, one of which was ad hoc and unrehearsed.
Hank Marlow

marcus ohara said...

Thank you Henry. I knew about the hidden camera. I read that Chuck Berry had to pay out a lot of money to some of the ladies that were going to file a lawsuit. An acquaintance got to talk with Chuck and was surprised that he had become so upset about playing the same three chord songs at every show. I've heard of other older performers that are equally upset that their audience just wants to hear the same songs they were performing when they were 20 year old kids. But it is what made them famous! Yesterday I read that Chuck Berry's estate is worth 50 million dollars. That is not bad for only playing three chords.

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the feedback,
~Marc O'Hara

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Mario said...

Suitably weighty obituary for this towering figure of 20th century culture. His influence incalcuable, his mark left deep. A flawed human being maybe, but a great man, whose music will never fade away.

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