Happy 90th birthday, Chuck Berry: “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956)

berry

Chuck Berry turns 90 today.  If we have to pick one figure in American pop to whom the charts have not been kind, my vote likely goes to him.

You certainly know the story of Chuck: born in St. Louis, went to Chicago, cut a few important sides for Chess in the 50s, faded out, made a comeback in the 70s, kept prominent by nostalgia, and never really got the credit he was due.  But the placement of Berry’s records on the pop charts is nothing short of criminal. I’ve written – nay, dissertated – on the exclusion and/or suppression of Black artists on local station charts, and it’s probably safe to say that that effect on Berry’s music is notable.  That’s not to say that Berry didn’t have his legal issues and scandals. His time in prison for allegedly violating the Mann Act (famously portrayed incorrectly in Cadillac Records was trickier to come back from than, say, Elvis’ time in the Army. Tax issues hounded Berry for years.  (A former radio colleague told a story of his station hiring Berry to play a “shower of stars” type concert, and refusing to perform unless he was paid in cash in a brown paper bag before the gig.) But if we are able to separate the misdeeds from the music, what is left is an impressive catalog that somehow only features “My Ding-a-Ling” (1972) as his only Number One hit, proving that life is not fair.

I could craft a pretty decent mixtape of Chuck Berry songs that didn’t make the Top 40.

No Money Down” (1955)

Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)

Sweet Little Rock and Roller” (1958)

Little Queenie” (1959)

Let It Rock” (1960)

Come On” (1961)

and, of course, the featured song in this piece, “You Can’t Catch Me.”  If we were to extend the list to stuff below 20 on the chart, it’s a solid album.

All that needs to be said about is that the same flattop that is “movin’ up with me” in this record is later “groovin’ up slowly” in the Beatles’ “Come Together.” (Not enough? T. Rex’s “Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin'” from “Bang a Gong” comes from “Little Queenie.”) Berry’s music was an influence on them and many other British musicians.  The  Stones covered “Come On” at the beginning of their career and made a pilgrimage to Chicago to record at the Chess studios in an attempt to capture the sound of their heroes.

Oldies radio, as it has done with so many artists, hasn’t done Chuck many favors in terms of delving deep into his catalog.  But at least it helped to keep some of the music front and center so that when I enter a college classroom in 2016 I don’t get blank looks from students when I mention his name. Maybe Pulp Fiction is to thank for that.

Feel free to crank up a duckwalk-laden “You Can’t Catch Me,” as introduced by Alan Freed, by clicking here.

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3 thoughts on “Happy 90th birthday, Chuck Berry: “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956)

  1. One of the most fascinating recollections in Twin Cities author Rick Shefchik’s book, ‘Everybody’s Heard About The Bird: The True Story Of 1960s Rock *N* Roll In Minnesota,’ came from Ron Butwin, the leader of a local group (The Escapades) whose first public appearance was as the opening act for a two-show Chuck Berry appearance in St. Paul on New Year’s Eve, 1964. The local band the promoter had hired was so sub-par that the Escapades gradually returned to the stage to back Chuck. He insisted they do likewise for the second show, then asked if they’d been paid yet. They hadn’t, having been promised they would be following the show..

    Chuck immediately grabbed Ron and hauled him down the corridors to the box office, insisted that the thugs guarding the door let the two of them in, then went nose to nose with the promoter, in a tense situation that involved guns. Even though he’d already been paid, Berry refused to go on for the second show until the Escapades had been paid, and the promoter finally agreed and handed over the cash. Chuck insisted that Butwin count it on the spot and Ron had been shorted by $300. More words were exchanged until the promoter grudgingly paid Ron in full.

    After the second show, Chuck hung around to prove his point to the band, instructing them to tell anyone who asked that they had not yet been paid.. First, the off-duty cops providing the security, then the head of concessions came up and asked if they’d gotten their money. To quote Ron from the book: “Now I start to see what’s going on. Everybody got stiffed. Everybody except Chuck Berry and us, because he did that. That was a lesson I’ll never forget.”

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  2. Pingback: Leonard Chess at 100: Jackie Brentston and his Delta Cats, “Rocket 88” (1951) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

  3. Pingback: RIP Chuck Berry: “Come On” (1961) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

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