Hail to Mr. Berry

Posted on January 3, 2011 by

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My Midwestern memories of an ailing rock legend

By Meryn Fluker

Rock and roll legend Chuck Berry collapsed during a New Year’s Day performance in Chicago. Word is that the 84-year-old music pioneer will be up and duck walking in no time.

There’s a wealth of information out there about Berry, so I won’t go into all that he’s done for rock music. I have a personal connection, albeit one-sided, to Berry. My dad used to keep me in the house on Friday nights — while my friends were presumably having sleepovers and watching Olsen twins movies (at least that’s what fellow ArtSTALKer Gina Pusateri was doing) — and we’d watch “Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a 1987 film chronicling a star-studded concert Berry performs for his 60th birthday.

While a lot of my generation’s rock fans cite The Beatles and the Rolling Stones as their influences, Chuck Berry is who those artists look up to. Keith Richards served as the (beleaguered) musical director for the “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” concert, while John Lennon got sued for mimicking Berry a little too closely on “Come Together.”

Berry’s influence can’t be overstated — my dad has referred to Berry in terms so glowing I would’ve sworn it was hyperbole. It takes a once-in-a-lifetime talent to warrant a tribute from Marty McFly. Plus, Berry was one of the handful of artists who had their music sent up to space on the Voyager spacecraft as a way to explain music to extraterrestrials.

I had the fortune to speak with University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication Professor Don McLeese about Berry, who played the school’s homecoming concert in 2008, for a story in The Daily Iowan newspaper. McLeese, who was present at the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll show simply stated, “There ain’t no way to play rock and roll guitar except like Chuck Berry.”

You just haven't experienced "My Ding-A-Ling" until you've heard 84-year-old Chuck Berry sing it live. Thanks to http://www.chuckberry.com for the photo.

I was at Berry’s 2008 Iowa City performance and it was a crowd-pleaser. The octogenarian still performs frequently (with 30 domestic and international dates under his belt in 2010) and manages to fire up his audiences. His representative said that after Berry collapsed on Saturday, he duck walked for his fans before leaving the venue. To me, that seems characteristic of Berry, who invited lovely ladies on stage to dance with him during his homecoming show at the UI’s Pentacrest. ArtSTALK staffer Anna Wiegenstein and I were two of those lucky girls and it remains a personal lifelong highlight. He was still slick and charming. He wasn’t duck walking at high speed, but my moves were all amateur against his.

So here’s to Mr. Berry, the man behind rock classics including “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” May you duck walk for many more years.

Meryn Fluker

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Posted in: MusicSTALK