Chuck Berry turns 90 on Tuesday, and let’s give him his due. Yes, he was part of the first generation of 1950s rock-and-roll stars, along with towering figures such as Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Yes, he’s a great performer, a superb blues-based guitar player whose famous duck-walk across any stage raises the roof. But Berry also deserves more credit than he gets these days as one of rock’s greatest lyricists, the only member of that first generation who wrote the majority of his greatest hits, filling them with clever rhymes and details about teen culture (Berry captured the mystique of cars-and-girls years before the Beach Boys, for example) that remain vivid little portraits of their era.
And like a lot of those first-gen rock stars, his legend wasn’t really enhanced by television. Sure, Elvis Presley achieved a new level of stardom/notoriety with his Ed Sullivan Show appearances, but the unpredictable chaos of someone like Jerry Lee Lewis could not be contained by the small screen. (You have to seek out his appearances on Hee Haw to get a glimmer of Jerry Lee’s magisterial authority.)
But Chuck Berry was a musician who did his best work in the studio and on tour, so it’s always exciting to come upon moments when he was great on TV. I have three examples for a birthday celebration. The first is from a Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show in 1989. Berry did a medley of “Carol” and “Little Queenie,” and unlike most Tonight Show guests, he showed little deference to the Doc Severinsen-led house band, which was essentially a jazz-era holdover. Watch the way Berry takes over conducting the musicians, pointing to this musician or that one when he wants a quick solo riff:
The next clip is from Soul Train in 1973. That great, Don Cornelius-hosted show is usually thought of as a disco-era, lip-synching dance party, but that’s not how Berry played it — he sang live. He took questions from the audience, and when a young woman gestured to his backing musicians to ask how long they’d all been together, Berry smiles indulgently and says, “Sixteen minutes.” As Cornelius adds, “Chuck is a solo.” Explanation: Berry was famous for coming into any town in the country, calling ahead for a local band, handing them a list of his songs, and letting it rip. He’d pay them in cash — Chuck was always paid in cash himself — and then scram out of town: solo. The Soul Train performance is terrific, a rare nonoriginal called “Roll ’Em Pete.”
Finally we come to a David Letterman performance in the 1980s. Once again, Chuck obeys none of the formalities of Dave’s rigidly formatted show. He goes over and greets Letterman before he performs, and Dave is only mildly taken aback at having to engage in human contact. And again, Berry takes over the bandleading, this time from Paul Shaffer, who looks delighted at being relieved of his duties, admiring the way Chuck orchestrates this performance of “Let It Rock.” (Note Chuck’s daughter Ingrid on harmonica.)
It was just announced that Berry will release an album of new material — his first in 38 years — in early 2017. It will be titled Chuck. Happy birthday, Chuck Berry.