In the early 1950s, Berry organized a trio with Johnny Johnson on piano and Ebby Harding on drums. They played “backyards, barbeques, house parties,” and clubs like the Cosmopolitan in East St. Louis. Nobody much cared about instrumentation and arrangements—the emphasis was on fun and spontaneity. Realizing that the big time would demand a highly polished and professional act, Berry began to arrange his music. He played note-for-note duplications of hit tunes, and expanded his repertoire to include a range of material from country blues to the urban ballads of Nat King Cole and the country tunes of Hank Williams.
Was he playing rock and roll before 1955? “In a sense,” he says. “It wasn’t named then. It was boogie woogie. It was even called jazz once—jive, you know. I heard a lot of country music stuff, and I copied a lot. I guess I couldn’t have said I was playing country, but I was stabbing at it.”
I asked Chuck if he liked performing in the 1950s better than at later points in his career. He says, “In the middle ’50s, when I started, it was fascinating, because every city I went to was new. But come the ’60s, there was no more star, you know. I’ve been gassin’ myself, and, at the same time, hopin’ to freak out my audience. I go up on stage now to entertain. In the beginning, I went up on stage to play music. That’s what I was supposed to do.”
In addition to being the best of the early rock and roll guitarists, Chuck was the all-time master of the simplistic, naïve rock lyric. He knew his market well. His lyrics perfectly mirrored all those teenage yearnings and resentments, and his tunes were cameos with real things in them—keen, neat stuff like souped-up jitneys and coffee-colored Cadillacs, coolerators, and ginger ale. I asked him some vague questions about the inspiration behind good song lyrics. He sat up, a bit rigid and uneasy, probably thinking he would have to say something pedantic.
“It’s my love of poetry,” he says. “A lyric is poetry with a melody—a message with a melody. And phrasing is all mathematics. If it’s eight beats to two bars, then you can sing 18 syllables. It’s always best to sing 15, though, so you can grab a breath now and then. In fact—you won’t believe it—but my biggest influence was my mathematics teacher. Music is so much mathematics that it’s pathetic. Anything off beat has to get back on the beat, or the whole thing is going to be out. So, with most of my music, I keep the basics on 4/4 time, and I take the deviations. It’s simple to teach 4/4, but it’s hard to teach deviations—dotted quarter notes and so forth. So I teach the basics, and take the versatility myself. That’s the reason why I’m out there seeming to deviate from the basic beat. At the end of the chorus, however, I’d better be back on!”
Excerpted from Fred Stuckey’s interview in the February 1971 issue of Guitar Player.