The 2004 RFT Music Awards

"Even if I could retire, I don't think I ever would," Bass told the Riverfront Times in an interview last year. "Music keeps me going."

Let's hope she keeps going for a good while yet. Judging from this year's poll results, there are lots of St. Louis music fans who are looking forward to hearing much more from Fontella Bass. -- Dean C. Minderman

Best Rock & Roll Chuck Berry

Top: Chingy  Bottom: The Sex Robots: (left to right) Tracey John 
Morrissey, Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran
Jennifer Silverberg
Top: Chingy
Bottom: The Sex Robots: (left to right) Tracey John Morrissey, Mario Viele and Maysam Attaran
Top: Steve-O  Bottom: Soulard Blues Band: (left to right) John Wolf, 
Bob Kamoske, Kirk Grice, John Mondin and Art Dwyer
Jennifer Silverberg
Top: Steve-O
Bottom: Soulard Blues Band: (left to right) John Wolf, Bob Kamoske, Kirk Grice, John Mondin and Art Dwyer

So it wasn't a fair fight. Putting Chuck Berry on the RFT Music Awards ballot was like nominating Thomas Jefferson for comptroller, auditioning Maria Callas for American Idol or sneaking Barry Bonds into the clean-up spot on your softball team. Yes, Charles Edward Anderson Berry cleaned up this year, even though the dude needs another affirmation of his talent like God needs a gift basket on Christmas. But send a little thank-you note to God anyway, because He or She gave us Chuck, and Chuck gave us rock & roll.

And not just the sound and the shape of it. Like Elvis, Berry wanted everything -- the money, the cars, the women, the fame, the power, the freedom -- and he established the conditions that made such boundless desires possible. He was urban, hip and smart as hell, a black man who disarmed a young, white audience with his wit and imagination. They made him a millionaire and he gave them a reason to live like they had never lived before.

How did he do it? By rocking. In the early '50s, honky-tonkers and upstart rockabillies had been cashing in on the riffs and the words of the blues, so Chuck repossessed the whole bank. His guitar still sounded country, but eagerly over-amped and welded to a sped-up rhythm & blues beat; his riffs had to be agile, quick and singular. Check the guitar on "School Days" or "Johnny B. Goode." The quick, sweet-toned chord bursts, then that rare bend, then back to the same bursting -- any competent guitarist, you'd think, could play it. Still, no one had before Berry (and, lest we forget, Johnnie Johnson, who certainly co-sired many of those riffs). No one had even imagined a guitar style so irresistible, so tingling, so fun. Berry dared you to deny the pure pleasure of the sound. In response you could only echo the command he gave you: "Go! Go! Go!"

As a lyricist Berry defined just how flexible and fecund a sub-three-minute song could be. He gave us absurd signifying ("Too Much Monkey Business" and "Nadine"), history-rich allegories ("Promised Land" and "Going Back to Memphis") and narrative epics ("Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode"). Songs such as "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" predicted "Respect" and "Dancing in the Streets," the double-edged freedom songs of civil rights-era soul music. And his crazy flow is the very essence of rap: "They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale/The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale."

The RFT Music Awards are supposed to be about community, right? If such a community has a meaning beyond a couple dozen bands that share gigs and swap gear, it's because Chuck Berry tore up racial, class and geographic divisions at a time when doing so was all but unthinkable. It's true that Berry has long outlived his glory, that he hasn't put out a record of new material in 25 years, that his monthly live shows can be sluggish and disheartening. Yes, the man has outlived his glory days and may never write another song, but his musical glory still sustains us and still rocks us -- any old way you choose it. -- Roy Kasten

Best Rockabilly/surf/ instrumental

Trip Daddys

Fads come and go. Crunk, veal cheeks and low-rise pants may be all the rage right now, but someday they'll end up on VH-1's I Love the '00s! being mocked by the future's semi-wits. Other things, however are here to stay: cheeseburgers, white T-shirts and the Trip Daddys. How many times have they been labeled our fair city's best rockabilly (or surf or instrumental) band? Five? Six? Eleventy-eight? Who cares? The point is that they must be on to something good here to inspire so much continued love. The Daddys offer more than just traditional comfort food: sure, they're never going to release a double concept album on the Zodiac signs, but that doesn't mean they're just treading water. Rockabilly may be old-fashioned music, but it's not for the geezers who'd rather hear "Crimson and Clover" on oldies radio. It's still a young man's game.

One man breathing new life into the Daddys sound is drummer Joe Meyer, who joined the band this year after making his bones in the underrated punk band ResistAll. His energetic rhythms are a great backdrop for the interplay of guitarist Craig Straubinger and bass player Jamey Almond, as anyone who caught their set at the RFT Music Showcase can attest. Meyer got added to the mix in the midst of some serious downtime for the band after Almond was thrown from a horse (hey, that cowboy hat ain't just for show). So in some sense we're celebrating a whole new band here. But in most ways, we're just welcoming back an old favorite. -- Jordan Harper

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