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In a classic Saturday Night Live skit, Steve Martin announces that the first message from extraterrestrial life has been received and decoded. "Send more Chuck Berry," the aliens say. NASA could have done worse than to cram the grooves of the 1977 Voyager Golden Record with the sounds and words of Charles Edward Anderson Berry. As a songwriter and guitarist, he went where no man had gone before, opening up a universe of possibilities for every rocker to come after him. Berry turns 80 this week, and for his birthday, we asked some of the best musicians in the St. Louis area to pay tribute.
Jay Farrar, Son Volt: I often get asked, "What music has come out of St. Louis?" The response is, "Chuck Berry came out of St. Louis." Chuck Berry is a musical point of reference worldwide as well as an indigenous source of inspiration. I think it's Chuck's gift for lyricism that makes him unique. One of Chuck's first songs, "Nadine," is still one of his best, with its pounding backbeat. The song I like the most right now, though, is "The Song of My Love," off of Chuck Berry in London. In this song, Chuck shows his depth and versatility by singing most of the song in Spanish!
Kim Massie, vocalist: My favorite Chuck song is "My Ding-a-Ling." It's fun! He has a lot of serious songs, and for someone of his prestige and status to do a song like that, it shows a more humorous side. It was never part of my repertoire, but someone made a suggestion once: "Can you do 'My Ding-a-Ling'?" Can I do what? It was such a silly, hokey song, but I remembered every word. I was a teenager when I first heard "Johnny B. Goode." It wasn't the music that kids my age were listening to; I was a little different, you could say. But it was so catchy, so much energy.
Craig Straubinger, Trip Daddys guitarist-vocalist: For me, Chuck is just 100 percent rock & roll. Elvis and Carl Perkins started out rockabilly, and Bo Diddley is steeped in the blues, but Chuck was always 100 percent rock & roll. He could toss off teeny-bopper hits like "Sweet Little Sixteen," and counter that with very adult themes such as "Memphis" or "Promised Land." Although I love all the first-wave rockers, I don't think any of Chuck's contemporaries ever even considered writing songs like that. Chuck really was and is the full package.
Fontella Bass, R&B vocalist: I like all of Chuck's songs. I first heard "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" from my son, who brought it to me on a record. It's supposed to be him. You know. Brown-eyed, handsome man. And he is a brown-eyed handsome man. I recorded one of Chuck's songs before I knew about him, "Maybelline," back in the '60s. But I've never even sat in a room with Chuck, period. His wife, yes I have.
Lou Whitney, Morells bassist: One of the best poets and best dancers in rock & roll. Better than Springsteen. I think Bruce would trade "Born to Run" for "Sweet Little Sixteen." I grew up in the country, and Chuck has that masterful juxtaposition of hillbillies talking and urban talk. You heard these sayings all the time, but you never thought you'd hear them in a song. He'd say words backwards and put the emphasis on the wrong syllables just to make it work.
Scott Kuhnert, Scott Kay & the Continentals vocalist/guitarist: When I listen to Chuck and compare his style to other black blues guys/guitarists of his era, Chuck's sound and beat honestly sounds more country than blues-based. It's much more "on the beat" and less "swingy" than the jump-blues of the same era. I honestly think this may have had a lot to do with Chuck's acceptance among white kids and country-music fans. I remember growing up playing a lot of Chuck Berry covers for all-white VFW and Legion Hall country dances. It always amazed me how well it went over just as well as any of our Ernest Tubb, Hank or Lefty tunes.
Bob Reuter, singer-songwriter: When I first moved out of north St. Louis, I moved to a seedy apartment complex right across from the airport. Since I had no car, I killed a lot of time by walking under the highway 70 overpass and play[ing] pinball in the airport game room. Sometimes I'd just walk down the concourse and watch the planes; sometimes I'd just sit on a bench and watch the people. Once I was sitting there eighteen years old, shoulder-length hair, sock cap and pea coat when I saw Chuck Berry walking by, wearing a suit and carrying a coat over his arm. He saw me staring and made a beeline straight for me. "Hi, I'm Chuck Berry," he said as he shook my hand, let it go and kept on walking. Roy Kasten
Love 'em or hate 'em, Dr. Zhivegas deserve a round of applause for enduring ten years on the cover-band circuit. Week in, week out, the band pours forth the funk, bringing to life the mirror-ball hits of the past 30 years. Performing everything from Van Halen's "Jump" to the Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance" to Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," the group throws a better dance party than nearly any band in town cover or original.