hen first contact is made between humans beings and life forms from another world, it's possible the aliens will have already heard the music of Chuck Berry. Even as you read this, a copper phonograph record sprayed with gold and attached with titanium bolts to the side of Voyager 1 is speeding through the galaxy, hearing a 120-minute recorded message from the people of Earth to whatever civilization finds it. The record contains greetings in many different human languages, blips that can be decoded into black-and-white and color photographs and 90 minutes of music, ranging from the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry.
"My Ding-a-Ling" was recorded live at the 1972 Arts Festival in Lancaster, England. The origin of "My Ding-a-Ling" is up for grabs. Dave Bartholomew recorded the song in 1952 and takes writing credit for it; Berry recorded it in 1958 under the euphemistic title "My Tambourine," and also takes writing credit for it.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in either St. Louis, Missouri, or San Jose, California, on either the 15th or the 18th of January or October in either 1926 or 1931. Sources cannot agree on any exact combination of these facts, and Berry himself will not confirm the correct set of figures.
In 1955, Chuck went to Chicago and heard Muddy Waters play. He asked to sit with the blues master, and Waters was impressed enough to suggest that Berry audition for Leonard Chess, head of the Chess record label. Chuck played two songs for Chess. The first was the bluesy "Wee Wee Hours," and the second was a strange blend of country and R&B music called "Ida Red." Chuck liked his blues number better but Chess preferred the rockin' "Ida Red." He suggested a slight alteration in the lyrics, changing the name "Ida Red" to the name of a cow in a children's story, "Maybellene."
Chess didn't want to settle for an R&B hit, he wanted to conquer the pop (read white) charts. He enlisted the aid of disc jockey Alan Freed, who gave the record heavy airplay. He also received a co-writing credit on the song. "Maybellene" was a crossover hit, peaking at number five on the pop chart in 1955.
Berry certified his status as a rock and roll legend during the next three years, charting in the top 10 with "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode." He unveiled his famous "duck walk" at an Alan Freed show at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. He opened his own club in St. Louis and starred in four rock and roll movies, including Go Johnny Go and Rock Rock Rock. In 1959, Berry brought a 14-year-old girl from Texas to work as a hat check girl in his club. When she was fired, she accused Berry of molesting her, and he was arrested under the Mann Act, which forbids transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes. Berry's first trial was so racist it was thrown out by a higher court. After a second trial, he was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary in Indiana.
When he was released in 1964, his marriage and career seemed to be over. A year before, Brian Wilson had taken Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and converted it into "Surfin' U.S.A.." for the Beach Boys, which became a No. 3 hit for the group in April 1963. Berry's freedom coincided with the very beginning of the British Invasion, and most of the new groups included Chuck Berry songs in their repertoires. The Rolling Stones' very first single was Berry's "Come On," and the Beatles recorded both "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music."
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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