Sunday, July 25, 2021

In Their Own Words: Chuck Berry

There has never been anyone more rock & roll than Chuck Berry. He loved to play loud, hated to rehearse, and liked to pay taxes even less. Rock & roll started with him and he inspired everyone who came after, especially cats like the Beatles and the Stones. The real king is profiled during the next installment of In Their Own Words, premiering Tuesday on PBS.

Berry’s family was well-established and respected in their St. Louis community, but he was a bit of a bad kid. He even served a brief prison stretch. It would not be his last. However, when he got out, he found success as an R&B guitarist. His style was so distinctive, Chess Records signed him up—thus was rock & roll born.

Chuck Berry instalment of In Their Own Words is just an hour, but it hits most of the important career milestones. That notably includes crediting boogie-woogie-blues pianist Johnnie Johnson for discovering and developing Berry’s sound as the guitarist in his combo. Sadly (but not surprisingly), most of Berry’s contemporaries are no longer available to participate, but Marshall Chess discusses Berry relationship with the Chess Brothers (his father Leonard and uncle Phil).

For star-power, we hear from Keith Richards, who was the musical director for the Chuck Berry tribute doc
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as his all-star bandmates, Robert Cray and Steve Jordan (who played with Sonny Rollins and the original Letterman show band). The director, Taylor Hackford also discusses the making of the film, which was a bit chaotic, thanks to Berry’s strong personality (to put it diplomatically).

In Their Own Words
should spur a lot of viewers to re-watch Hackford’s film. It also notably incorporates Berry’s appearances on the Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson managed to discuss Berry’s legal and tax problems in a way that did not offend the sometimes prickly rock & roller.

Everyone should know Chuck Berry was the founding father of rock & roll, but watching something like this episode of
In Their Own Words really puts it in perspective. It is pretty straightforward, but it gets the job done. Frankly, when you hear hit after hit like “Maybellene,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” and “Johnny B. Goode,” it is hard to miss the point. He was more of a king than Elvis and he did it his way more than Sinatra ever did. That comes through nicely in the episode of In Their Own Words, airing Tuesday (7/27) on PBS.