WITH THE NEWS THAT 87-year-old rock’n’roll progenitor Chuck Berry is to be awarded this year’s Polar Music Prize – the so-called Nobel of Music annually presented to a 24-carat pioneer by the King Of Sweden – MOJO responds with an exploration of Berry’s 10 Greatest Songs, the founding pillars of rock. Berry was already 29 when his first single on Chicago’s Chess label emerged in 1955 and something of his already-colourful life reflected in his witty, knowing songs. Meanwhile, his rip-and-run guitar style – mashing jumpin’ country and blues in an innovative, roughshod manner – was to blow through a new generation of musical thrill-seekers like a divine wind.
“His already-colourful life reflected in his witty, knowing songs.”
In fact, it was Berry’s version of a country song – Bob Wills’ Ida Red – that convinced label boss Leonard Chess to sign him, and it was that, rejigged as Maybellene, which hit Billboard Number 5 and laid down Berry’s marker. His run of classic Chess singles – generously represented below – were to inspire the second wave of rockers, notably The Rolling Stones, who covered Berry’s Come On (for their first single) and Carol to notable effect.
A racy personal life didn’t always help his career or reputation, however. Three years imprisonment for armed robbery in his teens, then a further 18 months between 1962-63 over a Mann Act violation when he should have been making hay, slowed his progress and appear to have hardened a Chuck Berry Vs The World mindset.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Berry’s reputation suffered, as perfunctory, phoned-in shows appeared to take for granted the reverence in which he was held, and a ’90s conviction – for marijuana possession following rumours that he was filming users of the ladies’ restrooms in his Wentsville, Missouri restaurant – added further tarnish.
The Polar Music prize will be presented to Berry and also to provocative US opera director Peter Sellars, in Stockholm on August 26. Previous recipients of the 1m kroner ($154,000) prize have included Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Keith Jarrett, Robert Moog and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Enjoy our celebration of Berry’s most important songs, and complain about the absence of Little Queenie, Rock And Roll Music, Carol, Back In The USA in the usual places. It’s a Top 10, so someone has to miss out!
PHOTO: Getty Images