Search Box

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chuck Berry, multitasking

After writing about Chuck Berry three posts ago, I found myself watching more of his old videos.

Here's Berry singing Almost Grown in front of a studio audience. He's simultaneously playing the guitar, singing, dancing, mugging, and making expressive gestures with his hands in order to entertain us.

What's striking about all this is how naturally it seems to come to him, and how effortless it appears.

A lot of the old videos were probably lip sync productions, and probably, guitar syncs as well. It's hard to believe that with all that vigorous dancing Berry could continue to sing on pitch and not get out of breath.

But, I'm not sure of that, and it was apparent from some of his later videos that he could do all those things at the same time (though his singing in those later videos is usually off key.)

Here's a video of Berry performing Little Queenie, with a white backup band. His ability to multitask is highlighted here, since his bandmates are doing nothing but playing their instruments. That's by design, but it's also obvious none of the others could have done what he did.

What makes it really amazing is that he's the one who composed the music and wrote the lyrics as well.

(It's a little embarrassing the way these old-time videos would regularly cut back to the white audiences clapping along, as if to show other whites that it was okay to enjoy Berry's music.)

Finally, here's a video of Berry performing Oh Baby Doll. Same thing: playing the guitar, singing, and dancing, all while hamming it up.

It's sort of like watching a circus performer juggling three balls while simultaneously keeping a plate spinning in the air.

Except that at the same time, you know you're watching the guy who actually invented circuses.

Update, 4/19/17: I've just been informed by an anonymous commenter that Berry actually didn't compose the melodies, that another black musician named Johnny Johnson did. Oh well. 


Anonymous said...

Chuck Berry was really classy in comparison to most today's performers. I enjoyed Watching him sing My Ding-A-Ling (1972),
full of naughty innuendos along with superb mimicry could not help smiling for a long time. That's what makes a great performer, the memory lingers. Most of today's singers just seem to crudely jump around, vulgarly shaking all they've got.


John Craig said...

Sherie --
I actually thought My Ding-A-Ling was one of his worst songs, even if it was his only number one hit. He had a lot of catchy tunes, but that wasn't one of them. And while as performer he WAS much less vulgar than today's hip hop crowd, in his personal life he was such an incredible pervert that lack of vulgarity is not the first thing that would come to mind to compliment him on. I can't vouch for the accuracy of all of this article, but I know at least some of it is true:

On the other hand, he was a great musician and a great performer. The videos of his performances when he was young show him as a multitalented force of nature, as I described in the post. And he was extremely expressive, and did, as you say, have a way of sort of winking and letting the audience in on the real meaning of his songs without quite crossing the line.

My personal favorite song of his was "C'est la Vie" (also known as "You Never Can Tell.")

Anonymous said...

Except he didn't write the music to any of his songs. He wrote the lyrics, which is impressive enough, but another black blues musician, Johnny Johnson, wrote all the melodies.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Is that right? I read the Wiki bio pretty carefully and it did say the he had formed a partnership with his pianist Johnny Johnson, but it didn't really specify who wrote the music. And I read a couple other accounts, too, which just said that Berry "wrote" various songs, though I suppose it's possible they were just referring to the lyrics. Anyway, sounds like you're better informed than I am.