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Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll!

Rock'n'roll legend Chuck Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90. Photo: AFP

The headlines in the media have been dominated by politics for what seems like an age but suddenly changed a couple of days ago when the sad news that the "King of Rock'n'Roll" Chuck Berry had died at his Missouri home. He was 90 years old and, supported by some of his children, had just recorded his first studio album for 38 years; the album, simply called Chuck will be released later this year.

Tributes have been pouring in from around the world for a musical pioneer who epitomised the "wild man" persona of a rock'n'roller. There are few places on the planet that haven't heard of his hits like Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock And Roll Music and Johnny B Goode. To give an indication of his influence on 20th century popular music, Johnny B Goode was the only rock'n'roll song included on Nasa's Voyager spacecraft -- sent into space to expose other life forms to the magical guitar riffs and brilliant street smart lyrics of his music. Or consider John Lennon's famous quip: "If you tried to give rock'n'roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." Bob Dylan called Berry "the Shakespeare of rock'n'roll".

Berry had a 70-year career but musically he peaked in the 1950s when he had a string of raucous hits. He grew up in a middle-class family -- in contrast to most of the R&B stars at the time who were often dirt-poor sharecroppers or plantation workers -- and was exposed to music at an early age. He honed his guitar skills by imitating T-Bone Walker and began playing with Johnnie Johnson's trio, where he learned "hillbilly music" (think of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys) and was dubbed the "black hillbilly". This was crucial and perhaps the reverse of Elvis Presley, who grew up with hillbilly and country music but also the blues and R&B.

Berry, in contrast, brought that hillbilly sound to his own R&B and created a sound that appealed to both white and black audiences. Add to this his guitar riffs (influencing all rock guitarists that followed) and showmanship, plus witty street-smart lyrics that spoke of teenage love and dancing and you have not just a musician and one of the first rock stars but also a force of nature.

In 1955, Berry travelled to Chicago and was introduced to Chess Records by R&B master Muddy Waters. He thought that Chess would record his blues music but it was a country fiddle tune by Bob Wills, Ida Red, that attracted the attention of the Chess executives. A string of hits followed, and even a spell in prison in the early 1960s did not halt his climb to fame and fortune. The British beat invasion of the US in the same period and their insistence (as well as many other groups like The Rolling Stones) on paying tribute to Berry, Waters and the great R&B legends of the 1950s, brought his music to a wider audience and he continued playing for the next 60 years.

At about the same time, Muddy Waters brought in blues harmonica player James Cotton to replace Little Walter Jacobs, who had left to form his own band. Cotton stayed with Muddy for many years, leaving only to form his own band, the James Cotton Blues Quartet, in the 1960s. Cotton also passed away last week at the age of 81. Cotton was right up there in the pantheon of great blues "harp" players such as Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, "Shakey" Walter Horton and Junior Wells. If you want to see him in action, check out the concert footage from the early 1970s and his wonderful song, Mississippi Saxophone (a nickname for the blues harmonica).

I never saw Berry live (and his insistence on using pickup bands wherever he played meant that his concerts could be hit or miss, something Cotton never did; his bands were as tight as could be) but I did get to see and even meet the great James Cotton (for an amateur blues harpist such as myself this was like meeting Miles Davis).

At a 2010 press conference, I asked Cotton which band he liked the most out of all he played for in his 60-year career. He smiled and said simply: "Muddy (Waters)." I asked him for some tips on playing as my readers have asked me how to improve their blues harmonica skills and he said that he learned from listening to the radio, watching his mom play and, of course, having Sonny Boy Williamson II as a mentor. He also told me to keep practicing. I asked why he continued to play into old age and he said that as he'd worked so hard to "get it" (playing blues harp), he wasn't going to let it go.

These two legendary musicians got their breaks from the Chess Brothers -- Leonard and Phil -- who produced some of my favourite African-American music in the 50s and 60s; music that would influence all who came after. Phil Chess passed away last October at the age of 95.

World Beat salutes these giants of popular music -- they made the world a better place.


This columnist can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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