Growing up in Winnipeg, my teenage years were an amazing mix and stew of many kinds of music. Winnipeg being at the top of the Great Plains got amazing AM radio stations at night and the new music we heard came from Chicago and Cleveland. The local radio stations CKY and CKRC also played a great mix of music. One of the most influential originators of rock and roll for me was Chuck Berry.
To hear School Days for the first time with its call and response of lyrics answered by guitar licks was a challenge to learn. Every record by Berry, who died on Saturday at age 90, was a guitar lesson. The "B" sides were also fabulous blues-based rock and roll and Chuck's lyrics were the most amazing storytelling music on the radio. Johnny B. Goode was my template for writing Taking Care of Business.
When producing BTO, I'd listen to [his 1958 studio album] One Dozen Berrys, Revolver and Rubber Soul endlessly to get ideas for grooves, tempos, song format, and other tricks to make guitar-bass-drums sound interesting and build excitement in my songs. My brother Gary just e-mailed me a memory that we saw Chuck Berry at The Winnipeg Auditorium on an Easter weekend when we were in our mid-teens.
Later, I played on many rock shows and festivals with him. He was an ornery critter but very savvy and smart after being screwed over many times by "the bad guys" in the music business. He always got paid in cash before he set foot on stage.
Some nights when the place was sold out and jammed, he'd ask the promoter for more money – and get it!
In later days, he showed up with his guitar and any rhythm section would back him up. He brought the guitar styles of T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and many others into his hillbilly shenanigan-lyric rewrites, added in a backbeat, great sidemen like Johnny Johnson at Chess Studios in Chicago and made his own brand of rock and roll.
When the Beatles, Stones and other British groups recorded Chuck's songs, they were embraced by a whole new generation of fans. His music will live on forever.
The last time I saw Chuck was eight years ago at the 100 Club in London, England. He was 82 years old. He didn't tune his guitar properly, forgot his lyrics but was totally fit and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and captains cap. The audience sang along and knew every lyric.
His song list was the history of rock and roll. That night in London, I was grateful to see him once more and flashed back to the Easter weekend in Winnipeg when I was 18, the Seattle Pop Festival when I was 26 and how he changed my life and so many other guitars players. Keith Richards and many other have been disciples of Chuck for years.
I thank Chuck for every lick he played, lyric he twisted, songs he wrote and records he made. I'm going to dig out my Chuck Berry blond Gibson and play some of his songs tonight and I'm going to re-read his biography.
Randy Bachman is a Canadian musician and a founding member of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.