I never liked Elvis Presley. When he emerged in 1956, I thought he was ridiculous. At the age of 11 I was possibly not yet hormonalized enough, but in fact I never liked him even after that. (He did have a good voice, however; something he's not often given credit for.)
There were tunes that intrigued me even earlier, by Fats Domino for instance, that forecast the big change in popular music. But in 1957 I was ready for rock and roll. Sixth grade was accompanied by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Dion and the Belmonts, the Elegants and other do-wop groups. The first 45 I bought was a guitar instrumental called "Raunchy" by Ernie Freeman in 1957.
In March 1957, exactly 60 years ago, "School Day" by Chuck Berry was released. It wasn't his first hit, but it was the first I remember clearly. I probably saw him lip synch it on American Bandstand, the Dick Clark program from Philadelphia on TV every school day afternoon. Or maybe I saw him on the local version on Saturdays, hosted by Pittsburgh DJ Clark Race. Or probably both.
The tune eventually led off an EP --an Extended Play 45 rpm record--of six songs featured on American Bandstand, and so it was the first Chuck Berry song I owned, and listened to over and over.
The song mixed familiar elements of my world with a kind of (for me) teenage dream world. It's about a school day, starting off: Up in the mornin' and out to school/ The teacher is teachin' the Golden Rule...
Although my teachers were teaching more rules than that at the Cathedral School. My Catholic parish was still catching up to our Baby Boom numbers, and so my class from St. Paul's was moved for 6th and 7th grade up to the much larger Cathedral School on Main Street, across from Greensburg High School. It was my first experience with lots of kids (by 7th grade, some of our classes had 60 students, and were complete chaos) and with big school features like a cafeteria.
And Chuck Berry even sang about that: Ring, ring goes the bell/The cook in the lunch room's ready to sell/You're lucky if you can find a seat/You're fortunate if you have time to eat...
The song was basically about school as a pressure cooker (Back in the classroom, open your books/Keep up, the teacher don't know how mean she looks)
Then suddenly there's release: Soon as three o'clock rolls around//You finally lay your burden down/Close up your books, get out of your seat//Down the halls and into the street
And that's where any similarity to my experience ended, and the teenage fantasy world began: Up to the corner and 'round the bend/ Right to the juke joint, you go in..
There were no juke joints, or malt shops, or any of the teenage fantasy places we saw on Ozzie and Harriet and other TV shows. Sure, there were places with juke boxes. But there was never any place around where kids would dance in the afternoon: The best we could do is go home and watch other kids dance on American Bandstand. All day long you been wantin' to dance,/Feeling the music from head to toe/ Round and round and round we go...
Not that any of us could dance, or could overcome the self-consciousness of being shorter than the girls (who somehow during the summer between 6th and 7th grades, all grew breasts), and with our voices changing and pimples sprouting. So losing inhibitions and joyously dancing at the juke joint was as much a fantasy world as the world of romance.
Still, I could feel the music, feel that it was particularly mine, and so rejoin Chuck Berry's ecstatic words to end the song: Hail, hail rock and roll/ /Deliver me from the days of old/Long live rock and roll /The beat of the drums, loud and bold/ Rock, rock, rock and roll/The feelin' is there, body and soul.
That was Chuck Berry's subject: the music itself. From Roll Over, Beethoven to Johnny B. Goode and Rock & Roll Music.
Chuck Berry was a musical innovator in what he put together: rhythm and blues and country music principally, but he also knew how to construct a pop song. He said the guitar riff opening to "Johnny B. Goode" was inspired by the Glenn Miller Orchestra opening to "In The Mood." There were lots of black artists whose songs were hits mostly when recorded by whites. But Chuck Berry's songs couldn't be imitated. Only a decade later were there new versions by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among others.
He had seemingly several careers, popping up with a new hit or playing on TV with John Lennon, never looking or acting much older. I saw him live at an oldies show in the 70s, when he had his last and biggest hit, "My Ding-a-Ling," not among his best.
Chuck Berry had a strange life, suggested by just one fact: three days after he performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter, he was locked in a federal pen for tax evasion. But he had a long life, too. He died on Saturday at the age of 90. May he rest in peace. His work lives on.