Brooklyn Boro

When Chuck Berry came to Brooklyn

The Late Rock Icon Performed at the Fortway Theater in 1972

March 20, 2017 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Berry does his iconic duck walk. AP photos
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With the passing of Chuck Berry on Saturday, popular music lost one of its true legends and rock ‘n’ roll lost its founding father.  Berry died at his home in St. Louis, Missouri after spending his last years working on his final album. And while his career found him performing all over the world, the borough of Brooklyn had him for one memorable day when he performed in 1972 at the now-shuttered Fortway Theater at 6720 Fort Hamilton Parkway.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926 in San Jose, California. As a teenager he was sent to reform school for three years on a burglary charge. He worked for General Motors and studied hairdressing before forming a trio that became popular in St. Louis.

In 1955 legendary bluesman Muddy Waters introduced Berry to Phil and Leonard Chess of Chess Records. And that’s when it all began for Berry. That same year he reached No. 5 on the pop charts with his first hit, “Maybellene,” which was a rock adaptation of the country standard “Ida Red.”

In 1956, while Elvis Presley was crooning “Love Me Tender” and Fats Domino was finding his thrill on “Blueberry Hill,” Berry was taking rock ‘n’ roll to the next level. “Roll Over Beethoven” was a perfectly written plea to the singer’s local disc jockey to play “a rockin’ rhythm record” that had his temperature risin’ and his “heart beatin’ to the rhythm.”

Berry’s lyrics were filled with teenage angst long before Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen made it fashionable. Most importantly, Berry was not only one of the most revered musicians ever to pick up a guitar, but he was also a songwriter who actually wrote all the songs he was recording. He had somehow found a way to combine the elements of soul, jazz, country and rhythm and blues.

So just as Elvis has been labeled “the King” for his innovative contributions to the genre, Berry has been called the architect of rock ‘n’ roll because he actually helped build and define it.

Berry’s music influenced everyone from Elvis and the Beatles to the Stones and Springsteen. In 1964, the Beatles released their version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” one of the few singles they did not write themselves. And the Beach Boys reached No. 5 on the charts in 1976 with their version of “Rock and Roll Music.”

Elvis recorded Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” in 1964 with the intention of releasing it as a single, but was beaten out by Johnny Rivers whose recording of the song reached No. 2 on the charts.  Elvis always believed that “Memphis” could have been one his biggest hits of all.

Elvis also recorded the light-hearted “Too Much Monkey Business” in 1968, Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode” and “Promised Land,” his only Berry-written single in 1974.

Berry’s private life was shaded by run-ins with the law. In 1959, he was arrested for illegally bringing a minor across state lines.  He was convicted in 1962 and served 18 months in prison.

His career rebounded in 1964 with the Top-Ten hit “No Particular Place to Go.” It was followed by the Top-20 “You Never Can Tell,” and his own recording of “Promised Land.” But by the late ’60s, the singles were no longer charting.

Berry continued to tour and then in 1971 he recorded his first and only No. 1 hit “My Ding-a-Ling.” The song was originally recorded by Dave Bartholomew in 1952, and by Berry in 1958 under the title “My Tambourine.” It was a novelty song Berry recorded live at the 1972 Arts Festival in Lanchester, England, and it introduced him to a whole new audience.

Berry was in demand again, and in 1972 he came to Brooklyn to perform at the Fortway Theater.

But it was Berry’s incredible output of hits he wrote and recorded during the ’50s and ’60s that made a hero to the legends of popular music.  “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” Bruce Springsteen said.

“Johnny B. Goode” is ranked seventh on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and Berry’s remarkable body of work makes him one of popular music’s most revered pioneers.

 


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