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RIP Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

Styx reflects on the passing of a rock & roll legend.

by Mike Mettler

Chuck Berry, the guitarist/lyricist/vocalist whom many consider to be the father of rock & roll, died at his home near Wentzville, Missouri (which is about 45 miles west of St. Louis), on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old.

Needless to say, the man's impact and influence on popular music is almost incalculable. The list of songs Berry wrote and performed in just the mid-to-late 1950s alone serve as the bedrock and blueprint of early American rock music: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock and Roll Music," "No Particular Place to Go," "Maybellene," "Let It Rock," "Too Much Monkey Business" ("ahh..."), "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," and "Memphis, Tennessee"... to name but a few.

Like most artists born in and of the rock era, Styx cut their teeth on the Chuck Berry canon, and the band collectively mourns his passing.

"His music can be found in the DNA of the music of so many artists who grew up listening to him," observes vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw. "He could rightfully claim paternity as the father of rock & roll music with all those simple, elegant songs that made you want to do that duck walk with your guitar — but nobody ever did it like him. Now he can have that reunion with his old bandmate Johnnie Johnson and play those songs again like they were brand new."

As many of you will recall, Johnnie Johnson, Berry's longtime pianist/accompanist who passed away at age 80 in 2005, has a direct connection with Styx: he played on “Blue Collar Man @ 2120,” which was recorded at the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago on April 28, 2004, and was the final track on Styx's 2005 covers album, Big Bang Theory. The song also features legendary Chicago blues vocalist Koko Taylor.

"The genesis was me driving by 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the old Chess Studios where artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy — you name it — recorded," clarifies co-founding guitarist James "JY" Young. "A lot of great records were made there. Ultimately, we got Johnnie Johnson to record with us, which was great. We were aware of him being Chuck Berry’s piano player."

Tommy notes there's an as-yet-unreleased Styx song titled "Hey Mr. Johnson" that was recorded with the pianist during those 2004 Chess Studios sessions, and it's very much in the vein of the aforementioned "Johnny B. Goode," which itself was cut at Chess in 1958 and was a song Berry often said was based on Johnson to some degree. Of the song, Tommy says, "It has a really cool Johnnie Johnson kind of groove to it, and it’s one of those unfinished things I’d like to figure out some more, like maybe rewrite the melodies so it doesn’t even resemble 'Johnny B. Goode' at all." (Incidentally, Styx and Johnnie Johnson played “Hey Mr. Johnson” together at the Vic Theater in Chicago on August 3, 2004, about 8 months before the pianist passed away in April 2005.)

One Styx bandmember also had the good/interesting fortune of backing up Chuck Berry live: namely, bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips, who played with the man on August 12, 1989 at the Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan while he was still in Bad English, who were on tour there supporting Jeff Beck. "Chuck did his usual thing and showed up without a band," Ricky recalls, "and [legendary Japanese promoter] Mr. Udo asked if I would play bass for Chuck with Terry Bozzio on drums and Tony Hymas on keys. I said, 'No, these are our first shows as Bad English, and I want to focus on that.' But then [Bad English guitarist] Neal Schon said, 'Ricky, it’s Mr. Udo asking, and in Japan you can’t dishonor that request. You’ve gotta take one for the team.'”

There was only one condition, continues Ricky: "I said, 'If Chuck will come in the dressing room and go over changes to the songs, I’ll do it.' Chuck did, and we got on great. Where it went from there is freaking wild! What was my favorite song that we did together? 'Goin' Down.' It brought the house down! It was spectacular."

We'll leave the final word on Chuck Berry to co-founding bassist/vocalist Chuck Panozzo, who says he wholly agrees with the following assessment he saw posted on Facebook: "Chuck Berry was a true icon who created timeless songs and ushered in a uniquely American style."

So roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news: Chuck Berry has been called home, and he's ready to show you all how to lay down some good ol' rock and roll music, any ol' way you choose it.