As you probably heard by now, Chuck Berry passed away this weekend on Saturday, March 18th, 2017. He was born in St. Louis, MO, and lived in a suburb just west of St. Louis for many years.
I remember being in 3rd or 4th grade singing, “My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling, won’t you play with my Ding-a-ling-a-ling.”
My mom said something like, “Doug, that’s not an appropriate song for a kid to sing.”
“Why not?” I said. “It’s just about a bell on a string.”
“No it’s not,” she said. “It’s about a man’s ding-dong.”
I remember from that day on knowing that the song was a double-entendre and that I couldn’t sing it as freely as I used to, especially around adults.
Flash forward 30 to 35 years and the news of his passing. The first thing I did was put on his Ding-a-Ling video where he’s singing somewhere in Europe. What the YouTube video doesn’t show is that Mr. Berry just showed up to the show minutes before going on stage, which he was known to do. The host and producers were nervous he wasn’t going to make it.
I think his thought was, You don’t pay me to be here early, you pay me to perform at a certain time. I got here on time, I played, and now I’m done, give me my money—in cash, and I’ll be on my way.
So I’m watching him on YouTube with my daughter as he’s getting ready to play the Ding-a-Ling song and he’s calling out the key of the music to the band. He introduces the song and says something like, “This is an innocent song made for kids in about the 4th grade. They have an innocent minds. It’s us adults that ruin everything…”
Meanwhile, he’s flipping off the camera as he’s talking about how “You guys are number one, you’re number one…” someone yells from the crowd and Chuck says, “Oh come on people, I have to hold my guitar pick with these two fingers, this is the only one I have left. See that’s what I’m talking about with the whole innocent thing…”
Berry then goes into the lyric about how, “When I was a little bitty boy, my grandmother bought me a cute little toy, silver bells hangin’ on a string, she told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling…” and then the whole crowd started chanting it back at him.
My seven-year-old daughter asked, “Why are all those people singing back about a toy?”
I said, “You think it’s about a toy?”
She said, “Yeah, that’s what he said.”
Being who I am, I just couldn’t let it go at that. I didn’t even think about how my mom ruined the song, or I should say, tuned me into what the song meant. So I said, “Well Jaya, some people call a man’s penis a ‘Ding-a-ling’”.
“What? A penis?! Oh my gosh!” Then she started laughing uncontrollably as the verse had come around again and all the adults were chanting, “My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling, won’t you play with my ding-a-ling-a-ling!”
Seeing Chuck Berry play live was on my bucket list. He played once a month at a bar in the Delmar Loop area in St. Louis called Blueberry Hill. Tickets were only $20, but you had to pick them up at the box office and they sold out the same day they went on sale.
My ex-wife got us tickets for either our anniversary or my birthday, about seven or eight years ago. I was pumped to see him. I remember him coming out in his white Captain’s sailor hat and a long-sleeved button-up shirt. His beautiful daughter, who’s a hell of a harmonica player, was with him, as well as his full band. He said a brief introduction and then slid into his classic Johnny B. Goode guitar lick and it was on! The crowd was pumped and was dancing, big smiles all around as he finished that song and went right into Roll Over Beethoven.
A couple more songs into the set, his daughter grabbed the mic that Chuck had just finished singing into and did a mean harmonica solo. She was up there jamming on the harp and movin’ and groovin’ her feet and then Chuck started singing right into the empty mic stand.
His daughter ran back across the stage and held the mic up to his mouth until he was done with the verse and then put it back in the mic stand. Everyone kind of laughed, including Chuck and his band.
Chuck laughed it off and played around on the guitar for a minute and then hit a couple of licks and went right into Roll Over Beethoven again. Everyone in the crowd looked at each other a little confused. The drummer and the bass guitarist just smiled and shook their heads, but they went along with it and kept playing.
When they were done Chuck turned and said something to the bassists. The bass player said something back…probably to the effect of, “You played that one twice…”
Chuck started laughing hard and came back to the mic and said, “Sorry about that ladies and gentlemen, I guess I just really like that one.”
At the time this concert happened, I was in a Master’s degree program for creative writing. I thought I was going to be the next Mark Twain or David Sedaris as far as essayists went, so I wrote an essay of the night and laid on every detail of how Chuck had messed up. (There was a couple of other singing into an open-mic /harmonica situation.)
I presented the essay to my writing group a few days later and immediately got crucified.
“You can’t write this about Chuck Berry. He’s been a legend for over 50 years,” one person said.
“He’s done more for rock-n-roll than almost any one person who’s ever lived! Elvis practically stole his style and presented it as his own. If it wasn’t for Chuck Berry, who knows what we’d be listening to these days,” another said
I decided not to publish the essay after listening to the critique. I had mentioned in the original essay that he was still doing the duck walk across the stage. He also did the move, which I called the Galloping Guitar where he keeps one leg straight out and bounces across the stage with the other leg, and it kind of looks like he’s riding his guitar like a horse. Chuck also jumped up and did the splits almost to the ground and pulled himself up just using his core muscles while holding his guitar—and oh yeah, I forgot to mention, HE WAS IN HIS EARLY 80s!
Looking back on it, I’m glad I didn’t publish the original essay. Chuck Berry, even in his 80s, was a better dancer and guitar player than I will ever be and I’ve played the guitar for over 20 years.
Yes, a lot of his songs introductions sound the same. (Listen here if you want.) But it’s easy to criticize someone else’s art, talent, and skill. These days it’s hard to even get started in your art because people have instant access through social media and there are plenty of people out there who will tell you how much you suck.
(Of course, the flip side to that is, people, put out their stuff before they should these days.) In Chuck’s case, he was doing music before (and longer than) most of us have been alive.
Some of the articles you will read if you search them out will talk about his run-ins with tax evasion. Or he had a camera in the women’s bathroom at his club. These stories are true and if you want to find out more about that feel free to look them up somewhere else.
My thoughts and memories about Chuck Berry aren’t about all of that. I love walking down the Delmar Loop and seeing his name on the star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame right in front of Blueberry Hill, the same place where I saw him years ago. I love seeing his statue right across the street from Blueberry Hill holding that Gibson guitar and in a pose that you can tell is just 100%, Chuck Berry.
I also love knowing that the circle of life has spun around once again with me, my mom, and my daughter with the Ding-a-ling song. And I like the fact that part of this essay has gotten to see the light of day again, even if it took Mr. Berry passing away to reevaluate the piece, knock some dirt off it and then rework and recycle parts of it.
Chuck Berry influenced me in many ways and I hope my daughter will be able to say the same thing later in her life. One thing I know for sure is the next time she and I walk into Blueberry Hill together, I’m going to make sure that I point out the big fat Gibson that’s sitting in the display case next to the front door and I’m going to say to her, “You see this guitar? This guitar was Chuck Berry’s. You know, the guy who sang the ‘Ding-a-ling song”?
And I hope in 20 or 30 years from now she will be able to do the same thing with her kids.
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