How Chuck Berry Almost Ended My School Days
By Rod Moody
We lost a true giant of popular music over the weekend. Not many pop music artists could measure up to Chuck Berry - as performers and stylists, Sinatra and Elvis could match him, but unlike the two aforementioned titans, Chuck was a storyteller who actually wrote his own stories. And what stories they were! Stories of street races fueled by jealousy, a boy who could play a guitar like ringing a bell, a sound that makes the heart beat rhythm and the soul sing the blues, that girl in the tight dress and lipstick that all the cats wanted to dance with, the magic of dropping a coin into the slot and making the school day a distant memory. Chuck also invented the art of rock 'n' roll guitar, from the signature opening riffs of "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Maybelline," to the driving rhythm that defined the term itself. Rock and Roll.
I started to learn how to play guitar when I was about five years old. My older brother inspired me, and one of the first songs I attempted was "Johnny B. Goode." However, the version I knew was from my brother’s Johnny Winter live album, not the master’s original. Similarly, I learned the Beatles' versions of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock 'n' Roll Music" before I knew anything about the author of these classic songs. I was finally clued in a year or so later, and I began looking for Chuck Berry records on my weekly trips with my parents to the thrift shops. I managed to find quite a few beat-up Chess 45s on those excursions and proceeded to wear the grooves down playing them over and over again on my suitcase record player. I also picked up a copy of Chuck’s 1967 album Live At The Fillmore, which spotlighted his jazz influences on stellar instrumental tracks like “Rockin’ At The Fillmore” and Benny Goodman’s “Flying Home.” Of course, these songs were a whole new challenge for me as a guitarist, but I worked hard and eventually figured them out in my own sloppy way.
In 1972, Chuck released two singles from the album The London Chuck Berry Sessions. The first was a novelty song called “My Ding-A-Ling” and the other was a remake of his 1958 song “Reelin’ And Rockin.” Both were recorded live in England. I seem to remember that my grandmother gave me both singles for Christmas. “My Ding-A-Ling” was a funny little ditty to my eight-year-old ears, but “Reelin’ And Rockin’ was the song that caught my attention. At the time, I didn’t know that Chuck had recorded it first in the ‘50s, and I certainly had no idea that he wrote new - and somewhat naughty - lyrics for this updated version. I also didn’t really know what Chuck was singing about, but I did know it rocked way more than "My Ding-A-Ling." So "Reelin’ and Rockin’" is the song I learned.
By the time I was a fourth-grader, I had developed a minor reputation at Alki Elementary School for being a pretty good guitarist. My parents bought me an electric guitar and amp, and I would invite my school friends to come over and watch me show off. I can’t recall how things fell into place, but one day I was invited to play a concert at the school. The concert would be held in “The Blue Room,” an all-purpose room decked out in wall-to-wall dark blue carpet and light blue walls. My mom drove me and my equipment to school, and just before lunchtime, the kids all gathered in The Blue Room. I seem to recall starting with "Johnny B. Goode," then going into "Great Balls Of Fire" (both from the live Johnny Winter album). There may have been a third song before the grand finale…"Reelin’ and Rockin’"! I shouted out the lyrics with all the enthusiasm a fourth-grader with an electric guitar could muster:
Looked at my watch and it was quarter to one / She said come on baby let’s have us some fun!
Looked at my watch and it was quarter to four / She turned me around and made me do it some more!
Looked at my watch and it was quarter to eight / She made a little move that made me stretch out straight!
Looked at my watch and it was straight up twelve / Man we started diggin’ like an ol’ steam shovel!
And the biggie…
We did it in the kitchen, we did it in the hall, I got some on my finger and I wiped it on the wall!
Well, the kids went nuts, absolutely nuts…it was their first rock ’n’ roll concert! The teachers, well, that’s another story. In the words of a classmate: “that teacher’s face was redder than Rudolph’s nose, as he stood erect, looking like Benny Goodman on steroids.” The other teachers present looked at each other uncomfortably, as if to say, “what just happened here?” After the kids filed out to the lunchroom, the sixth grade teacher then took charge, taking me by the arm to the principal’s office. The teacher explained to the principal that I sang a dirty song at the concert. I responded that I didn’t know it was a dirty song. The principal called my mom, who said she didn’t know I was planning to play that song, and that she was sure I didn’t know what the lyrics were about. I got off the hook…just barely, but needless to say I was never invited for a repeat performance!
My classmates still speak of “The Blue Room Incident” to this day, some going as far to say they will take that memory to the grave. And that, my friends, is how Chuck Berry almost ended my School Days.