The Polar Music Prize 2014 is awarded to Chuck Berry from St. Louis, USA. The parameters of rock music were set one day in May 1955, when Chuck Berry recorded his debut single “Maybellene”. Chuck Berry was the rock’n’roll pioneer who turned the electric guitar into the main instrument of rock music. Every riff and solo played by rock guitarists over the last 60 years contains DNA that can be traced right back to Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and a million other groups began to learn their craft by playing Chuck Berry songs. Chuck Berry is also a superb songwriter. In the course of three minutes he conjures up an image of the everyday life and dreams of a teenager, often with the focus on cars. Chuck Berry, born in 1926, was the first to drive up onto the highway and announce that we are born to run.
Chuck Berry had many influences on his life that would shape his musical style. It all started with the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing heavier blues songs inspired by Muddy Waters. He developed a love for poetry and hard blues early on. For his first stage performance at the Sumner High School in St Louis, where the blues was well-liked but not considered appropriate for such an event, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” He got a thunderous applause for his daring choice, and from then on, his only wish was to be on stage.
The Hillbilly blues
After this first successful stage performance, Berry took up the guitar and found out that if he learned rhythm changes and blues chords, he could play most of the popular songs at the time. He also founded his particular sign of recognition, his showmanlike presence on stage, which quickly made him a name. The Sir John Trio, led by pianist Johnnie Johnson, played regularly at the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St Louis and needed a stand-in on New Year’s Eve 1953. Young Chuck joined the band and started to develop his unique style to be more riff based with a hillbilly style, a genre often associated with a white audience at the time. Thanks to the different influences, no one, black or white, in the audience could resist Berry’s show and style, and he played more and more for mixed audiences, which in the US of the 50s must have been quite unique.
In 1955, Chuck Berry went to Chicago and a club where his idol, Muddy Waters, was performing. He arrived late and only heard the last song, but when it was over he got the attention of Waters and asked him who to see about making a record. Waters replied, “Yeah, Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage.” Berry went there discovered it was a blues label where greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley recorded. He didn’t have any tapes to show, but Chess was willing to listen if he brought some back from St. Louis…
…so Berry went home and recorded some originals, including a song called “Ida May” that would later on become “Maybellene.” He drove back to Chicago to audition and much to Berry’s surprise, it was that hillbilly number that caught Chess’ attention. Berry was signed to Chess Records and in the summer of 1955, “Maybellene” reached #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B Charts. Through Chuck Berry, Chess Records moved from the R&B genre into the mainstream and Berry himself was on his way to stardom.
History in the Making
Berry continued his success with such hits as “Brown-Eyed Man”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Memphis”, “Roll Over, Beethoven!” and “Johnny B. Goode,” his masterpiece that brings together all Berry’s musical elements, a combo that makes him unique. It cemented his place in rock history and led to fame in the 1950s. His popularity garnered him television and movie appearances and he toured frequently. Berry’s incredible success is due to his ability to articulate the concerns and attitudes of his audience in his music.
From St Louis to Great Britain
Rock and roll
British teenagers discovered Berry’s music in the early 60s and turned his older songs into hits all over again. America discovered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the same time, both of whom based their music on Berry’s style, with the Stones’ early albums looking like a Berry song list. Chuck Berry’s music then saw a great double revival worldwide and he came back with a bunch of hits; “Nadine”, “No Particular Place to Go”, “You Never Can Tell”. He toured Britain in triumph, and released St Louis to Liverpool, an album with a title reminder of the British success.
From here to eternity
In the beginning of the 70s, Chuck Berry’s music and show included more slow blues and less rock n roll. He scored his first gold record with “My Ding a Ling” in the early 70s. He toured a lot on stages, on radio stations or in TV-studios, playing with bands he had strongly influenced. Among the featured performances were Polar Music Prize Laureate Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller, both at the beginning of their careers. Springsteen related in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry did not give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after the guitar intros. 1986 fittingly saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the very first inductee in history.
Stockholm August 2014
On August 26, Peter Sellars and Chuck Berry received the Polar Music Prize at the ceremony in the magnificent Stockholm Concert Hall.
Unfortunately, Chuck Berry couldn’t attend the ceremony due to illness but fellow guitarist Dave Edmunds received the prize for Berry. Edmunds was also interviewed by Jan Gradvall at the Polar Music Talks the previous day, together with panel discussions and debates about music and creativity.
The banquet at Grand Hotel in Stockholm also offered some wonderful musical moments, with Swedish songwriter and singer Sarah Dawn Finer hosting the evening. Among the performances were Dave Edmunds together with Nisse Hellberg.