Hail, hail, Chuck Berry. One of the pioneers of rock & roll, who turns 90 today, will release Chuck, his first new album in 38 years. The Dualtone LP, recorded in studios around his hometown of St. Louis, will consist mainly of new original songs, with Berry dedicating the upcoming record, due in 2017, to his “beloved Toddy,” Themetta Berry, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old!” he said in a statement. “I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
Berry’s rock & roll shoes have figuratively and literally traveled millions of miles over the last seven decades. He has authored classic rockers (with the same Shakespearean quality as Hank Williams did in country music) from “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” to “Maybellene” and “School Days.” His songs have been covered by hundreds of artists in every genre, including country music.
Conway Twitty covered Berry’s songs consistently, both during his early rock & roll days and as one of country music’s biggest-selling acts. Twitty cut “Johnny B. Goode,” “30 Days,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Maybellene,” among others.
As a true crossover artist, Twitty’s affinity for Berry’s material was understandable, while other acts who gravitated toward Berry were perhaps more surprising. In early 1977, Emmylou Harris scored a Top Ten country hit with Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” sometimes billed as “C’est La Vie (You Never Can Tell),” a tune the rock icon wrote in 1960 while serving time in prison on a Mann Act violation. The song has subsequently been covered by John Prine, Bruce Springsteen and others, and in 2005 was included on Chely Wright’s The Metropolitan Hotel LP, released, coincidentally, on the Dualtone label.
Waylon Jennings also paid homage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member with his own version of a Berry song. In 1970, the outlaw-country singer was still four years away from his first Number One record, but had neared the top of the charts with such hits as “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” Early in the year, he released his take on Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” a 1956 hit for its writer and a posthumous hit, in 1963, for Buddy Holly – for whom Jennings famously played bass on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party Tour in 1959.
Jennings’ version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” would reach Number Three on the country chart aided, no doubt, by this delightfully psychedelic performance of the tune on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970. Jennings’ band, the Waylors, included his recent bride, Jessi Colter, on keyboards, and Jimmy Byrd, who plays the double-neck guitar seen in the above clip. (Unfortunately, that guitar was eventually lost in a fire.) The performance captured here is a prime example not only of Jennings’ equal footing in rock & roll and country music, but of Chuck Berry’s immense influence on both genres, an influence that has only stretched and strengthened in the ensuing decades.