“If you give Rock n Roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon was quoted. Elvis Presley agreed. Berry who died today, announced on his 90th birthday that he was releasing his first LP in 38 years. Scheduled to hit retail stores in 2017, Berry dedicated the album to his wife of 68 years, Themette “Toddy” Berry.
Some called him “Mr. Rock and Roll.” Others deemed him the “Father of Rock n’ Roll.” A few camps tried to proclaim him as the true “King of Rock n’ Roll,” but Elvis Presley solidly undisputedly owns that crown. Was there any animosity or competition between Berry and Presley? Absolutely none according to those close to both music legends.
“Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest there was and the greatest there ever will be,” Berry said after Presley’s death in August 1977.
There may be speculation and article written in the next few weeks about Berry vs. Presley, but don’t pay attention to them. They both defended and respected the other over the years.
“Blacks didn’t have the airwaves Elvis had,” Berry said. “He delivered what he obtained beautifully. Elvis opened doors that had one been nailed tight. Our music was and is not about race and the color of our skin. It’s about soul, love, and destiny.”
One night in 1972, Elvis Presley who was headlining in the main theater, was walking through the Las Vegas Hilton with Sammy Davis Jr and Jerry Schilling.
“We heard a very familiar Chuck Berry intro,” Schilling said. “And Sammy and Elvis just looked at each other, and with a smile, we all just turned around without anything being said, and we headed for the lounge.”
The three were taken to a comfortable booth in the lounge up front to the stage where Berry was playing. The audience started to realize Presley and Davis were there and Berry noticed it enough to stop playing. “Hello Elvis. Long time ago,” noticed and waved to Presley. Presley waved back. Berry began playing “Memphis, Tennessee”.
Elvis appreciated it and began yelling out song requests for the songs he especially loved and recorded over the years. In 1956, during the earliest day of his career, Presley included Berry’s “Maybellene” into his live shows. A 1984 track of Presley singing the song live on the Louisiana Hayride (August 20, 1955) is on the LP, “Elvis: The First Live Recordings.”
The now famous “Million-Dollar Quartet” session recorded by Sam Phillip’s at Sun Records studio on December 4, 1956 has Presley singing “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”
One writer said this recording “underscored the merging of rhythm and blues ‘race’ music with mainstream rock ’n’ roll in the fifties, a progression that both Berry and Presley facilitated.”
Other Chuck Berry songs Elvis recorded include:
Elvis recorded “Memphis, Tennessee” at RCA’s Nashville studio on May 27, 1963, but rerecorded it again at the same studio on January 12, 1964. Biographer Peter Guralnick wrote that Presley’s version, “considerably more nuanced than Berry’s, with the rhythm never faltering as Elvis maintains a tone of underlying wistfulness and deep melancholy through six highly focused takes.”
Elvis had it intended the song to be a strong single for him, but Johnny Rivers released his version in front of Presley. When Rivers’ recording jumped to #2 on the Hot 100, Elvis backed off. Presley’s recording of “Memphis” was eventually released in 1965 on his “Elvis for Everyone” LP.
“Too Much Monkey Business”
The second Berry song recorded by Presley was on. It was “Too Much Monkey Business” with Presley spurred on by the guitar licks of Jerry Reed, of “Guitar Man” and “When Your Hot, Your Hot” fame. The song was released on “Elvis Sings Flaming Star” LP sold at Singer sewing machine stores in 1968 to promote the December NBC-TV special, now known as the “Comeback Special.”
“Johnny B. Goode”
One of the most widely recognized songs in Rock n’ Roll history, “Johnny B. Goode” has been encore song for thousands of concert acts over the decades. Presley loved the song. Berry said the idea for it came from appearing for the first time in New Orleans–“a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Water’s lyrics, ‘Going down in Louisiana, way down behind the sun.’ That inspiration, combined with little bits of Dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought slaves through, turned into the song ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”
Presley’s recorded versions were always from concerts and Vegas shows. It was introduced on his “In Person” live album from his initial appearance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in August 1969. It played over the opening credits to Presley’s 1972 Elvis on Tour documentary, and he sang it again in his Aloha From Hawaii TV special the following year.
“Promised Land” was the only Chuck Berry song released as a Presley single. Berry originally wrote it while he was jailed in federal prison in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He recalls that prison officials were reluctant to help with his latest songwriting project.
”I remember having extreme difficulty while writing ‘Promised Land’ in trying to secure a road atlas of the United States to verify the routing of the Po’ boy from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles. The penal institutions then were not so generous as to offer a map of any kind, for fear of providing the route for an escape.”
When some writers or commenters tried to pin a racist tag on Presley, Berry and other Black entertainers would defend him.
“Elvis didn’t steal any music from anyone,” B.B. King, who later performed at the Hilton Lounge per Presley’s request during another appearance, said. “He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, same is true for everyone. I think Elvis had integrity.”
If anyone says Elvis Presley was a racist,” charged B.B. King in the 2010 interview. “Then they don’t know a thing about Elvis Presley or music history.”
Enjoy this story? Subscribe (see sidebar on right) to Jack’s articles for free email notification when he publishes new posts like this one.
Do you have an Elvis Presley story you’d like to share? Contact Jack at email@example.com.