Roll over, Chuck Berry

The songs are 40 years old, their echoes already fading from our collective memory; they are rarely listened to anymore, needles hardly ever running through their grooves. But the music created in 1955 at places like Sun Records or at Chess Records still rings with as much power, as much passion, as much recklessness as it did 40 years ago. They are songs that define an era, but they are not defined by an era. It's music so timeless that it is likely to influence every rock and roll band till the sun stops burning in the sky.

To listen to the introductory guitar chords of "Maybelline," the pounding piano of "Great Balls of Fire," or the yowling A WOP BOP ALU BOP A WOP BAM BOOM of "Tutti Frutti" is not to stroll through a museum where exhibits are to be admired from afar but not touched; it's to be as exhilarated as audiences were when these songs first screamed from the jukebox or from the radio, when first performed in front of crowds of frenzied teenage kids who latched on to a music that would empower them like never before.

And most of the men who created those songs are still alive, some still playing. But they are like waxworks now, bitter at having been forced to sign over royalties to producers and record label owners and disc jockeys quick to take advantage of men who didn't understand the business of music; they tour the oldies circuits, they've grown fat on the riches of Las Vegas, they've become self-parodies. They have run out of songs, given up on the music they created, forgotten how to be good. And they have aged disgracefully, selling their souls to the Internal Revenue Service (maybe even the devil himself) and spending their time in jail for screwing teenage girls.

It is the great irony of rock and roll that the very people who created the music--who gave rock its shape and voice, who fashioned it out of so many disparate parts till it coalesced into an unstoppable force that divided and conquered the world--have becomes its most disposable and discarded figures. "Legend" is often just another term for "washed-up"; "innovator" is now synonymous with "inconsequential."

Those men who created rock and roll and somehow managed to escape alive--greats like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins--are so rarely discussed anymore; they are entries in history books, subjects of documentaries, sources of inspiration and influence. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, who will release a new album on May 9 (Young Blood), none of these men have recorded in more than a decade--the reasons for which are usually unknown, perhaps something to do with the fact they have nothing left to say. They are relics, old men. And old men do not rock and roll.

Berry will be 70 years old in October 1996; he barely tours anymore, though throughout much of the 1980s he could be found on some small stage somewhere, duckwalking his way through the old favorites like "Maybelline," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock and Roll Music," and so forth--the venerable bluesman one step removed from the oldies circuit. His is perhaps the most extensive, influential catalog in all of rock and roll--he has been covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Stones to the Jam to the Replacements to you name it; before Pete Townshend, before Paul Westerberg, before Eddie Vedder or Kurt Cobain, Berry was there to provide the sound track to adolescence for a generation or a dozen, wringing the poetic from the mundane, as Dave Marsh once wrote.

He didn't score his first million-seller till 1973 with "My Ding-a-Ling"--an silly ditty about his dick--and with the exception of the greatest-hits-live sound track to 1987's Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, the Taylor Hackford-directed documentary-celebration of Berry's life with Keith Richards acting as guide, Berry hasn't released an album since 1979's Rockit. He has become a bitter man, angry at all those years of exploitation by a record industry that took his millions and gave him only the scraps.

Richard Penniman--that's Little Richard, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rock and Roll to Elvis' King--boasts just as impressive a legacy as Berry's: "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Lucille," "Keep A-Knockin'," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," and on and on. But Richard gave up rock and roll's sin in 1958 for the salvation of Bible school, devoting his body and soul to Jesus. Though he recorded a handful of albums in the 1970s (all long out-of-print) that proved he never really abandoned the secular world for the spiritual one--Richard was no Al Green--Penniman has become over the past 15 years a novelty act, a freak show to be dragged out as comedy relief or when some lesser-known seeks instant credibility.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky