October 31st, 2015

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One of my first guitar heroes in rock and roll was Chuck Berry. I remember when I first heard his song “Maybellene” on the radio. His guitar work knocked me out. I actually went to one of my guitar teachers and asked him to show me how to play the guitar like Chuck. He played the record and looked at me and said, “I have no idea what he is doing”. That was my first lesson in Rock and Roll guitar. If you wanted to learn how to play this new music, you had to spend the time listening to records and learning it yourself. Most guitar teachers of the day could teach you how to sight read music and play standards but had no experience with Rock and Roll. I would also go see my guitar playing friends in bands who had learned Rock and Roll songs and riffs from records. We would share what we had learned with each other.
Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Chuck Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School. I gave one of my first performances at Mackenzie high school in Detroit. I sang and played my version of “Blue Suede Shoes”. The kids started clapping and getting a little loud so a teacher pulled the plug on my amp in the middle of my performance. I guess academia was not ready for this new music.

By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of blues player T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio.
I was playing at the Twenty Grand night club in Detroit backing up Edwin Starr and was fortunate to see T-Bone Walker was also appearing there. I was really impressed. He was a great blues guitarist and showman!

Chuck got his break when he traveled to Chicago in May 1955, and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Leonard Chess recorded “Maybellene”—Berry’s adaptation of the country song “Ida Red”—which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart. I used to see Chuck perform on the Ed Mackenzie show in Detroit. Seeing him play “Johnny Be Goode” and do his famous duck walk was something to see. His influence on many guitarists here and overseas helped to promote and define Rock and Roll.

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Dennis Coffey