I’ll leave it to others to write the definitive summary of Chuck Berry — one capturing both his massive cultural contribution and the quirks of his personality.
Instead, being a chart geek, I’ll pop my head in just to mention the interesting coincidence that Berry’s passing roughly coincides with the 44th anniversary of the end of his career as a hitmaker.
The unlikely Number One success of “My Ding-A-Ling” in the fall of 1972 is well-documented (as much as most of us would like to forget it).
What’s less remembered is that Chess Records capitalized on Berry’s return to the spotlight by putting out a follow-up single from the The London Chuck Berry Sessions LP — another live cut, this time a version of 1958’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’.”
The odds are pretty good that you haven’t heard it lately. I hadn’t heard it at all (to the best of my recollection) until I started listening to satellite radio replays of old American Top 40 countdowns.
There’s a reason the single hasn’t stood the test of time: It’s just not that good. Chuck sounds hammy and overexcited, and the basic formula of the song (the checking of the watch) wears thin pretty quickly.
The cut-down single version is work to listen to; the full album version, at seven-plus minutes, I’ve not checked out and don’t plan to.
American record buyers of 1973 seemed to like the song just fine, though. It was Berry’s final Top 40 hit, peaking at Number 27 early that year.
Curiously, its peak position was also its position in its final week. In other words, “Reelin’ and Rockin'” went from Number 27 for the week ending Feb. 17 to completely absent from the 40 for the week ending February 24. That’s far from the weirdest chart change the Seventies ever saw, but it’s a pretty steep fall nonetheless.
As with any hit single, there were stations that started playing it before it made the national chart, and stations that played it afterward.
In the invaluable ARSA online database of local radio airplay charts, the final survey listing “Reelin’ and Rockin'” comes from KDNT 1440 in Denton, Texas, which ranked the song No. 7 for the week of March 12, 1973.
Of course the ARSA database doesn’t have every survey from every station everywhere. It only has what people saved and scanned in. So, 44 years ago this week, you might still have encountered “Reelin’ and Rockin'” on a few stations here and there.
But for the most part, its time was up. And so was Berry’s — as a maker of hits, at least; of course the one-nighters went on (much, much) longer.
Berry’s resurgence in popularity would end in August of 1973, when he released a studio album, Bio, backed by members of the New York roots-hippie band Elephants Memory. Bio, which does not appear on any ARSA charts, was savaged by Robert Christgau, who gave the album a D-plus rating and compared Berry to the painfully past-his-prime Willie Mays. Mays at least ended up playing in the ’73 Series; Berry and Bio topped out at No. 175 on the album charts.
That was all in the unseeable future this week in March ’73, though.
So perhaps we will leave Chuck there, at a high-water mark he would never reach again, traveling with his guitar from town to town, probably demanding higher fees for his shows (cash in advance, of course) to reflect his simultaneous status as a founding father of rock n’ roll and an unlikely rejuvenated pop star.