Hello there! This week our blog features a rock ‘n roll song from the 50s, Carol. We will begin with the original version by Chuck Berry. Next, we will review a cover by The Rolling Stones, and finally a cover by Johnny Hallyday.
Chuck Berry and Carol:
Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry, was one of the most influential artists in rock ‘n roll. Chuck grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in St. Louis. He became interested in rhythm and blues, and both Chuck’s guitar-playing style and his flamboyant showmanship were inspired by blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.
Chuck began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. However, after a few years Chuck became the primary singer-songwriter and leader of this band. Below is a photo of a young Chuck Berry sporting a beret.Embed from Getty Images
At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was primarily interested in rhythm and blues.
The Chess Records studios had signed the greatest blues singers of the era, so were uninterested in Chuck Berry as a bluesman. However, they urged him to write a “country-rock” song, as the Johnnie Johnson Trio would use covers of country songs in their own playlist. So Chuck sat down and wrote the song Maybellene, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Over a ten-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Even though Chuck was a 30-year old black ex-con, his songs brilliantly conveyed to his primarily white, middle-class teen audience the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
Carol was written by Chuck Berry and released by Chess Records in 1958. The B side was “Hey Pedro.” The tune follows Chuck Berry’s hit-making formula, combining short but memorable guitar licks with a series of rapid-fire lyrics.
The song begins with the chorus that starts out “Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away.” Then each line of the corresponding verse is ended with a brief guitar riff.
[CHORUS] Oh carol, don’t let him steal your heart away
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day
Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin’ little joint where we can jump and shout
It’s not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma’am
Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed
Carol made it to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and to #9 on the R&B playlist. Although it was fairly influential at the time (there are about 25 covers of this song), and it influenced young artists like the Rolling Stones, its popularity has faded with time, relative to Chuck’s best-known rock tunes.
Here is live video of Chuck Berry performing Carol.
This was a 1972 performance in the BBC Studios. As we have mentioned previously, in order to save money Chuck frequently went out on tour by himself, and contracted with local authorities to provide him with a backup combo. He was known to show up at a concert, begin playing, and expect the musicians to follow his lead.
In the early days he would often end up with classical or jazz performers, who were quite likely accomplished musicians, but who knew nothing whatsoever about rock music. However by 1972, eight years into the British Invasion, Chuck got musicians who knew his songs and could play rock ‘n roll, as is the case here. You can see that the small riffs Chuck throws in during the verses are snippets of the iconic guitar solos that he recycled again and again throughout his career.
Chuck Berry was certainly one of the great seminal artists who created rock ‘n roll as it now exists. His contributions as a singer-songwriter and artist are quite extraordinary.
However, Chuck had to overcome a number of barriers on his way to success. He remained bitter about the small amount of money he received for his early records. The music industry in the early days routinely short-changed performers. So Chuck was not happy to see artists like The Beatles, who got their start playing covers of his own songs, become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.
Chuck also gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. We mentioned earlier that he would often go on the road without a band, and hire backup musicians at each stop. He also refused to play benefits or charities.
Chuck also got into trouble with the law on several occasions. In high school, he was sentenced to a youth reformatory for armed robbery. In 1962, he was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of sex) and served a year in jail – quite possibly a trumped-up charge against a black musician. Then in 1979, Chuck served five months in prison for tax evasion.
Chuck Berry died in March, 2017 at age 90 from cardiac arrest. At his funeral, his cherry-red guitar was bolted to the lid of his casket. Although he received very little money from his early recordings, he owned the songwriting credits for his later work, so he ended up with an estate worth $50 million.
Because of his importance in the history of rock music, Chuck Berry received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Hail, Hail Chuck Berry!
The Rolling Stones and Carol:
The Rolling Stones formed in the early 1960s as part of a British blues revival scene. They then switched from blues covers to rock and roll in about 1963. The photo below, of the Rolling Stones during an American tour in Oct. 1965, shows their most famous early lineup. Back, L to R: Brian Jones, Bill Wyman; front L to R: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards.Embed from Getty Images
A dramatic aspect of most rock music bands is the extraordinary turnover in their membership. In many cases, group members leave every couple of years. In contrast to this pattern, the Stones have been remarkably stable over the years.
Brian Jones was fired by the Stones in 1969, as he was incapacitated by drug use at the time. Jones was replaced by Mick Taylor but after considerable friction with Keith Richards, Taylor left in 1974 to pursue other interests. Guitarist Ron Wood subsequently replaced Taylor, and that lineup remained intact until bassist Bill Wyman left the group in 1993.
For several decades, the Rolling Stones have managed to live up to their reputation as one of the great rock and roll bands. Jagger and Richards have written an extraordinary number of rock songs. Although the Stones occasionally tinker with their hit-making formula – they return to their roots with a classic blues cover from time to time, and they issued a psychedelic album in the late 60s – for the most part they simply continue to rock and roll.
Before Jagger and Richards began writing original songs, the Stones covered songs by a number of artists. They released covers of blues artists like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. And they also produced a number of covers of ‘roots’ rock and rollers such as Chuck Berry.
Here are the Rolling Stones performing Carol on the Mike Douglas TV show in 1964.
Initially I thought the Stones were lip-synching the song, but now I believe that it’s live. Even this early in their career, Mick gives you his wonderful rock/blues vocals. And Keith Richards dutifully copies the guitar riffs he learned from Chuck, while Bill Wyman shows off his unique bass guitar style, with the top of his bass pointing almost straight upward.
Well, poor Brian Jones drowned in 1969, very shortly after the Stones dumped him. But get this – Ron Wood has now been a Rolling Stones guitarist for 46 years! What longevity for a group that seems to be still touring!
In the past few years Mick Jagger has had some serious heart problems. And it is a miracle that Keith Richards is still alive, despite decades of serious drug abuse. So we tip our hats to the Rolling Stones, who deserve their monicker as “World’s Best Rock ‘n Roll Band.” Rock on, dudes!
Johnny Hallyday and Carol:
French rock ‘n roll legend Johnny Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in June 1943. He had a rather rough childhood – his father skipped out a few months after he was born. His mother then landed a modeling career, but this left her with little time to take care of her son, so he was raised by an aunt.
The one silver lining in his youth was that he had an American cousin-in-law who performed as a musician under the stage name Lee Halliday. Not only did Lee function as a father figure to Jean-Philippe, but he introduced him to American pop music.
In the mid-50s, Smet was inspired by Elvis Presley. He formed a band and copied Elvis’ style, except that Smet sang rock ‘n roll in French. He took the stage name Johnny Hallyday, and rapidly became a big star in France.
For example, in their first-ever concert, the Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Hallyday. In 1961, Johnny’s cover of the Chubby Checker song Let’s Twist Again was #1 on virtually every European pop chart – except the U.K., where it did not appear.
In the late 60s, Johnny Hallyday began a sustained collaboration with Mick Jones of Foreigner. And in a subsequent album, the British band Small Faces wrote some of the songs and sang backup, while Jimmy Page (soon to become immortalized as the guitarist in Led Zeppelin) backed up on guitar.
So here is Johnny Hallyday in a live performance of Chuck Berry’s Carol.
This took place in 2000. Mr. Hallyday gives a quite good performance on vocals (albeit in French), and he has assembled a rocking band. His lead guitarist not only nails all of the patented Chuck Berry rock chords, but he even throws in a bit of Chuck’s duck-walk near the end of the song.
In deference to Hallyday’s reputation as a Living National Treasure in France, this concert took place at the Eiffel Tower. It is estimated that the crowd there totaled nearly a million people, while another 10 million watched on television. Another of Hallyday’s most memorable concerts was a performance at the Stade de France, celebrating France’s win in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in soccer.
During his lifetime, Johnny Hallyday appeared on the cover of 2,500 magazines and had 190 books dedicated to him. He was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1997, and also an Officer of the Order of the Crown from Belgium in 2001.
Johnny Hallyday died of lung cancer in December 2017. His funeral procession through the Champs Elysees was attended by 900,000 people, including French President Emmanuel Macron who also attended the funeral ceremony.
Although Johnny Hallyday sold over 100 million copies of 79 albums, sang over 1,100 songs, and was an idol in much of Europe, he was only slightly famous in the U.K. and was virtually unknown in the U.S. Hallyday was by far the biggest French rock star. This is not really that great an accolade, as for some reason the French were never all that good at rock ‘n roll. Perhaps it was something in the wine.
In France Johnny was frequently billed as “the French Elvis.” This was an apt comparison, as Hallyday’s reputation in France was quite similar to Presley’s in the U.S. Anyway, we salute Johnny Hallyday, the greatest rock star you never heard of.