Nobody seems prepared to identify the one true father of rock’n’roll but, as the obits pointed out this week, there’s a strong likelihood that it was Chuck Berry. It certainly has his looks.
I don’t talk about this a lot but I actually played a key part in Chuck’s greatest success – and possibly his downfall. You see, the first record I ever bought was Chuck’s one and only Number One. No, not Maybellene. Not Roll Over Beethoven. Not Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, not any of the rock’n’roll classics that inspired The Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys et al. We’re talking about the 1972 novelty record My Ding-a-Ling.
I bought it as part of a three-way syndicate with my brother and sister, pooling our pocket money and thus helping to catapult the alleged father of rock’n’roll to the rightful chart-topping spot that had, for some reason, been denied him up to that point (possibly something to do with his frequent spells behind bars, for armed robbery, transporting minors across county lines and tax evasion).
To be fair, the lion’s share of the credit should probably go to the infamous guardian of the nation’s morals Mary Whitehouse, who tried to get the record banned on the BBC, thus ensuring that every liberal-minded person rushed out and bought it. Plus a large number of unliberal-minded campanologists, who thought that at last here was a song about bell-ringing.
It’s funny how the years concertina as you get older. To a six-year-old in 1972, Chuck Berry seemed like an old man. Today that would be like calling Atomic Kitten a bunch of old women. Or dismissing Steps as a long-forgotten blip with no lasting influence on cultural history.
What is remarkable, given his lifestyle, is that Chuck did live to be an old man, so much so that when news of his passing was announced this week, a lot of people responded, “I didn’t realise he was still alive.”
To which the flippant reply would have been, “He’s not.” But that would have been missing the point. For a wayward rock’n’roller, 90 is a damn good innings. Perhaps we should all forget the yoga and pilates and start doing the duck walk on a daily basis.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to come to, in a Southern Rail replacement bus service kind of way, is that Chuck is a funny thing to call a person, when you think of all the other meanings of the word.
‘To throw or hurl’ – an illegal bowling action in cricket; an involuntary projection of your burger from stomach to train window; the ending of a relationship.
In the 16th century ‘chuck’ meant to punch somebody under the chin. Not particularly endearing. As with most 16th century pasttimes, this has been moderated over the centuries into more of a playful touch, usually applied to babies and toddlers, but still annoying.
Then there’s the bit on the end of a drill that holds the bit… on the end of a drill. And there’s the cut of beef that’s usually chopped into lumps for stewing, both of which are believed to have evolved as a variation of the word chunk.
Still struggling to find anything you would want to be named after.
‘A North American marmot with a heavy body and short legs?’ No thanks. ‘Cowboy food?’ I’ll pass. Ah, but what’s this? ‘A term of endearment popular in the late 16th century, derived from the word chick?’ Now that’s more like it.
Shakespeare used it several times in his plays, most notably in an exchange between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,’ he says to her, in an effort to cocoon her from the dastardly deed he’s about to perform but sounding more Cilla than killer. Antony uses the same pet name for Cleopatra. Anyone would think they’d all been watching Blind Date.
None of which explains why Chuck became the short form of Charles. Lady Macbeth’s first name wasn’t Charles, as far as we know. Neither was Cleo’s, nor Antony’s for that matter, otherwise Shakespeare would have called the play Charles and Charles.
But just as there’s a trend for turning surnames into nicknames by adding ‘y’ to the end – Jonesy, Smithy, Rooney…y – our ancestors created nicknames by shortening first names with an abrupt ‘k’ or ‘ck’ – monosyllabic ‘k’ sounds being popular among speakers of germanic languages, especially when they were trying to wind up their Norman overlords. So we got Jack from John, Rick from Richard, Mick from Michael… and in later years Chuck from Charles.
I had a rummage through my singles collection to see if I still had that copy of My Ding-a-Ling. They’re fetching all of 99p on Ebay. It had gone.
Someone must have chucked it out.