If there could be a giant “Mount Rushmore-like” mountain featuring rock guitarists, these four heads should arguably be on it: Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, and Bo Diddley.
The largest of the head sculptures belongs to Chuck Berry. Like the man himself, his rock likeness would be rough around the edges, as Chuck was known to elicit comments like those made by Taylor Hackford, who directed Berry’s concert film, Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll!:
“We all came to Berry Park (Chuck’s home) expecting to celebrate this incredible genius. What we found was a very conflicted genius who gave us a lot of trouble. The scorpion stung us with his stinger.”
Yes, Chuck’s venomous words were often directed towards those that loved him and his art. But some of the seeds of his discontent were justified; like when he discovered that on his first hit, 1955’s “Maybelline,” two composers’ names besides Chuck’s appeared on its Chess record label who didn’t write a word: DJ Alan Freed and Russ Fratto, the owner of a nearby print shop. Chess settled a bill with Russ by giving him a slice of Chuck’s publishing pie.
But as John Lennon succinctly noted: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
Chuck made teens want to sing and write their own songs, but Scotty Moore made future rockers want to play guitar. As Keith Richards stated:
“All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like the way Scotty Moore did. Everyone wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.” In his autobiography, Life, Keith was still flummoxed by Moore’s playing on “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone:”
“I think it’s in E major. He has a rundown when it hits the five chord, the B down to the A down to the E, which is like a yodeling sort of thing, which I’ve never been quite able to figure. Every time I see him, it’s ‘Learnt that lick yet?’”
Thanks to Scotty, the musical birth of the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” occurred when the guitarist improvised some licks after seeing Elvis “jumping around and acting the fool” as he sang what would become his first hit, “That’s All Right Mama.” The sight and sound of Elvis went on to stun the world and the ensuing album Elvis Presley (whose cover’s layout was copied by The Clash for their London Calling LP) became the first rock “long-player” to make it to the top of the charts in 1956.
Unlike Elvis, the unassuming Scotty didn’t reap many financial awards and let his guitar do the talking, as the title of his solo record, The Guitar That Changed the World duly noted.
If Scotty changed the world, then Cliff Gallup wanted to fall off of it. Cliff played in Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps for only 35 recorded tracks; including “Be Bop a Lula.” Married and despising touring, he quit the group and worked as the Director of Maintenance and Transportation for the Chesapeake, Virginia school system for over thirty years. Even after Cliff died at the age of 58, his wife didn’t want his brief time as a rock ‘n’ roller advertised; as his obituary didn’t acknowledge that he played on some of the most raucous R&R records ever.
But his fretwork didn’t go unnoticed by budding guitarists, which included Jimmy Page:
“I just kept getting records and learning that way. It was the obvious influences at the beginning. Scotty Moore, James Burton, and Cliff Gallup.”
Jeff Beck also had the same mind-blow experience and acknowledged:
“When I was learning guitar, Cliff Gallup was the biggest influence on my playing.”
As sonic proof, Beck cut Crazy Legs, a tribute album to the Blue Caps….as opposed to the Stray Cats who sound like a Blue Caps tribute band.
The last figure on “Mount Rockmore” is the beyond-great Bo Diddley; whose surreal lyrics could “out-Dylan” Dylan:
“I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
I use a cobra snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide.”
His punchy, rhythmic playing on 1955’s “Bo Diddley” has been copied and incorporated into hundreds of songs. The endless list includes Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” The Who’s “Magic Bus,” Springsteen’s “She’s the One” etc. etc. etc.
But while rich rockers got richer, Bo, an ex-boxer who almost knocked out the stiff Ed Sullivan for calling him “a black boy” (“They pulled me away from him because I was ready to fall on the dude!”), got rightfully peeved.
“I opened the door for a lot of people and they just ran through and left me holding the knob. Recognition without finance is a nuisance. Don’t give me a bunch of gold records, which I got, but there was supposed to have been some dollars along with ‘em.”
Here’s hoping these guitarists’ music and influence will outlast all mountains–and that there’ll be a Go Fund Me page to commence four rock carvings on a “Mount Rockmore.”
-Public domain image of Chuck Berry in 1958