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Pure Cotton with a Berry on Top: The Legacies of Chuck Berry and James Cotton

By John Troutman

The full original article can be found on the Nation Museum of American History Blog: O Say Can You See?

Only a few days after the passing of James Cotton, one of the country's greatest blues harmonica players, we lost one of our greatest songwriters, Chuck Berry. They represent two of a small cadre of artists who in the 1950s electrified the country's musical imaginary.  

 

An album cover with a sundae in a glass bowl with strawberries on top, on a beige diner table in front of a red seat. Blue text announces the album title

The cover of this Chuck Berry is On Top LP is associated with one of nearly one hundred Chuck Berry records that the museum proudly maintains.

 

Their early lives were marked with struggle. Although born into a middle-class family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1926, Berry and his family were forced to endure the hardships of second-class citizenship in a highly segregated city. Berry eventually quit high school and as a teen got into legal trouble with friends, landing three years in a reformatory.

Cotton was born in 1935 into a sharecropping family in Tunica, Mississippi. By the time he was seven years old, Cotton was driving a tractor into the fields. In later years he would refer to those conditions as akin to those of what he called the "Old South," complete with overseers to coerce his family. "There was the boss; he'd tell the farmer what to do and he'd do it," Cotton said in a 2001 interview with the Austin Chronicle.

Both experienced hard times early in life, and both sought their salvation in music.

Through that quest, of course, they delivered to the world the revelation of their music. The museum's collections include several artifacts that document their long careers.

Berry's earliest recordings with Chicago's Chess Records betray his broad musical palette: he built "Maybellene," his first hit, upon the foundation of "Ida Red," a song recorded by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys that appeared years earlier on the hillbilly charts. The museum maintains a copy of this first single, as well as over 90 of Berry's other singles and albums.

Berry also thrilled at the joyful romp of Fats Domino's New Orleans piano, and the smooth vocal delivery of Charles Brown. As contemporaries who climbed multiple Billboard charts during the 1950s, Berry, Brown, and Domino joined dozens of other acts in "The Biggest Show of Stars for '57." The museum's collections include a program from this package tour, which visited nearly 80 cities in just about as many days on the road. Berry is prominently featured with his familiar coiffed hair and smile in the lower left quadrant of the program's vibrant cover.

 

The front of a program advertising the biggest show stars of '57. Ringing the title are pictures of people's heads or shots of a group.

The museum's collections include this program of a package tour that Berry starred in with dozens of other artists. It was sold during their massive 1957 tour of the United States.

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