The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Chuck Berry – “My Ding-A-Ling”

HIT #1: October 21, 1972

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

One week in the fall of 1972, two of the aging legends of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll held down the two top spots on the Billboard Hot 100. A 46-year-old Chuck Berry — the sly devil, the unsentimental mercenary, the genuine creep, the man with as good a claim on inventing rock ‘n’ roll as anyone who ever lived — was in the #1 spot with a godawful novelty song about his dick. In one of the all-time great trivial absurdities of chart history, that song happens to be the only #1 single of Berry’s career. “My Ding-A-Ling” was #1 for two weeks, and during the second of those weeks, Berry’s contemporaries kept him company.

That same week, the 37-year-old Elvis Presley was at #2 with the unapologetically hammy country-soul workout “Burning Love.” (It’s a 7.) And a few spots down at #7, 32-year-old Rick (formerly Ricky) Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band showed up with their twangy ramble “Garden Party” — which namechecked Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” a song that had peaked at #8 in the pre-Hot 100 days of 1958. (“Garden Party” would eventually climb up to #3, and it’s another 7.) That 1972 week was 14 years after Nelson had the trivial distinction of becoming the man with the first-ever #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. A lot had changed in those 14 years. Berry, Presley, and Nelson were in there with the Moody Blues, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, and Michael Jackson. And none of those three guys sounded the way they had in the ’50s. But it meant something that all three of them were in there.

I don’t know whether it started with that week in 1972, but the ’70s were absolutely lousy with ’50s nostalgia: American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease. You could even argue that the early-days version of punk rock was at least partially informed by a slightly less kitschy version of ’50s nostalgia. The music of the era was increasingly complex, and so was the world in general. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers had mostly missed the early rock ‘n’ roll days, or they’d experienced those days as little kids, so they hadn’t gotten the full effect. Maybe they were celebrating a past that was recent but also somehow distant.

But maybe I’m just making excuses for the record-buying public. Because that record-buying public bought a whole lot of copies of “My Ding-A-Ling,” and “My Ding-A-Ling” is fucking garbage.

Chuck Berry was a genuine innovator, and he was also a showman and a huckster. By the time of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion, Berry was already a grown man, one who’d spent years in prison for armed robbery and then worked for years on a car assembly line. He’d come up in St. Louis, fusing the twang of country music with the groove of blues and developing an electric-shock guitar-lead style that still sounds pretty amazing today. Berry made hits, and “Sweet Little Sixteen” got to #2 in 1957, but he never climbed to the top spot. And in 1959, Berry was arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, the kind of thing that makes “Sweet Little Sixteen” sound a whole lot less cute. Berry was in and out of prison for a few years after that, and the hits mostly dried up. (Berry did get to #10 with 1964’s “No Particular Place To Go.” It’s an 8.)

But while Berry wasn’t making hit records, he was doing just fine on the road. The stars of the ’60s all revered Berry. They talked him up in interviews and sometimes played shows with him. And all the kids who hadn’t gotten to see Berry when his style was new got their chance in the years that followed. Berry toured tirelessly, and he had a singular and mythic way of doing things.

Berry wouldn’t tour with a backing band. Instead, the local promoter would have to put a band together. Those musicians would have to learn all of Berry’s songs as best they could beforehand. Berry would pull up in a rented Cadillac with his guitar. Typically, he wouldn’t bring anyone with him. He’d get paid in cash up-front, and then he’d jump onstage. He wouldn’t rehearse or even soundcheck with the band. If he didn’t like the way one of the backing musicians was playing, he’d fire him mid-show. A lot of the time, the backup musicians wouldn’t even get to meet Berry; he’d leave as soon as he stepped offstage.

One night in February of 1972, Berry was in the UK town of Coventry to play the Lanchester Arts Festival. At that festival, he played alongside Pink Floyd, Billy Preston, Slade, and George Carlin — a weird, great bill. That night, Berry’s backing band was a good one. Guitarist Onnie McIntyre and drummer Robbie McIntosh would go on to form Scottish funk unit Average White Band later that year, and bassist Nic Potter was already playing in the cult-favorite prog group Van Der Graaf Generator. (Average White Band will show up in this column eventually. Van Der Graaf Generator will not.) Some of Berry’s set from that show ended up on his album The London Chuck Berry Sessions, and at the end of “Johnny B. Goode,” you can hear the promoter begging the crowd to leave because the Pink Floyd show’s supposed to start in 15 minutes.

One of the songs Berry played that night was “My Ding-A-Ling,” which Berry called “a fourth-grade ditty” when he was introducing it. He wasn’t kidding about that. (You can hear that on the album version of “My Ding-A-Ling,” which runs — I swear to fucking God — 11 excruciating minutes.) “My Ding-A-Ling” is, quite obviously, an extended dick joke of a song: “Mother took me to grammar school / But I stopped off in the vestibule / Every time that bell would ring / Catch me playing with my ding-a-ling.” It’s the stupidest fucking thing. Berry sings it like he’s getting away with something. And somehow, an edited live version of this song, from that festival in Coventry, became Berry’s sole #1 hit.

The New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew had written and recorded “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1952, and different versions of it had been going around since then. Berry himself had recorded a slightly-more-tasteful version called “My Tambourine” in 1968. But that night in Coventry, he went full ding-a-ling, getting the crowd to sing along as loudly as possible. He ad-libs like a game-show host or a vaudeville comedian, ad-libbing a whole new verse about how, if you’re not singing along, you’re playing with your own ding-a-ling. Real high-concept stuff.

On the record, Berry is clearly having a blast. In this Guardian piece, the writer Greg Freeman, who was there that night, claims that a baffled crowd was just humoring Berry, but it sounds to me like they’re having a great time, too. It’s not that hard to understand the appeal of joining in with a rock ‘n’ roll legend on a giant, silly singalong about dicks. The record, however, is a whole other thing. It is a fun vacuum, a dirty joke that goes on too long and wasn’t funny in the first place. Berry was always proud of “My Ding-A-Ling” and the money he made for recording it. But I can’t hear it without going into a deep, painful inward cringe.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from a 1991 Simpsons song where a kid tries to sing “My Ding-A-Ling” at a school talent show:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “My Ding-A-Ling” that Busta Rhymes’ old group Leaders Of The New School included on the 1991 album A Future Without A Past:

THE 10S: Hot Butter’s uncanny, monstrously catchy primitive-electronics instrumental “Popcorn” peaked at #9 behind “My Ding-A-Ling.” It’s a 10.

Tags: Chuck Berry