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Music

The novelty song that became Chuck Berry's only number one

@TylerGolsen

By 1972, Chuck Berry was firmly in legacy mode. As perhaps the man who single-handedly shaped the sound of rock and roll, Berry had a wild series of commercial highs and personal lows that caused his career to stop and start. Those notorious events, including arrests for violating the Mann Act and accusations of sexual assault, have complicated Berry’s legacy, but in the early ’70s there was a more immediate issue – Berry just wasn’t very good live.

Berry had long since abandoned his work with a full-time band and would simply hire whatever local talent he could find. Famously travelling with just a guitar on his person, Berry would insist on being paid in cash and didn’t care too much about who was backing him. Sometimes this would result in surprising crossovers, like when the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band became Berry’s temporary backing bands, but most times these were far from expert musicians.

Berry’s professional work had largely fallen off by this point as well. In the UK, Berry hadn’t had a charting single since 1965’s ‘Promised Land’ when he took the stage at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, England on February 3rd, 1972. This was a rare case of Berry lucking out with his backing band as future members of The Average White Band helped bring Berry’s rock and roll to life. After busting out a few of his classic late ’50s and early ’60s tracks, Berry played a new addition to his live show that would land him his first and only number one single.

‘My Ding-a-Ling’ was a novelty track originally written by Dave Bartholomew, the same songwriter who had written ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ with Fats Domino. The track was a sophomoric tale (Berry calls it a “fourth-grade number”) about a young man playing with silver bells that quickly devolves into silly double-entendres. Berry would get the audience to chant the chorus back at him, with the women in the crowd singing the first half and the men enthusiastically taking the second-half title phrase.

Berry’s live rendition was undoubtedly spirited, but it was also crass and far beneath his classic brand of souped-up rock and roll. Berry had first started performing the track back in 1967, but the enthusiastic crowd-dependent rendition from Lanchester Arts Festival was the version that gave Berry his only number one hit in both the US and the UK.

Fuelled by a campaign to get the song banned from the BBC by notorious prude Mary Whitehouse, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ became the dirty joke that just wouldn’t stop spreading. Once it was a certified hit, Berry continued to play the song at his live shows all the way up until 2014. But when assessments come through regarding Berry’s musical legacy, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ often appears as a regrettable fluke rather than a cornerstone of his greatness.

Watch Berry’s full rendition of ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ down below.