Ed note: A few weeks ago J.A. Bartlett wrote about this song at Popdose.com as one of the World’s Worst Songs. It inspired me to listen, think and give my opinion as well.
40 years ago Chuck Berry had his only #1 pop hit, when My Ding-A-Ling hit the peak for 2 weeks. I’ve read lots of stories and have been part of many discussions with musicologists who say this song ruined his career and how shameful it is that this is his biggest hit and what he’ll always be known for. I definitely take issue with that. If say name a Chuck Berry song, I bet most people say Johnny B. Goode or Maybelline or Roll Over Beethoven before they mention My Ding-A-Ling. Chuck’s legend wasn’t made or destroyed by that song. It’s just an odd footnote in a rock & roll pioneer’s career.
My Ding-A-Ling had a history before Chuck even recorded his own material. It was written in and recorded in 1952 by Dave Bartholomew, but he also recorded it with a different title, Little Girl Sing Ding-A-Ling. It was also recorded under the title Toy Bell by The Bees and the first recording by Chuck happened in 1968 with the title My Tambourine. 20 years after it was first recorded, Chuck performed and recorded it at the Lanchester Arts Festival in England to an overly enthusiastic crowd and released on side 2 of the London Chuck Berry Sessions. It probably would’ve stayed there were it not for Boston DJ, Jim Connors.
Jim had a reputation for discovering artists and songs, receiving 13 Gold records, such as How Do You Do by Mouth & MacNeal and Wayne Newton’s Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast. (Hold on, folks…put your guns down) and was the inspiration for Harry Chapin’s W*O*L*D. OK, now you see what we’re dealing with here….
According to Jim, he found this song and pushed it hard because Chuck Berry had been a childhood idol of his. I’m sure he wanted some success for Chuck, who had been off the charts and out of the Top 40 since 1964’s You Never Can Tell. Why Jim decided to honor his idol with a childish dick joke is beyond me. This one should have been left right where it was. He could’ve pushed Reelin & Rockin instead, which ended up making the Top late that year after Ding-A-Ling. Stranger still was promoting a song which was a staggering 11 1/2 minute song. I’m ready to pull my hair out after 45 seconds of this. 11 & 1/2 minutes is a death sentence. Still Chuck was having a bit of fun, because that’s the type of humor he has. He probably never dreamed nor had the intention of release this a single and having it be popular.
That being said, he did commit it to wax. Now we all know the lyrics are like a dirty Nursery Rhyme that kids could tee-hee-hee too. I too sang this on a bus with my friends after hearing it on a Dr Demento show when I was 9…nuff said. Chuck had considerably changed the arrangement and lyrics from Bartholomew’s original version. But even the bizarrely enthusiastic almost military screaming call-and-response from a crowd that probably barely knew this song was not the strangest thing about the record. The funniest, perhaps, but not the strangest. Nor was it Chuck’s tonal hum before every verse like his was singing gospel hymns in a St Louis church. It was the 4 minute build up and countless Chuck adlibs between the verses which fascinated me. He sounds partly like a deranged midnight preacher and part Velvet Jones. And he must do his ‘alma mah-tur’. I mean, how in the hell does he consider this his alma mater? Does he even know what that means? I also love ‘here comes that jerk again’. Let your mind wander.
There are some positives that came about from this song’s success. The legendary Chess Records label finally had a number one song in their history. Unfortunately they were folded into another label soon after and disappeared completely by 1975. And while this statistically was Chuck’s biggest, he did hit #2 with Sweet Little Sixteen, eventually racking up 6 Top 10’s between 1955 & 1964. That’s a pretty good tally for a Black artist crossing over back then. Little Richard only managed 4. So it’s not like Chuck didn’t have any success and then all of a sudden broke through with sophomoric novelty hit, or a fourth-grade ditty, as Chuck testifies.
This hit #1 in England and in Canada, but some stations, at they’re wont to do, refused to play this song, even while broadcasting the American Top 40, including recent re-broadcasts. The song is 60 years old and we’re still a bunch of prudes.
Is the silly? Yes. Is the song dumb? Yes. Is it a disgrace to Chuck Berry’s career? I don’t think so. But ask the man himself, who not only likes the song, but finally got some pay from it, after years of getting screwed by the record industry. If you have the stomach or morbid curiosity, listen to the whole album version. It’s beautiful, beautiful…mmmmmmmmm….
Quick aside: two members of the Average White Band play on this track. They would have their own #1, 3 years later with Pick Up The Pieces.