And so we come to our alma mater. We must do our alma mater…
My Ding-a-Ling, by Chuck Berry (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 19th November – 17th December 1972
Come along one and all, for the touching tale of a young boy and his favourite childhood toy: When I was, A little bitty boy, My grandmother bought me a cute little toy… Silver bells, Hanging on a string, She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling…
In this live-est of live number ones, the audience sing approximately half of the song. The girls in the audience give us My… While the boys give us Ding-a-Ling! Girls: I want you to play with my… Boys: Ding-a-Ling! While Chuck croons his encouragement: Beautiful! I think it’s a beautiful little song, really I do…
Mum takes the boy to grammar school, but he stops off in the vestibule. (Find me, if you can, another #1 single that includes the word ‘vestibule’.) Every time that bell would ring, Catch me playing with my ding-a-ling-a-ling… Life brings along many trials and tribulations for the hero of the piece but first and foremost, no matter the danger, the lad looks after his prized possession. Climbing the garden wall, swimming across Turtle Creek… All the while holding onto his ding-a-ling. You can guess where every verse is going after the first line; but that’s the beauty of it. Like all lame jokes you can see it coming a mile off, bounding over the horizon like a big dumb dog.
And Chuck Berry’s enthusiasm for this silliest of silly songs really helps to sell it. The spoken asides – the two girls singing in harmony, the guy singing in rhyme (that’s alright, brother, you gotta right baby) – are the best bits. In an extended version that runs to well over eleven minutes, Berry can be heard briefing the audience on how to sing. It is complete end-of-the-pier, pantomime smut, with lines like: We’ll teach the boy’s first, cos they’ve only got one part… (You notice how the boy’s part starts rising right there?)… Now boys you gotta come in strong with your ding-a-lings… It’s a very funny listen – those aren’t even the dirtiest bits – if your sense of humour is as underdeveloped as mine… When it comes to the verse dedicated to those who will not sing, the glee in Berry’s voice as he changes the lyrics to Your ding-a-ling, Your ding-a-ling, We saw you playin’ with your ding-a-ling…! is unmistakeable.
I’ve been looking forward to writing about ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ ever since I started this blog. For a start, it’s Chuck Berry finally getting a #1 single. He, more than any other artist, is rock ‘n’ roll. He’d only had one (1!) Top 20 hit in the fifties – ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, which peaked at #16! In the sixties, when his influence on beat bands became evident, he started hitting the top 10 with discs like ‘No Particular Place to Go’. By 1972, though, he was a veteran; a legacy act. This had been recorded in February, at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, and was belatedly pushed as a single by a radio station in Boston.
The other reason I’d been looking forward to writing about this record? The controversy, of course. Radio stations refused to play it (duh). Not that there’s anything wrong with the lyrics on face-value, but the fun that Chuck and the audience are having singing along like drunks at closing time means that even the most innocent of minds can get in on the innuendo. Mary Whitehouse, last seen campaigning against Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’, claimed that whole classes of young boys across the nation were lowering their trousers, ‘singing the song and giving it the indecent interpretation… that is so obvious.’ Which, if they weren’t doing before Mary made this claim; they certainly were afterwards.
This tune had been around for a long time, since the 19th century in fact, in the form of the American folk number ‘Little Brown Jug’. It was first recorded as ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ by Dave Bartholomew in 1952, and if you thought Berry’s version was bawdy then you’re in for a treat with the original (sample lyric: When you’re young and on the go, Your ding-a-ling won’t ever get sore…)
There are a lot of people who think of it as sacrilege that this was Chuck Berry’s biggest hit. Which I understand, on one level. But, at least it’s fun. Compare and contrast with Eddie Cochran – another rock ‘n’ roller who, after genre-defining hits like ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’ reached #1 with the soppy ‘Three Steps to Heaven’. Plus, he was dead. Chuck Berry had decades of playing with his ding-a-ling to come after this (though, given some of the allegations made against him over the years that might not be the best way to phrase it). He died in 2017, aged ninety.
To conclude, then. This may be puerile, and silly. It may not be anywhere near as momentous a record as ‘Johnny B. Goode’, or ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, or ‘Maybelline’, or hundreds of Chuck Berry’s earlier hits. But I love it for what it is. Somehow, some way, ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ is every bit as rock ‘n’ roll as his classic hits.
Follow along with my #1s Blog playlist, here.