The UK hitmaker whose career began before The Beatles and still continues at age 80, was always one hit away from worldwide fame. As it was, Berry became a star in Europe after covering a song by a young Ray Davies, “This Strange Effect.” He was influenced by Chuck Berry (from whom he took the name “Berry”) and, in turn, influenced everyone from filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) to Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols, who covered the B-side of a Berry single (“Don’t Gimme No Lip, Child”).
Dave Berry is best known for being the first artist to record ‘The Crying Game’: a song that has the rare distinction of having been a hit in the ‘60s and in the ‘90s. But Berry’s career is much more than that song. His period of hit singles was relatively brief, from 1963 to 1966, but his records encompassed a broad range of collaborators and styles – and now, at nearly 80 years old, he still performs live shows. His lengthy and varied career truly deserves greater appreciation.
Like many British musicians of his generation, Dave Grundy grew up entranced by the sounds of American blues and R&B. He started playing live music as one-half of an acoustic duo, but in 1960 he formed a band, the Cruisers, and renamed himself Dave Berry in honor of one of his favorite artists, Chuck Berry. Berry and the Cruisers played at clubs and dances around their native Sheffield, on a circuit whose regular performers also included the young Joe Cocker. They soon became notable not only because of the stunningly versatile lead guitar of Frank White (uncle to one of Sheffield’s later star musicians, Richard Hawley), but also because of Berry’s unique performance style.
Inspired by Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, and by “presentation, theatre, and images of rock stars”, Berry always appeared on stage dressed entirely in black.
Then, in 1962, the Cruisers played a residency at the Top Ten Club on the notorious Reeperbahn in Hamburg. While working there, Berry became fascinated by how the German strippers “would hide behind the collars of their dresses and tease the audience”, and decided that he too “wanted to be hidden”.
When the band returned to playing in the UK, Berry would often start singing from behind theater curtains or sets, while seated in the audience, or even standing outside on the street. When he took the stage, in the words of journalist John Pidgeon, “his favourite prop was the hand mike, which he invariably held upside-down, thus obscuring most of his face with his fist, while his other hand traced strange shapes in the air”. Unusually for that time, the Cruisers also employed their own lighting man, and Berry worked closely with him to create a suitably dramatic atmosphere at each of the band’s shows. The cumulative effect of this theatricality was an enigmatic persona so intense that when Berry performed on television, some frightened young viewers would hide behind their couches.
Dave Berry performing a song by his namesake Chuck, “Little Queenie”:
Decca Records A&R men Mike Smith and Mickie Most saw potential in Berry and the Cruisers, and signed them to the label. Smith produced their first single in 1963, “Memphis, Tennessee,” which scraped into the Top 20 in the UK; however, its rise up the charts was thwarted by a re-release of the other Mr. Berry’s original version.
“Memphis” was the only hit that featured Berry with the Cruisers; Berry’s subsequent records were made with studio musicians, although the Cruisers continued as his live band. After “Memphis”, Berry released two more cover versions that made the Top 40 – “My Baby Left Me” and “Baby It’s You” – but he really came into his own with 1964’s “The Crying Game”.
That song was written by Geoff Stephens, who in addition to being a songwriter had co-produced Donovan’s debut album that same year. The melancholy mood of “The Crying Game” and its dramatic arrangement were a perfect match for Berry’s mournful voice. Berry told an audience in 2016, “At first I wasn’t really too bothered about the song; it was against all my rock and roll and rhythm & blues and rockabilly roots. My session crew at the time was Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan and John Paul Jones, in the Decca studios in West Hampstead. They heard this song and they said, ‘a really good song, Dave, is a good song whether it’s a country song, a jazz song, a blues song, whatever. A good pop song, this is’. So they talked to me about it and I recorded it.”
The cumulative effect of this theatricality was an enigmatic persona so intense that when Berry performed on television, some frightened young viewers would hide behind their couches.
Sullivan was one of the first guitarists in the UK to own a wah-wah pedal, which he used to great effect on the record.
The success of “The Crying Game” led to Berry becoming a popular live act and touring the UK, the US, and Europe. A second Stephens composition, “One Heart Between Two”, was the less successful follow-up single, but in 1965 Berry scored two major hits: a cover of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Little Things” and the Ray Davies-written “This Strange Effect”.
Goldsboro seemed somewhat unsure about Berry’s version of his song, telling an interviewer, “I honestly think that the backing track on my record was better. I dunno, maybe his was more right for the English market”. But “This Strange Effect”, with its meandering off-kilter melody, was ideal for a performer who one journalist facetiously described as likely to be “lurking in a dark street with a cylinder marked ‘bomb’ under his arm”. Upon being told that Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham thought “This Strange Effect” was boring, Davies retorted, “Well, I think Andrew Oldham is boring”.
“This Strange Effect” was positively received by listeners not named Oldham, and as a result Berry was invited to participate in the 1965 Knokke Song Festival in Belgium. This festival differed somewhat from other European music contests; as well as being a team event, it was a competition of “vocal recitation”, with the adjudication based on the quality of the performance. Although Team Great Britain finished third out of six entries, Berry’s rendition of “This Strange Effect” won him the “press prize”, and his performance on the festival’s televised Grand Gala was so unlike that of any European pop star that he was an instant sensation.
As a result, “This Strange Effect” became one of the top-selling singles ever in Belgium and Holland, and there were near-riots at Berry’s public appearances.
Ironically, that success marked the peak of Berry’s commercial fortunes. He had previously turned down Graham Gouldman’s “For Your Love”, but his version of Gouldman’s “I’m Gonna Take You There” failed to find an audience. The decidedly MOR “Mama”, in 1966, was his last chart hit, but his recordings between then and the end of his Decca contract in 1970 show a remarkable versatility. Among the standouts are the plaintive “And I Have Learned to Dream”, by “Paterson” (a pseudonym for future Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter); “Huma-Lama”, a catchy collaboration with former members of freakbeat band Wimple Winch, who were billed as “The Sponge”; and “Chaplin House”, a dreamy wistful gem by future 10cc members Kevin Godley and Lol Crème.
“And I Have Learned to Dream,” written by Ian Hunter (as Ian Paterson):
In the late 1960s Berry briefly adapted his image to the dominant trends in the musical landscape, dumping the all-black ensembles for paisley-pattern tunics and even sporting a somewhat sinister beard for a while. But he gradually returned to being the mysterious figure in black, and built a steady career of live gigs at festivals and nightclubs. A re-release of “The Crying Game” in 1975 promoted a memorable TV performance on the UK show Supersonic, and, as he had done throughout his career, Berry maintained his interest in following whatever musical acts were on the charts; in one interview he mentioned ABC and Spandau Ballet as favorite acts because of their elaborate visual presentations.
The next stage of Berry’s career saw him receive some much overdue recognition from some rather unexpected sources. When punk hit the UK in a big way near the end of the 1970s, Adam Ant and Siouxsie Sioux both cited Berry as an influence on their young musical selves. Then in 1979 the Sex Pistols covered “Don’t Gimme No Lip, Child”, which had been the B-side of the original single of “The Crying Game”.
Berry recalled one show around that time with “some very odd-looking characters” at the front of the stage; as it turned out, they were Pistols fans who wanted “to see the man whose songs [the Pistols] were covering”. Adam Ant invited Berry to open several London shows – he was thrilled when the audience gave him the “punk seal of approval” by spitting at him – and the Monochrome Set regularly performed a cover of “Little Things”. In 1985, Berry appeared with the Human League at a benefit concert in their shared hometown of Sheffield.
When punk hit the UK in a big way near the end of the 1970s, Adam Ant and Siouxsie Sioux both cited Berry as an influence on their young musical selves. Then in 1979 the Sex Pistols covered “Don’t Gimme No Lip, Child”, which had been the B-side of the original single of “The Crying Game”.
Berry then returned to touring the UK and Europe, but in 1992, his music came back into wider attention with the release of Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game. Berry’s song was one of Jordan’s favorite songs as a teenager, which led to Jordan using both the song and its title for the film. “The Crying Game” and its themes of loss and disillusionment fit the film’s exploration of shifting identities shaped by violence, nationality, gender, and race. A new version of “The Crying Game” by Boy George, produced by the Pet Shop Boys, was recorded for the film’s soundtrack – which also included Berry’s version – and became a worldwide hit.
Berry’s last album was released in 2003, but he continues to perform in the UK and in Europe, along with running an antiques business. He recently told a reporter, “It might surprise some people when I say that the last 10 years or so have been some of the most exciting in my career. I’ve worked very hard to stay where I am, and when I’m invited to do things, I’m really happy and grateful for it.” And thankfully, along with YouTube clips chronicling the many phases of his career, many of his recordings are still available to be appreciated. For listeners who want to hear more of this underappreciated artist work, the most comprehensive collections of Berry’s work are BGO’s single-CD release of his first two albums, Dave Berry and One Dozen Berrys, and the two RPM compilations This Strange Effect: The Decca Sessions 1963-1966 and Picture Me Gone: The Decca Sessions 1966-1974. There are also several “Best Of” CDs on various labels that serve as a good introduction to the high points of Berry’s recording career.