All due respect to Elvis Presley, we lost the true King of Rock and Roll this past Saturday, March 18th. Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known simply as Chuck Berry, graced this Earth for 90 years during which he helped create and refine Rock and Roll music by combining the best the blues, R&B, country, jazz, and swing had to offer and throwing in plenty of his own energy and electric guitar to boot. The primary influence to the first round of rock and rollers the world over, Chuck Berry was a force in the genre throughout his life, even completing another album that he announced the release of on his 90th birthday last October. This album, Chuck, will be released in the near future, but Berry’s already cemented legacy will live on forever as a rock pioneer, guitar god, and crowd pleasing entertainer. We’ll miss you, Chuck.
Berry attributed his success and the peak of the growth of rock and roll to greater radio playtime throughout the country reaching a wider audience. Indeed, Berry had a grand appeal to many whites which helped to connect black and white culture during a time of racial turmoil. He ushered in an era of vibrant new music that was infused with the essence of the genres that came before it and in doing so provided something that everyone of all walks of life could love. He especially found a following in America’s youth, who serve as the subject matter of many of his songs. Young Americans flocked to the fast-paced, guitar and piano-fueled mania of early rock, and Berry and his fellow first generation rock and rollers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Of course it was not just Americans who raved over Berry and his buds as every major act of the British Invasion was heavily influenced by them, with many scoring hits of covers of Berry’s songs. Ever heard of these guys?
It did not stop there either. The years went on, rock and roll evolved and incorporated new sounds and sensations, branching off into styles like psychedelia and birthing other genres like hip-hop, yet artists continued to aspire to follow Chuck Berry’s shining example of how to capture the essence of rock and roll. Just as every test pilot wanted to be Chuck Yeager, every girl and boy with a guitar wanted to be Chuck Berry. The greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, played some Berry tunes, most notably Berry’s best known hit “Johnny B. Goode”. AC/DC covered “School Days” and called for all of us to Hail Hail Rock and Roll in their own brutal powerchords. George Thorogood and the Destroyers did a rollicking rendition of “It Wasn’t Me”. Softer acts like Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt gave some of Berry’s songs a go, and ELO had a hit with their always inventive style worked into Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” featuring some of the eponymous composer’s own opus. Rod Stewart made his own version of “Memphis, Tennessee” with The Faces. Hell, even Motorhead paid their dues to the man and brought Berry into metal with “Let It Rock”.
Berry’s riffs may have been basic in composition, but the now familiar formula they follow make it so that his music serves as the building blocks of rock and roll music. Furthermore they are easily transferable to any style of music, as you can hear from any of the aforementioned covers (and any of those not mentioned). Nowhere is this better proven though than in the classic scene from Back to the Future (1985) that has been the source of many amusing musings on Berry’s life. Through an enthusiastic Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox (and Mark Campbell who is doing his singing, and Tim May with the guitar) show us the 30 year evolution of rock and roll in three minutes complete with a clever time travel related reference to the man who made all this music possible.
Honestly, he was doing everything Chuck Berry would have done up until he starting leaping and shredding like Eddie Van Halen, but hey, Chuck Berry’s indelible impression is found in that joyous noise from the 1980s too. Through his long and illustrious career, Chuck Berry made a name for himself not only as a great musician, but as a stage presence who demands to be seen as much as heard. He was natural at engaging an audience and entertained all with his humor, honesty, and signature duck walk – the oft copied, never duplicated solo strut that is synonymous with Berry. You can see it and his many other exploits on display in these clips from live performances over the years:
You know you are popular when everybody wants to play alongside of you. Over the years, many who grew up loving Berry were able to share the stage with him at one point or another. Keith Richards got that wish granted much to his excitement considering he has said that Chuck Berry made The Rolling Stones. He was the one who got to induct Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986. Chuck Berry was actually the first person to be inducted into the vaunted Rock Hall, and his legacy shows why. He shared the honor of being in the inaugural class with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, talent scout (and not dinosaur park owner) John Hammond, producer Sam Phillips, and disc jockey Alan Freed. That’s quite a class to be at the top of!
The Rock Hall wrote a great biography of Berry, including a clip of his induction which I encourage anyone who enjoys Keith Richards high to watch.
Beyond his influence on other artists, Berry had some scintillating songs that are essential for any rock and roll fan to hear. In addition to those already mentioned, be sure to check out these terrific tunes:
“Maybellene” – One of the first rock and roll songs, Berry’s first hit was a reworking of a song called “Ida Red”. Berry livened it up with music and lyrics that became the standard for other rock songs of the early rock era.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”
“I’m a Rocker”
“Woodpecker” – This instrumental piece takes an easier pace than most of Berry’s lightning striking introductions and riffs and remains one of his more jazzy and unique song.
“No Particular Place To Go” – I first heard this as a kid in a commercial for a Power Wheels car. You remember those toy cars that kids could drive? Those were the envy of every child’s eye when I was a wee lad, and I was fortunate enough to get one for Christmas one year… until the goddamn battery died and the electric system fizzled out and I was left with a oversized Hot Wheels car too heavy for child me to push out of the garage. Anyway, I grew to love this song which details an evening of teenage love that never really gets anywhere because the narrator cannot unbuckled his date’s seatbelt.
“School Days” – Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Nobody said that Chuck Berry was a widely varied artist, but when you invent the go-to licks for rock and roll, you can run through them as much as you need. I mentioned the AC/DC cover earlier, but this song bears repeating for its encapsulation of the musical zeitgeist of the days of early rock.
“Run, Run Rudolph” – One of the few songs that I look forward to hearing every Christmastime, this original seasonal song has stood the test of time as a classic in both rock and holiday music.
“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”
“Little Queenie” – If you’ve heard T. Rex’s hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” then you’ve heard a part of “Little Queenie”. The riff is taken from Berry’s song, as are the closing lyrics, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking….”
“You Can’t Catch Me” – I love The Beatles, but I do not love all of their songs. The most played of their that I just cannot get on board with is “Come Together”. You may feel differently, but no matter what you think of the song, it has some Chuck Berry influence. Like some of their other non-sequitur songs from the era, The Beatles drew upon many pop culture references to fill the cryptic lyrics, and “Come Together” has some of “You Can’t Catch Me” in it, namely old Flattop.
“Back in the U.S.A.” – The Beatles once again drew upon Chuck for inspiration when they twisted this song’s title to be a little more Russian. The lyrics of their superior “Back in the U.S.S.R.” are mostly a parody of The Beach Boys though. Then again, where did The Beach Boys get their soul-of-American-youth-summer-jams style from?
“Route 66” – Being a native of St. Louis, Missouri, Berry undoubtedly took a few trips down the legendary highway that runs from his hometown to Los Angeles, California.
“You Never Can Tell” – Who knew this would be a hit that would be covered by numerous artists and danced to so successfully by Uma Thurman and John Travolta? C’est la vie say the old folks….
“Reelin’ and Rockin” – This song makes for great rock and roll and the title makes for good fishing advice.
“Johnny B. Goode”– The song that is synonymous with Chuck Berry and early rock and roll. Covered by countless individuals, professional and amateur musicians alike, and brilliant featured as one of the most memorable movie moments ever, Berry’s song about a little country boy with a natural talent to play the guitar is one of the greatest songs ever made. Originally, the lyrics were going to be “little colored boy” but Berry changed them to avoid it being shunned by disc jockeys afraid of potentially poor or angry reception. the song is partly about Berry himself, but mostly based on his bandmate Johnnie Johnson, who gave Berry his big gig and eventually let Berry take charge of his band since he recognized the natural talent he had not just at playing and writing music, but at energizing the crowd.
This song also has the honored distinction to be the only rock and roll song on the Voyager Golden Record. The phonographic record included on both Voyager spacecraft features a selection of images and sound recordings, with music from around the world to showcase the varied cultures on Earth to whomever finds the records. Whether it be intelligent extraterrestrial life or humans in the far future, the recoverers of the Golden Record will be able to hear Chuck Berry’s best song. This opportunity almost did not happen though, as many on the selection panel that decided the Record’s content thought rock and roll was “adolescent”. Fortunately Carl “Sick Burn” Sagan pointed out “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” Damn Carl, that’s you tell ’em!
Chuck Berry left a lasting legacy of music, but his impact on others both musically and culturally, especially in helping incorporate harmony in the diverse youth of America, is what really raises him up to the level of icon. His death was not by any means sudden, and he certainly lived a full life, but he will still be missed by his many adoring fans. Thanks for the music and memories, Chuck Berry!
Thanks for reading and listening! Please send any questions, comments, and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. Rock and roll on back next week for what will hopefully not be another eulogy for one of my heroes.
Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!