Chuck Berry has died — and so has rock ’n’ roll
The musical genius changed the face of American music
Contrary to popular belief, Chuck Berry, who died yesterday at age 90 at his Missouri home, did not single-handedly invent rock ‘n’ roll. But of all the musicians who helped create the now iconic sound of rock, Berry drafted the most attractive and enduring blueprint.
Born in “sharply segregated” St. Louis as Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926, he made his first appearance on the record charts in 1955 with his country-tinged, self-penned R&B hit, “Maybellene.” At the time, the United States was largely a world of adults and children. The word “teenager” was relatively new to the American lexicon, so new that there were almost no products created expressly for adolescents.
Enter Berry, who detected the trend toward small rock combos, and composed a spate of original songs that perfectly captured the experience of growing up in postwar America. Writing poetic lyrics that glorified the mating rituals of the American juvenile, Berry cast a spotlight on the tremendous potential for Boomer-targeted entertainment. In the process, he cast himself as the quintessential rebel — slim with tousled hair, duck-walking with his guitar as deftly as an Old West gunslinger might wield his derringer.
He was a triple-threat — singer, songwriter and guitarist. Berry wasn’t the world’s best vocalist, but his wickedly humorous voice was ideally suited for rock, possessing just the right amount of gravitas to be credible. A guitar innovator, he created a technique that employed rapid-fire chord fragments to create chugging, locomotive rhythms. With its engine-revving guitar intro and churning chords, Berry’s 1958 hit, “Johnny B. Goode,” scurried along with the fury of a hell-bent train. It was a guitar sound so distinctive, critics began throwing around the phrase “three-chord rock” to describe songs with Berry-esque guitar patterns.
His image and sound were so profound, it changed the lives of countless kids both in America and Europe. “He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers,” Mick Jagger said on Twitter yesterday. Bruce Springsteen was unequivocal in his praise, tweeting, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” The Roots drummer Questlove paraphrased the Bible: “Thou Shall Have No Other Rock Gods Before Him #ChuckBerry rip.”
Yet for all his influence, Berry’s brand of raw-boned R&B was largely snubbed by black audiences, who by the 1960s were engaging the more elegant sounds of Motown. And it didn’t help that Berry’s career stalled after he was convicted in 1960 for corrupting a minor, a charge he denied, a charge that was vacated due to the racism of the judge. He was convicted again on retrial, and spent 20 months in federal prison. By the account of rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, Berry was never quite the same.
But the singer’s turbocharged R&B sound was embraced and appropriated by a wide range of classic rock acts, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and many more. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the institution’s inaugural year. Rolling Stone ranked Berry No. 5 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists, and No. 7 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented him with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, and original Berry tunes such as “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” are consecrated in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He earned a Kennedy Center Honor in 2000, and was hailed as a laureate by Europe’s Polar Music Prize. Berry may not have generated a lot of money past his 1950s heyday, but his early records are powerful enough to earn him eternal glory.
Had he simply been a guitar genius, Berry still would have gone down in history. But he was also that rarity of rarities — a performing musical artist who composed his own songs back when most vocalists relied on professional tunesmiths for hit material. The rock balladeer Roy Orbison called Berry “the first singer-songwriter I know of.” In 2016, after Bob Dylan became the first Nobel laureate of the classic rock era, Esquire wrote, “with all due respect … Chuck Berry is the true poet laureate of rock and roll.”
Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music,
Any old way you choose it,
It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music,
If you want to dance with me …
Berry’s understanding of the teen psyche is further reflected on the 1957 hit, “School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” where he captured the tedium of school and the catharsis felt when the recess bell sounds:
“Soon as 3 o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get outta your seat
Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and ’round the bend
Right to the juke joint, you go in … ”
But while Berry made his living portraying the world’s worst case of arrested development, he wasn’t completely apolitical. On his 1956 track “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” he laments the historical plight of minority women and their persecuted husbands and lovers.
Way back in history, three-thousand years
Back ever since the world began
There’s been a whole lot of good women shedding tears
For a brown-eyed handsome man …
Asked about his songwriting inspiration in 1971, Berry was philosophical. “It’s my love of poetry,” he told Guitar Player. “A lyric is poetry with melody — a message with a melody. And phrasing is all mathematics. If it’s eight beats and two bars, then you can sing 18 syllables. It’s always best to sing 15 though, so you can grab a breath now and then … ”
Dozens of artists have “paid homage” to Berry, sometimes at a cost. The Beach Boys’ 1963 classic “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was inspired by Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” while the Beatles’ hallucinogenic 1969 “Come Together” actually borrows lyrics from Berry’s 1956 single, “You Can’t Catch Me.” Lawsuits were brought, and both artists settled with Berry’s attorneys. Other classic songs that owe a melodic and/or lyrical debt to Berry include Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the Eagles “Already Gone,” Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver,” and a veritable ton of others. There’s a hardly a classic rock artist who isn’t obliged to Berry.
The poignancy of his death should not be lost on anyone. For all intents and purposes, the musical genre Berry helped create has passed too, replaced on the record charts by the largely guitar-free sounds of rap and electronica. But those who lived through rock’s heyday take solace in the hope that future generations might study Berry’s music as intently as music historians today study Mozart and Ellington. To quote the just-deceased master himself: “Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!”