Sometimes one person’s death brings memories flooding back of a whole era. If you came of age musically in the fifties or sixties, it was if Chuck Berry’s songs held up a mirror in which you saw your generation reflected and given mythic stature. Particularly if you were British, the insouciant swagger of his lyrics, the guitar just like a ringing bell, cruisin’ in your car and playin’ the radio, the lure of the juke joint after the school bell has rung, the cats who want to dance with sweet little sixteen – all of it sounded highly desirable and pretty mythic.
Same thing every day – gettin’ up, goin’ to school.
No need for me to complain – my objection’s overruled, ahh!
John Lennon got it right: ‘If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.’
Remembering Chuck Berry today, David Remnick writes in the New Yorker:
Berry, who died Saturday, at the age of ninety, was a proud and difficult man. He was also a genius. As a player, as a songwriter, and as a performer, he was a master of invention, transforming the rolling rhythms of Louis Jordan and the guitar figures of T-Bone Walker into the rhythmic foundation of half the rock songs you’ve ever heard.
Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers. Quite simply, without him there would be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad others.
Genius lyricist? Try this from ‘Too Much Business’: ‘Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail/I oughta sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale.’
Back then, many of us first heard Berry’s songs via the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: John Lennon’s powerhouse vocal on ‘Rock and Roll Music’, or Mick Jagger wailing ‘ooooh Carol!’ Or, perhaps, via the Beach Boys’ transliterations of Berry riffs into surfing anthems.
As Billboard observes in its appreciation today, Berry wasn’t the inventor of rock and roll:
True, he was its most important early architect, but by the time his debut single ‘Maybellene’ was unleashed into the world in 1955, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and Bill Haley & the Comets already had iconic hit singles on the Billboard charts. Elvis Presley’s rocked-up version of the blues song ‘That’s All Right’ dropped in 1954, and ‘Rocket 88′ – an Ike Turner-helmed recording some historians hail as the first true rock n’ roll release – actually came out in 1951, years before the rock revolution started in earnest.
So why, if rock was already on the charts, is Chuck Berry most commonly cited as the single most important figure in rock music’s creation? Simply put, unlike Domino, Presley, Haley or even the immensely influential Diddley, Chuck Berry helped codify what rock music would become. The St. Louis auteur contributed three things to rock music that no one else did: (1) An irresistible swagger, (2) a focus on the guitar riff as the primary melodic element and (3) an emphasis on songwriting as storytelling.
It was Chuck Berry’s idol Muddy Waters who encouraged him to approach Chess Records. Listening to Berry’s homemade demo tape, Leonard Chess professed a liking for a hillbilly tune on it named ‘Ida Red’ and quickly scheduled a session for 21 May 1955, during which the title was changed to ‘Maybellene’.
As I was motorvatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
Although the record was only a minor hit on the American pop chart, its influence would be massive. Part of the secret to its originality was Berry’s blazing guitar solo in the middle break, the imaginative rhyme schemes in the lyrics, and the sheer thump of the record. Here he is performing it live in 1958:
I’m not going to reprise Berry’s entire career here – there are numerous obituaries and appreciations out there already (the finest, by far, being Michael Gray’s for the Guardian – if you read nothing else, read this), while Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll is a good place to go to hear the man tell the story of his life and watch him perform his greatest numbers on stage with the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James and Johnnie Johnson.
Here, I’d just like to add a short playlist of some Berry numbers, less often played and reflecting his roots in the blues, that are among my own favourites.
‘Havana Moon’ was the blueprint for ‘Louie Louie’ by Richard Berry.
This is the bluesy ‘Wee Wee Hours’ filmed for German TV in 1972. A false start is followed by the complete song.
‘Deep Feeling’ is a pedal steel instrumental first issued on the b-side of ‘School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell)’ in 1957.
‘Blue Feeling’ is another great instrumental which was found on the flip side of ‘Rock and Roll Music’ in 1956.
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line
- Chuck Berry obituary: ‘A lively, perfect fit of street-talk to music‘(Michael Gray, Guardian)
- Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs (Rolling Stone)
- Why Chuck Berry Is Even Greater Than You Think (Peter Guralnick, Rolling Stone)
- Chuck Berry: the rock’n’roller who wrote the soundtrack for teen rebellion(Richard Williams, Guardian)
- Chuck Berry Was the Sound of 20th Century America (Pitchfork)
- Chuck Berry: from enduring Jim Crow to a comeback album at age 90 (Guardian, October 2016)