Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry: The Man Who Made Rock ‘n’ RollMarch 19, 2017
Historians may argue whether Chuck Berry literally invented rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s no question about a couple things: he was damn sure its father, and will forever be its poet laureate. Smack in the middle of the 1950s, years ahead of Bob Dylan, Berry injected an unprecedented literate sensibility into his loose-swinging, utterly irresistible tunes. Fueled by wit, those storytelling skills worked in cahoots with his raucous sound and visionary guitar style to help fashion the music’s template.
At its inception, rock ‘n’ roll was viewed as youth music, but Berry was in his 30s by the time he released genre-defining blockbusters like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Around and Around,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He may have been singing about the world of teenagers, but there was an obvious maturity to his approach. The concoction he brewed helped him maintain a youthful spirit — when he left us on March 18 at the age of 90, Berry was still active to a degree, with plans in the works for his first new studio album in 38 years.
Rock ‘n’ roll was what radio stations and record companies called it when white artists started playing R&B in the mid-’50s, but even though the rockabilly revolution Elvis Presley fomented in 1954 brought a country kick to those sounds, it was the author of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” who truly codified the music as a phenomenon unto itself. As John Lennon famously observed, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Though peers like Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard sported the bad boy image, Berry — who was several years their senior — had been there, done that, and come out the other side by the time he started making records. The St. Louis guitar man got three years in a reformatory for robbery while still in his teens, and subsequently went straight, getting a steady job, and marrying Themetta Suggs, who would remain his wife for the rest of his life.
So when he began pursuing a music career, he was a grown-ass man who’d been around the block. And for all his vaunted showmanship — shoutout to his always entertaining duckwalk — he had a thoughtful, even pensive nature that informed his trailblazing lyrical approach. Musically, he had his ear to the ground. The unique feel he forged in his performances came from an array of inspirations, including the 1940s R&B jump of Louis Jordan, the blues brilliance of T-Bone Walker, the intricate bebop of Charlie Christian and, crucially, the Western swing of Bob Wills.
Upon taking his tunes to Chicago, and being steered to Chess Records by Muddy Waters, Berry experienced the exact reverse of the famous cultural switcheroo scheme that led Sam Phillips to position Elvis as “a white boy who could sing like a black man.” Berry brought Leonard Chess a blues tune, “Wee Wee Hours,” and his own adaptation of “Ida Red,” a Wills-penned stomper he’d been playing live. Chess seized upon the idea of a black man singing “country,” and made “Maybellene” Berry’s first single in May of ’55. It all exploded from there, and the results were no less impactful than Presley’s legendary Sun sessions.
If the rise of rock ‘n’ roll marked the grand entrance of American youth culture, Chuck Berry wrote the script for it — literally. Not only did he help trigger the youth market as a social phenomenon by being the first to describe the lives of teens from their own point of view — despite the age difference — he did it in a way no one had previously. In an era when the majority of rock ‘n’ roll lyrics were blues-derived, Berry approached songwriting like a short story author. An unerring eye for detail and an easy sense of humor when rendering said specifics marked almost every line. In 1957’s “School Days,” he deftly narrates a teenager’s entire day from crawling out of bed in the morning to the travails of classes and teacher’s dirty looks to lunchtime cafeteria antics to the sweet release of rocking out at the local juke joint after the closing bell.
There was no precedent for the sharp wordplay and vivid imagery he employed, and it arrived with a deceptive degree of ease. In “Back in the USA,” Berry envisioned America as a wonderland “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” His pursuit of his “future wife” in “Nadine” finds him “walking toward a coffee-colored Cadillac” and “campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat.” In the terrific “Too Much Monkey Business,” the rhymes about life’s frustrations are the essence of pith: “Same thing/every day/getting’ up/goin’ to school/No need to be complainin’/my objection’s overruled,” and “pay phone, something wrong/dime gone/will mail/I oughta sue the operator for telling me a tale.“ The sophistication of the story he weaves into four short verses on “Memphis” would have been the envy of anyone from Mark Twain to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In his later days, Berry often presented himself as a cynic more interested in marketing and money than art, claiming he simply wrote whatever would sell the most records. But it seems just as likely that this was a defensive measure to insulate himself from the wearying up and downs of showbiz. No one who wrote with the mastery and electricity of Berry could truly be doing it dispassionately.
Berry’s guitar innovations are equally unparalleled. Chicago blues musicians backed him on the Chess sides, but the distance between the blues and the musical vocabulary Berry created is analogous to the gap separating Bill Monroe’s bluegrass ballad “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from the hopped-up version on the flip side of Elvis’s debut single. The signature riffs of milestones like “Johnny B. Goode” formed the basis of rock ‘n’ roll for generations to come. From The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, and beyond, rock as we know it today wouldn’t merely sound different without Berry’s influence — it might not even exist.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Below is a taste of Berry’s final album CHUCK, due on June 16.