The originator, the educator, the innovator, the calculator, the captivator, the vindicator, the demonstrator, the facilitator, the perpetrator and the motorvator. That was Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry is dead now and you’re probably gonna read a lot about him over the coming weeks. That’s kinda how these things work now. For a man who didn’t release a new album in the final 38 years of his life, who never even tried to update that iconic sound of his (why should he?), there’s about to be a new spotlight on sounds created sixty years ago… and a good thing too. What Chuck Berry achieved in the space of a few years (expanded out over about a decade for the full range of his peak, about 1955-64, say – with a prison term in the middle) was worth a lifetime of achievement. It was a lifetime of achievement. Chuck Berry captured something in those twangy strings and catchy rhythms that unleashed more than a half-century of rocking and a-rolling and we’ll never completely repay the favour.
Chuck’s music was trail blazing. There was nothing new about 12-bar blues but this was different. It was sped up and frantic yet somehow accessible to suburbia in a way that his label mates at Chess records weren’t. A Howlin’ Wolf tune sounds like the sum of his whole life’s experience whereas a Chuck Berry song was more… innocent? It’s weird to think of it like that when he was a 30 year old selling records to 15 year olds but then Chuck Berry was always a hustler. And a bit of a pervert, it was later revealed, but if you can’t separate the art from the artist then we’ll soon have nothing left. He was funny too, lest we forget that much else.
The guy sang about cars and girls and school and music and shone what Mick Jagger’s called a “strange light on the American Dream”. As a guitarist his distinctive finger-strolling intros are still a touchstone and he pretty much popularised the guitar hero fetish as we know it. His songs had solo breaks and a backbeat that you can’t lose. It all weaved together. Chuck was also a masterful lyricist, something that he probably gets the least amount of credit for, but those songs, man. It takes a brilliant mind to make a simple lyric sound so natural, as if it had never been written at all only captured on tape.
John Lennon: “Chuck is one of the all-time great poets, a rock poet you could call him. He was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to his lyrics.”
Some say he invented Rock and Roll, though you can’t really take history out of context. Chuck Berry was a progression just as Rocket 88 was a progression. Just as That’s Alright Mama was a progression. Just as Shake, Rattle & Roll was a progression. It’s true that there’d be no Beatles or Rolling Stones – at least not as we know them – without Chuck Berry but there probably wouldn’t have been a Chuck Berry without Louis Jordan or T-Bone Walker either.
And Chuck is hardly the only claimant to that title either, nor is it a competition. Elvis Presley merged white gospel with black blues, the music of his Tennessee upbringing. Ray Charles mixed black gospel, black jazz, white pop standards and white country together. Little Richard was a combination of black gospel and New Orleans rhythm. Jerry Lee Lewis was a down-home country white boy who could play piano with the intensity of a black southern preacher sermonising. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, they took black electric blues with a white rockabilly edge and sold it to white teenagers. It’s all about the melding of black and white at a time where racial segregation was still an everyday tragedy in American society. All of this was happening at the same time, transcendentally.
But the thing with pioneers is that they often get overshadowed by the people they inspire. The same thing happened when B.B. King died, there’s no excuse for those opening paragraphs like: ‘Chuck Berry, the early rock and roll musician who was a major influence on The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen…’ – No, please don’t. Nobody needs to leverage Chuck Berry’s value against anyone else, just ask John Lennon’s ghost what it thinks of that. Chuck Berry was Chuck Berry, enough said. He played guitar like he was ringing a bell. He told Beethoven to roll over. He was a brown-eyed handsome man. He might have had a cousin called Marvin and your kids are gonna love him.
And the duck walk? That was his bit too.
It’s hard to catch up with any consensus on what Chuck Berry did for popular music. ‘Influence’ is a bit of a tricky word, you know. Kinda depends on what you do with it, and while Chuck knew damn well that he was selling music to white kids, he probably wouldn’t have guessed just how white rock and roll would eventually become. Or how British.
Being such a big star, that probably wasn’t as drastic for him as it was for some of those blues dudes but Chuck still dealt with plenty of inherent racism in the music industry and in some ways it took white Londoners and Liverpudlians to legitimise him to a lot of white Americans. It’s almost impossible to imagine these days but back then, with the industry so dependent on radio play and television still a new phenomenon, most parents wouldn’t have even realised their kids were listening to a black man’s music.
There are even stories of venues paying him off on arrival when they realised they’d booked a coloured person to play. Or the DJ who blackmailed himself a writing credit on Maybellene in exchange for airplay (of course, Chuck wasn’t really the most entitled person to be complaining about song writing credits, to be fair). It was a different time, in a lot of different ways. Perhaps that’s what gives Chuck Berry’s tunes that enduring aura, what he wrote and played was a product of a complicated era. We can yearn for that simplistic Happy Days life but you don’t get the good without the bad and ugly too and the guy who wrote Johnny B. Goode was once arrested for breaking the Mann Act. Also he punched Keith Richards.
And yet the music is untouchable. There’s just something so perfect about those Chuck Berry records, there’s a purity to them. Not a moral purity (Chuck could be a dirty man indeed) but an aural purity. That piercing lead guitar and the foot-stomping beat, maybe a piano tinkling alongside (shout out to Johnnie Johnson) or a second guitar holding rhythm. Definitely a bass guitar braiding it all together. The originator, the innovator, the captivator, the motorvator. Maybe tonight his name will be in lights once again.