CHUCK BERRY: THE 1st POET OF ROCK by Alan L. Chrisman
Chuck Berry has passed away at age 90. Berry, was arguably, the most influential rock and roll founder, both musically and lyrically. Berry could be called rock ‘n’ roll’s father. As John Lennon said when introducing him on the Mike Douglas TV Show in the 70’s ,” My hero, if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”. Before Bob Dylan and Lennon/McCartney, Berry, was perhaps its first rock poet. Dylan called Chuck Berry, “the Shakespeare of rock.” Berry would influence EVERYONE-The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Beach Boys, Springsteen, and most rockers to follow. Springsteen’s tribute,” Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
Elvis is called the King of Rock ’n ’Roll and was its most important 50’s popularizer, had a great interpretive voice and charisma , but he didn’t write his own songs. Other early 50’s founders, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly (from whom The Beatles would take their name and would set the standard for the future- guitars, bass, drums line-up), all wrote their own songs. But Berry wrote complete musical stories. And he played his own lead guitar (from which Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, would copy his style), before Hendrix would make the guitar and its solos forefront in rock bands. Richard and Lewis jumped on their pianos, and Berry would “duck walk “across the stage visually, before MTV and videos, and before Hendrix burned his guitar theatrically.
Berry had a string of hits in the mid- late 50’s, which perfectly captured a teenager’s life and preoccupations, girls, cars, music (“Sweet Little Sixteen”, “School Days”, “Rock ’n’ Roll Music”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Maybelline”, “Memphis, Tenn.”). Every young aspiring guitar player had to learn his “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry composed little vignettes, 2-3 minute poems set to music (check out the lyrics to his songs like, “Promised Land”, “You Never Can Tell ( C’est La Vie”).
Berry had grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in St. Louis, (half-way between The South and The North),so maybe that’s why, although black, he understood white middle-class kids, who were the main radio audience in those early days of rock ’n’ roll. His father was a contractor and a Baptist church deacon; his mother a school principal. Berry’s influences were mainly black musicians like guitarist, T-Bone Walker. But it wasn’t until he moved north to Chicago and recorded along with other black musicians that were there too, like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley at Chess Records, that he had his first hits. Like Elvis, it was in this combination of both black and white musical influences, blues, country, rock ’n’ roll, that he found his sound. Berry’s distinctive guitar riffs were also influenced by his long time piano player, Johnny Johnson’s, jazz and swing notes as well. It was this synthesis of styles that enabled him to appeal to a cross-section of listeners.
But by the early 60’s, along with most of the early founders, he and they were no longer as popular and, one by one, for sometimes racial reasons, they disappeared from the scene. Radio was taken over by the more watered-down mainly white pop performers (or “Bobby-Bobbys” as J. L. Lewis called them). Dylan: “I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendant, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ’n’ roll — who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.” Berry was accused of transporting a below-age waitress across state lines for sexual purposes under the Mann Act and was sentenced to 3 years in prison.
His career seemed almost over, but when he was released in late ’63, The Beatles Invasion was just starting to happen and he had been a big influence on many Liverpool groups and other British bands like the Stones. The Beatles were to record his “Rock and Roll Music” on their 2nd. album and the first Stones U.K. single was a cover of his “ Come On” and “Carol” was on their 1st American album. Ironically, it was foreign groups who re-focused attention on Berry and other American early 50’s rockers and he gained a whole new respect for his song writing and playing . One of the Beach Boys’ early hits, Surfin’ U.S.A., was actually Brian Wilson putting surf lyrics over Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” music. The Beatles and Stones would continue to be influenced by him in their own songs and performing. McCartney would partly pattern his “Back in The U.S.S. R.” after Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and Lennon would even “borrow” some words and melodies for Come Together from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” (which Lennon would later have to settle a lawsuit for with its publisher). Keith Richards organized a tribute concert/film for Berry called Hail Hail Rock and Roll in 1986 with Berry, Eric Clapton, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, and Etta James. Berry would over the years come to his shows with only his guitar (refusing to play, until payment was already deposited into his bank account), not even rehearsing with the local back-up band, or telling them what key he was playing . Richards, amusingly, tells the story how Berry hit him for daring to even touch his hero’s guitar. But I guess geniuses are allowed these little personal foibles.
I remember seeing him in the film, American Hot Wax, which told the story of Rock ’n’ Roll’s first DJ , Alan Freed, in which Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and other early rockers, recreated their original stage performances. It was shown along with Saturday Night Fever, which was the disco rage at the time in the early 70’s. American Hot Wax was shown first and while getting popcorn at break, I overheard these young John Travota fans marvelling at this guy “duck walking” across the stage. I thought that was interesting and it gave me hope for the timelessness of Berry and his music.
Berry is now recognized as one of the most important song writers and musical influencers in the whole history of rock. He was one of the first to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in at its opening in 1986. His “Johnny B. Goode” was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” in 2007.
Pop writer Chuck Klosterman has predicted that Berry will be remembered, even 300 years from now, as the perfect embodiment of rock music. In 1986, “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by NASA to be sent into outer space for its Voyager space probe. So maybe even other life forms will know Berry’s music one day. There was only one Chuck Berry, Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Below, from Keith Richards -organized Tribute 1986 concert/film for Chuck Berry with Julian Lennon, etc.
Below, from film, American Hot Wax, story of Rock ‘n’ Roll DJ. Alan Freed, Berry re-creating his “Reelin’ and Rockin’/ Roll Over Beethoven.”