John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” The Beatle knew. So did Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones. Richards introduced himself to Mick Jagger at a train station in 1960 only after he noticed Jagger was carrying under his arm, on his way to school, Berry’s album Rockin’ at the Hops.
It was a sign of Chuck Berry’s universal appeal that he directly influenced the playing and songwriting of the two most iconic acts in rock history, both British. Chuck Berry’s guitar riffs, were sublime; the joy that he, a black man, conveyed in his lyrics was infectious. Leonard Cohen, a careful wordsmith, would say that, after Chuck Berry, all rock lyrics were mere footnotes to his talent. Indeed, his humor, unusual for the times, and applied to all manner of topics, including car trysts and civil right issues, arguably took the genre out of the closet. He engaged teenagers, although he was older, and surely made rock more acceptable with their parents.
Musically, Berry singlehandedly recreated electric guitar playing and established it as the central instrument in rock and roll. With the help of pianist/songwriter Johnny Johnson, he scored countless top hits for his Chess Records label, and created some of the best known songs in rock, including ‘Maybellene’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ (on which the Beach Boys modeled ‘Surfin ‘USA’, for which they were sued).
Here was an artist that could be emulated on stage with a small combo – even without his famous duck walk. It should be remembered that before Chuck Berry, rock and roll was only a sub genre of R&B, bearing the influences of jump blues, boogie-woogie, and swing. Berry’s explosive 1955 hit single ‘Maybellene’ changed all that and instantly made guitar-driven rock the norm. That was the starting point that would lead to the Beatles, The Stones, and the Beach Boys, and many other later groups formed as quartets of lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and drums.
‘Maybellene’ was unusual for the times, a hybrid that also seemed to mesh racial divides. The song is a reworking of ‘Ida Red’ by the western white swing group Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys. It displays a distinctly country feel, with a vocal delivery that could be described as a cross between Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. The song’s most distinct mark may be Berry’s distorted electric guitar tone, and his use of T-Bone Walker-inspired, though highly personalized, guitar licks.
The crossover appeal of Berry’s music was not an accident. It can be explained by his musical influences, but that may be only a part of it. Berry was intent on reaching a growing audience of teenagers born after World War II that listened to radio to find their music and began to take to the highways more. Chuck Berry ‘s lyrical content strove endlessly to capture this, a golden age of American capital, and he painted a mosaic of teenage school hallway antics and jukebox plays at the local diner, town hall dances and lover’s lanes, while reifying, at the same time, cars like the Cadillac Coupe de Ville or the Ford V8. Other artists, notably The Beach Boys, would later do the same. But Berry was there first and constructed a visual edifice behind his lyrics that would continue to define rock and roll for generations to come.
So it would be in character for Chuck Berry to claim that he foresaw the mass appeal of his art well ahead of the curve. He dismissed his critics, who saw his cheekiness as inane. It was teenagers that related, and that was all that mattered, for they would be the standard bearers of a new America. He was right, of course, and put rock on a pedestal for the world.
In America, whether a listener was black or white, urban, or suburban, a teenager at the middle school ball, or an assembly line worker at the auto factory, Chuck Berry’s music always seemed right. Behavioral issues — he eloped with an under age teenager — hampered him during the British pop invasion of the early 1960s, when he spent two years in jail. The audiences were whiter than ever by then, but still related. Yet Berry would never be able to shake his image as a heritage artist going forward.
Early after the British invasion, he felt forlorn and sidelined by the Beatles and the Stones. Money became an issue and he set to remedy the paucity of royalty money coming in from his recordings. To the end of his days he toured as a front man, dropping in on bands across the country that knew his tunes, thus saving costs.
Keith Richards would later take him under his wings, and paid him for a TV special. By then Chuck Berry’s finances had recovered. If, admittedly, he paid little attention to business early on, he did not do badly. When he died he was worth nearly $ 50 million. Given the financial prowess of rock stars today, this might still fail to impress. But surely, Chuck Berry’s real happiness was both that every baby boomer owed him an immense debt of gratitude for his music and that the most famous rockers of all time explicitly trace their lineage back to him.
By Michael Kostaras