CHUCK BERRY WAS THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
Elvis wasn’t even close. Chuck Berry wrote the libretto for the opera that is the life of the teenager and in the process changed the face of modern culture.
There simply isn’t anyone in the same league as Chuck Berry for impact and influence on the glorious art of rock ‘n’ roll. Chuck was the first true artist in rock – a complete entity. At a time when the entire concept of the teenager as a separate demographic was brand new, Chuck Berry gave the world its first real glimpse into the soul of youthful freedom – and he did with an electric guitar in his hand. That’s important.
They had a hi-fi phono, boy did they let it blast
Seven hundred little records; all rock, rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”
– You Never Can Tell (1964)
Before Chuck showed the world that the electric guitar was the only true weapon for rock ‘n’ roll, pianos and saxophones largely defined the sound. He was the electric guitar personified and every single aspiring rocker who picked the instrument up after 1955 is to some extent a Chuck Berry impersonator.
He could play the guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell
– Johnny B. Goode (1958)
Here’s a quote you’ve seen ad nauseam in the 48 hours since Chuck passed away:
“If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” – John Lennon (1972)
You’ve seen it countless times because it happens to be true. The fact that John Lennon said it makes it all the more important. Lennon may be the most influential songwriter of the modern era, but even he had to acknowledge that Chuck transcended influence and was the living definition of the art.
You know my temperature’s risin’ and the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm and my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news
– Roll Over Beethoven (1956)
Unlike the vast majority of his ‘50s contemporaries, Chuck was a brilliant songwriter – not just a singer. Elvis may have been awesome, but every single one of his iconic songs was written by someone else. The way Chuck Berry combined kickass guitar playing, nimble vocals, immense charisma and genius-level songwriting is incredibly rare – especially for the early rock ‘n’ roll era. Factor in the cruel reality that he was doing this while facing brutal racism in the United States and it’s even more amazing. That Chuck Berry – a black man – was creating art that was immediately embraced by white kids (especially white girls) drove the backwards-assed, bigoted power structure of the U.S. during the Eisenhower era absolutely insane. Sometimes violently so.
Blonde haired, good lookin’, tryin’ to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book
– Too Much Monkey Business (1956)
Despite his instrumental prowess and key role in establishing the electric guitar as a symbol of the new counterculture, Chuck’s lyrics are his real gift to the world. He was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll lyricist of all time. A consummate storyteller, a consummate poet and the most evocative writer who ever set words to music.
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
– Nadine (1964)
Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With “hurry home” drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
– Memphis, Tennessee (1959)
Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone
-Promised Land (1964)
One element of Chuck’s career that I’ve always found fascinating is the fact that he toured alone. One man in a Cadillac (of course) with a Gibson ES-355 guitar. That’s it. No band, no amplifier, no merchandise. Show promoters were required to provide him with a Fender amp and a complete backing band that knew his music. Of course, paying the band was the promoter’s responsibility as well. Chuck was to be paid in cash before the performance.
This is why so many legendary performers backed up Chuck Berry early in their careers. Promoters would hire a decent group to open the show and then simply have them remain on stage to act as Chuck’s backing band. Springsteen famously did this; so did Blue Öyster Cult. There was no rehearsal for these shows. The bands were expected to know Chuck’s entire repertoire.
A pre-fame Johnny Carson even worked with him on American Bandstand in ’56.
Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man
– Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956)
Perhaps the most overt example of Chuck Berry’s undeniable importance to human culture is his inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record. This is an album of Earth sounds and music aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft that was launched in 1977 and is now past our solar system in interstellar space. The record was included so that any extraterrestrial beings who encounter Voyager 1 can listen to the music of Earth. Of course, the obvious choice for rock ‘n’ roll’s representation on this interstellar calling card was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. Any potentially hostile alien civilizations will change their attitude toward humans when they realize our civilization is capable of such perfection. Instead, they’ll come visit a record store looking for more Chuck Berry.
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
– School Day (1957)
And now he’s gone to the great gig in the sky. They better have a Fender amp, a backing band and his money ready.
I have no kick against modern jazz
Unless they try to play it too darn fast
And change the beauty of the melody
Until it sounds just like a symphony
That’s why I go for that rock ‘n’ roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music
If you wanna dance with me
– Rock and Roll Music (1957)