Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90, and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed isn’t faring so well lately, but the aftershocks will still be felt for a while.
It would be going too far to say that Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, which seemed to spontaneously rise from the American soil and burst forth from the rural honky-tonks and ghetto dives and on to the Ed Sullivan Show back in the mid-50s, but otherwise it’s hard to overstate how much he had to do with it. He was the first honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roller to wind up with Patti Page and Mitch Miller and all the other big-name pop stars on Hit Parade, and he was the very quintessence of the deep-rooted yet newfangled genre. Three simple chords borrowed from the blues, a certain twang taken from country, a couple of those can’t-get-out-of-your-head hooks redolent of the popular standards, all delivered with a hot-rod drive and certain goofy swagger in the sly clever lyrics. The formula yielded a remarkable string of classic American songs, plenty of tabloid scandals, and a broader cultural revolution that is still with us for better or worse.
Chuck Berry was one of those only-in-America stories, which he always gratefully acknowledged, even when he was in jail. He was a more-or-less-happily married 30-year-old aspiring hairdresser when he became the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll star, and was not only black but quite defiantly so at a time when only such refined negro gentlemen as Nat “King” Cole and The Ink Spots got to share space with Patti Page and Mitch Miller on the Hit Parade, but Berry was simply too cool to be denied his place in the spotlight. The extra years in his conveniently located hometown of St. Louis had allowed him to soak up all the blues licks of such southern greats as Muddy Waters, the rollicking style of country that was being played out west by the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well the gritty gospel of Chicago’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the emerging rhythm and blues sound of Louis Jordan and the other jump bands that were on the air from the coast to coast, and he still had some sex appeal to the mix.
Berry started playing around with his odd melange of music, and on a trip to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records, a label run by a couple of Polish Jews who had an uncanny knack for finding and recording the blues. They’d scored plenty of hits on the southern and urban R’n’B charts with such all-timers as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and had one of the best and scariest of the early rock ‘n’ rollers with Bo Diddley, but Berry had something that allowed the label to start selling to white and black and hispanic and any other kind of restless teenager you might find anywhere in the country. His first hit was “Maybellene,” derived from the old country standard “Ida Red,” which opened with a raucous guitar solo and revved through an all-too-familiar tale of a faithless love. The string of hits that followed included “School Days,” a witty lament about being stuck in class, “Thirty Days,” another chase after a wandering woman, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” which featured a far raunchier take on romance that somehow made it past the era’s censors, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” both of which celebrated a brand new music that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
There were also such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” not to mention such gems as “You Never Can Tell” and “Come On” and “Little Queenie” that should have been bigger hits, and pretty much every single track on every LP in our prized box set of Berry’s complete Chess recordings is grade-A badass rock ‘n’ roll music. The old bluesman Willie Dixon put together a crack band that included the great Johnnie Johnson on piano, the Chess brothers wisely recorded them in the same rough spare style of their blues acts, and the material came through as something altogether new. Aside from the quirky hillbilly influence that Berry had learned to survive his white honky-tonk gigs, there was also an ingeniously corny quality to the lyrics, which had people keeping their ginger ale in “coolerators” and motorists “motorvatin'” and somehow rhymed “tearing up the road” with “V-8 Foad.” The short stories with the steady beat told all the old stories about cheating women and somehow recalled schoolboy angsts and in sum celebrated a tail-finned and jet-engined and racially mixed and rapidly evolving America of limitless opportunity.
Berry grabbed the opportunity to become a household name and an eventual face on the Mount Rushmore of American music, but the rest of his complicated story was part of the same only-in-America narrative. Despite Berry’s widespread appeal and appearances in Hollywood movies it was the equally talented and slightly better-lookiing and far whiter Elvis Presley who popularized the miscegenation of country and western and rhythm and blues known as rock ‘n’ roll, and he once again found himself afoul of the law. He’d served some time for armed robbery before his show biz breakthrough, and at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll craze he was sentenced to further time for a violation of the Mann Act, which at the time everyone understood to mean something sleazy and interstate involving one of those teenage girls that Berry was always singing about. That was in 1959, the same year Buddy Holly died and Presley got drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was kicked off the radio for a sex scandal of his own involving a teenaged girl who also happened to be a second cousin.
Rock ‘n’ roll survived the ensuing few years of clean cut white boys and girl groups with white dresses and bouffant hair, then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll craziness came along, and somehow Chuck Berry remained just as cool as ever. Because of a pretentious aversion to the notion of “cover songs,” meaning the age old practice of great singers and great musicians playing from the repertoire of great songs, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really have standards such as the blues and jazz and pop and country singers can draw from, but there’s never been a time when it wasn’t acceptable to play a Chuck Berry song. Back in the earliest days Jerry Lee was a cutting a salacious “Little Queenie” and Buddy Holly was making rock ‘n’ roll safe for bespectacled nerds with a very cool “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even Elvis was offering up a still cool “Too Much Monkey Business.” All the hippie bands covered Berry tunes, and we especially like The Chocolate Watch Band’s “Come On,” and “Johnny B. Goode” was an almost obligatory part of any rock performance no matter how pretentious the performer. When the punks came along The Sex Pistols were reviving “Johnny B. Goode,” the oldie but goody about a country boy who could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell, and all of those bands seemed to striving to reclaim that ineffable primitivism of the Berry records.
Berry did pretty well for himself on the oldies circuit, playing with pickup bands in any town that would book him, and in the early ’70s he was back on the charts with a ridiculous little smutty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling,” which put him on an arena tour that included a gig at Wichita’s Henry Levitt Arena where he absolutely wowed our junior high-aged selves. He played a gig at the White House a few years later, went to prison again for tax evasion a couple of weeks after that, was frequently honored with such gigs as an adulatory documentary of a thank-you concert with The Rolling Stones, and kept rock and rolling and paying the rent with it until his ’80s. We heard some good reviews from those shows, and the advance buzz on his last album is hopeful that he had yet another great record in him, and we note it has been dedicated to the woman he was still somehow more or less happily married to.
There were some other unseemly tabloid scandals, and legends about backstage spats with his equally tempestuous rock ‘n’ rollers from the stone age, but what else would you expect from someone so exquisitely attuned to the very heart and soul of America? Should the country ever grow tired of “The Star-Spangled Banner” we’d recommend “Back in the U.S.A.” as a new national anthem, with its revved-up guitar licks and tinkling piano and heartfelt paean to a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” Tail-fins are out of style and jet engines have lost their novelty but America is still a racially diverse and rapidly evolving land of unlimited opportunity, and for better and worse both Chuck Berry and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed have something to do with that.
— Bud Norman