Chuck Berry

March 21st, 2017

Chuck Berry died.

Chuck Berry invented Rock and Roll. As John Lennon once said: “ If you had to give Rock ‘n Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry”

When someone creates/invents/births something so big it changes the world, are they just a profound creative genius or a futurist?

If one thinks of modern art, modern literature, or film there are always several names that will come to mind as the ones who opened the door or led the way. When one talks about Rock and Roll, there was, is and will only be one person to name: Chuck Berry.

He created a big part of the future of music in the 1950s and 60s. We have lived in it ever since.

In the early 1960s the first Beatle albums had covers of Chuck Berry on them. The first song they ever played in America was “Roll over Beethoven”. The Beach Boys lifted Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their first big hit “Surfin’USA” The first Rolling Stone records had numerous Berry covers. In fact as the Stone’s drummer Charlie Watts once said: “ all we really ever did was play Chuck Berry music”.

In the last few decades when Berry toured, he always traveled by himself, rarely with a band. Why? Because wherever he went in the world, there were musicians who could play every one of his songs.   The promoter just reached out to the best-known cover or local band and asked them if they wanted to back up Chuck Berry. It was a consummate compliment to be asked to back him up. What other musician could travel the world with the certainty that local rock and rollers could back him up? He was a universal talent. It is unimaginable to think of an accomplished rock or blues guitar player that cannot play Chuck Berry.

Berry created Rock and Roll. He therefore was a founding father – or the founding father- of Rock and all that it became. Think of the term “Rock Star”. We now use it as the supreme compliment in almost every field of endeavor. A tech entrepreneur is a tech rock star. A doctor is the rock star of surgeons. Speakers or thinkers in various endeavors are the rock stars in their field. It is the ultimate tribute; you are a rock star!

Growing up in an educated middle class family in the 1950s I of course took piano lessons. I was playing classical music as that was what one learned on the piano. When I first heard – and then another 100 times very quickly- the line “roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky to move” I went to my piano lesson and told my music teacher I wanted to play Chuck Berry. I must have been one of thousands who did so.

Elvis was great, but he was the latest iteration of the superstar crooner, the successor to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra but with hips shaking and the music bopping. Elvis was one of the all time greats, but Chuck Berry was rock and roll.

He bounded onto the stage with a loud unique guitar sound, high energy and the single most unique stage move of all time, the Duck Walk. It was parodied of course in “Back to the Future”. Now, look at that clip. It shows the world before Chuck Berry. We all live in the world after Chuck Berry.

He defined the rock and roll star with “Johnny B. Goode”. High school and being a teenager in “Sweet Little Sixteen” (note who introduces him) and “School Days”, inter-racial dating in “Brown Eyed Man” and of course the car and dating culture with “Maybelline” and “Nadine” I defy anyone to listen to those songs and not either start to move,  tap your foot, sing along or play air guitar. 

Sure, someone else might have invented Rock and Roll if Chuck Berry had never existed. But it probably would be different and have come later. He did exist and he lived and his life gave so much rhythm to all of us.

When the Voyager I and II were launched into deep space in 1977 Johnny B. Goode was one of the songs on the “Golden Record”. If another intelligent life form finds one of those space crafts and them comes to Earth, they will not say “Take me to your leader”   They will say, “Take me to Chuck Berry”.

 

 

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