By now, all of the accolades and applause have been afforded to the late Chuck Berry. The man who more than any other musician put a stamp on rock ‘n roll music died last weekend at his Wentzville, Mo. home at age 90.
Known for the classic hits “Maybellene, “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Berry was America’s most influential rock ‘n roll singer/songwriter and left a legacy of musical influence that will likely never be repeated. On these and dozens more seminal recordings, Berry played clarion guitar riffs and a relentlessly rhythmic blend of blues and country music to define the rock ‘n roll sound while celebrating teenage life and loves of 1950s and ‘60s America.
Rock’s first guitar hero
At a time when rock ‘n roll lyrics were secondary to the sound of the records, Berry’s sophisticated depictions of adolescence (e.g. schools, cars, dating, growing up) demonstrated for the first time that the music could mirror and articulate the experience of a generation. He was widely hailed as rock ‘n roll’s first guitar hero for his sexuality and flamboyant style of performance that helped to push the instrument into the forefront of the new musical genre. He was also equally lauded for his lyrical genius at a time when most other artists relied on outside writers to pen their songs, most notably the songwriting team of Jerry Lieber and Mile Stoller.
Berry’s musical reach extended far beyond the 1950s. Prior to taking America by storm, groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones drew heavily on Berry’s hit records and frequently included these in their early stage shows. On Saturday, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said Berry influenced his decision to become a musician: “He lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream.” While Jagger’s bandmate, Keith Richards, once said that he lifted all of Berry’s [guitar] licks during his youth, John Lennon remarked in the early 1970s that “if you tried to give rock ‘n roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
“Chuck Berry rolled over everyone”—Barack Obama
Scores of musicians took to social media to comment Berry’s musical legacy. Lenny Kravitz acknowledged Berry as the figure who made rock ‘n roll possible: “None of us would be here without you.” Rod Stewart: “It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all.” Bruce Springsteen: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock ‘n roll writer who ever lived.” Brian Wilson: “A big inspiration. He will be missed by everyone who loves rock ‘n roll.” Joe Walsh: “Thanks for showing us how to do it. We’ll never forget you.” Former presidents chimed in as well with Bill Clinton commenting: “He made our feet move and our hearts more joyful. And along the way changed our country and the history of popular music.” Barack Obama said this: “Chuck Berry rolled over everyone who came before him, and turned up everyone who came after.”