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.’”
First person in Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame
“One of my realizations is that if you revel over joy, you’re going to ache over pain and get killed over hurt,” Berry said years ago. “Your span of feelings are going to go just as far one way as the other. So when something real good comes to you, take it and chew on it. Then when something bitter gets in there, you won’t feel so bad chewing it and smiling, because the other one wasn’t that good, so this won’t be that bad.”
Berry was the first person inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986. It was quite a class including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and the Everly Brothers. Of all of these performers, Berry remained among the most indefatigable and acclaimed, performing around the world well into his 80s. At the time he said he was wary of accepting a crown as the so-called “king” of rock ‘n roll. “It’s not me to toot my horn,” he told the Washington Post. “The minute you toot you horn, it seems like society will try and disconnect your battery. And the minute you do not toot your horn, they’ll try their darndest to give you a horn to toot, or say that you should have a horn. It’s them that creates the demand, so let them toot the horn.” He further shared his thoughts on celebrity in 1987’s “Chuck Berry—The Autobiography”: “My view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock ‘n roll bank of music.”
Berry was credited with penning more than 100 songs, the best known of which used carefully crafted rhymes and tightly written vignettes about American life such as “Back In The U.S.A.,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Run Rudolph Run” or “Nadine.” As a lyricist, Berry was among the finest in American pop music always able to coin a phrase about day-to-day life and match that with scintillating guitar licks.
The “duck walk”
Berry so embodied the American rock tradition that his recording of “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a disc launched into space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977. Early on, he personified the dangerous appeal of rock ‘n roll. With his lithe, athletic body and perfectly pomaded hair, he was a dynamic stage presence and would grin salaciously and telegraph lyrics with a wide-eyed, almost childlike exuberance and shoot across the stage unleashing a staccato burst of bright, blaring guitar notes brought on by bending two strings at once for a more powerful sound from his Gibson hollow body electric guitar. That’s when he would go into his signature “duck walk” with his legs bent and seemingly made of rubber, and his body moving with clocklike precision. He said he initiated the “duck walk” at the Brooklyn Paramount theater in 1956. “I had nothing else to do during the instrumental part of the song,” he remembered, “so I did it and here comes the applause. Well, I knew to coin anything that was entertaining, so I kept it up.”
While his music thrilled audiences for six decades, some of the listeners took it upon themselves to profit off his genius. The Beach Boys were sued in 1963 after their hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” bore an uncanny resemblance to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958). He won the judgment and since then all references to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” includes Berry as a co-writer with Brian Wilson.
The highs and the lows
For all of his stage magic, Berry had several dark periods. In his late teens he served three years in a reformatory for a robbery charge, and after becoming famous did jail time on a charge of transporting an underage girl across state lines. Years later he was convicted of tax evasion (Berry insisted on making concert promoters pay him in full—in cash—prior to each show) and after the police found 62 grams of marijuana in his home in 1990 and confiscated videotapes from a camera placed in the women’s restroom at his restaurant.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926 in St. Louis, one of six children. His mother, Martha, was a teacher and his father, Henry, was a carpenter whose enthusiasm for poetry and other literature made a deep impression on his children. Berry began his musical journey while singing in a church choir and in the high school glee club. After receiving cheers for a high school performance of “Confessin’ the Blues,” he began playing guitar and performed with a number of bands in the St. Louis area. During this time he worked at an auto plant and was a hairdresser. Berry and Themetta “Toddy” Suggs were married in 1948 and had four children.