Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry and opera director Peter Sellars have been awarded the 2014 Polar Music Prize during a ceremony Tuesday in Stockholm.
The organizing committee praised the 88-year-old Berry for his contribution to rock, noting “every riff and solo played by rock guitarists over the last 60 years contains DNA that can be traced right back to Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and a million other groups began to learn their craft by playing Chuck Berry songs.”
The Stones’ Keith Richards paid tribute to the source of his inspiration. "Chuck Berry, he just leapt out of the radio at me," he said in a recorded message. "I ate him basically, I mean I breathed him – it wasn't just food, he was the air I breathed for many years when I was learning guitar and trying to figure out how you could be such an all-rounder. Such a great voice, such a great player and also such a great showman … it was all in one package."
Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf was again on hand for the presentation of the prize, which is typically shared by a pop artist and a classical musician. Berry, however, was not able to attend the 2014 gala. He’s “been struggling with his health for a while,” noted Marie Ledin, managing director of the Polar Music Prize, in the lead up to this year’s event.
Accepting Berry’s award from the hands of the King was Welsh rocker Dave Edmunds, who by his own count has covered seven of Berry’s songs, and who has shared the stage with the rock and roll pioneer at least twice. Edmunds simply read a letter from the St. Louis-born musician in which he called Stockholm one of his favorite cities. “Unfortunately I am unable to travel but my heart is in Sweden,” Berry wrote.
The annual award, worth one million Swedish Kronor ($158,336), was first presented in 1992 and has gone to pop artists such as Sir Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and classical names such as Isaac Stern, Renée Fleming, José Antonio Abreu and Ennio Morricone. Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho were the 2013 recipients of the prestigious prize.
Sellars, according to the organizing committee, is the “living definition” of what the prize is about. Pittsburgh-raised Sellars, who returns to the English National Opera for its 2014-15 season as director-in-residence, “shows us that classical music is not about dusty sheet music and metronomic precision,” notes organizers, “but that classical music, with its violent power and complexity, has fundamentally always been and will continue to be a way of reflecting and depicting the world."
Sellars quickly won over the audience of 500 dignitaries, celebrities and music industry folks assembled in the Stockholm Concert Hall with an effusive acceptance speech. “What an overwhelming and completely shocking experience,” he began. “I have to thank this amazing committee that came up with this incredibly radical and unusual choice. Me!” Sellars also thanked his family -- his mother Patricia Sellars and nephew Oliver Murphy had flown in from the U.S. to attend the event. “Music is what holds the world together,” Sellars said to great applause. “We need music in the schools, we need music in our homes, in our lives, we need music in business and politics. And we need music in prisons and refugee camps. Music is about everything we’re hoping for that is not here yet. Music is here ahead of time to tell us it’s coming.”
In his acceptance speech, Sellars dedicated the honor to "my musical families who have adopted me, taught me, have been patient, generous and inspiring beyond anything that I could have imagined."
Following the afternoon ceremony, which included performances by Swedish artists of Berry songs like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Havana Moon” and “You Never Can Tell,” as well as compositions from works directed by Sellars, over 500 members of the audience were transported by bus to the Grand Hotel for the Royal Banquet. The dinner was hosted by Swedish singer/actress Sarah Dawn Finer and featured more music associated with Berry and Sellars, including performances by Edmunds of “Promised Land” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
The Polar Music Prize was created and funded in 1989 by Stig Anderson, the manager of Abba (sometimes called Abba's fifth member) and the founder of two music-publishing companies and a record label as well as the composer of over 3,000 songs. His ambition... to endow “the world’s biggest music prize.”