“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll,” hedged the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upon inducting Chuck Berry into its 1986 freshman class along with Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and others — “Chuck Berry came the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.” And of course the hedge was justified in many ways, among them Presley’s preeminence and the equally momentous although not quite rock’n’roll innovations of classmates Ray Charles and James Brown.
But now that the man has died — on March 18, unexpectedly, at 90 — let’s get real. Chuck Berry did in fact invent rock’n’roll. Of course similar musics would have sprung up without him. Elvis was Elvis before he’d ever heard of Chuck Berry. Charles’ proto-soul vocals and Brown’s everything-is-a-drum were innovations as profound as Berry’s. Bo Diddley was a more accomplished guitarist. Doo-wop and New Orleans were moving right along. Et cetera. But none of those musics would have been as rich or seminal without him.
After all, it was Chuck Berry who had the cultural ambition to sing as if the color of his skin wasn’t a thing — mixing crystalline enunciation with a bad-boy timbre devoid of melisma and burr, he took aim at both the country fans he coveted and the white teenagers he saw coming. Nor did teen-targeted hits like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “School Day” merely play to the kids Elvis had transformed into the biz’s next big market. With his instinct for the historical moment, alertness to the fads and folkways of his young fans, delight in an unprecedented American prosperity, matchless verbal facility and autobiographical recall, Berry played a major role in inventing teendom itself — in augmenting its self-awareness and turning it into a subculture. And crucially, he established rock’n’roll as a songwriter’s medium. Some in his cohort wrote a fair amount, others barely at all. But it was Berry in particular who presaged Buddy Holly, the 1950s’ second great-songwriter-cum-great-performer. Between them they established the artistic template of ’60s rock, where self-written material was a prerequisite. And with the ’60s in the mix, consider Chuck Berry’s guitar.
Caveats again. Elvis fetishized an instrument that Scotty Moore could actually play, Carl Perkins was a master, and Bo Diddley — never a major hitmaker but always a legend — was a protean virtuoso. Each one imprinted himself on history, Bo especially. But Chuck Berry was the wellspring as a player and a showman. The two-stringed “Chuck Berry lick” was really many closely related licks. As critic Gregory Sandow once pointed out, different songs’ “fanfares” were distinct: “Maybellene”’s car horn, “School Day”’s school bell, “Too Much Monkey Business”’s jangling telephone, “Roll Over Beethoven”’s mini-solo. And though you can discern versions of that lick in recordings by both T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan sideman Carl Hogan, it was Berry who had the gall and imagination to amp up such stray note clusters and forge a whole music out of them, integrating Ike Turner-style, guitar-based R&B and neater country-style picking into a new electric sound that changed the world’s ears. For the very different styles of George Harrison and Keith Richards — of, you know, the Beatles and the Stones — Berry’s guitar was foundational, and soon there wasn’t a rock guitarist anywhere who couldn’t play his shit. Contrary as always, Bob Dylan was more taken with his groove — the rhythm of “Too Much Monkey Business,” he’s said, was where he got “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Chuck Berry: inventor of rock’n’roll, lodestone of the “rock” rock’n’roll generated.
Yet though Charles Edward Anderson Berry got fairly rich remaking the world, which he always claimed was the main idea, he never became any kind of tycoon even though he was a famous skinflint who demanded cash payment before he’d join his pickup band onstage. And though he was key in establishing unalloyed democratic fun as rock’n’roll’s core value, he was too cantankerous a guy to leave his admirers feeling that he enjoyed his genius much. Born Oct. 18, 1926, which made this mythologist of teens the oldest of the rock’n’roll originals, he was raised in a lower-middle-class black St. Louis neighborhood by solid, hardworking, musical parents; one sister trained to be an opera singer. Chuck was also musical and hardworking — he won a guitar competition in high school, married for life in 1948 and was supporting a family of four as of 1952. But his bad-boy voice wasn’t merely an act. An absurd crime spree involving a fake gun earned him the first of three prison bids in 1944, long before he and pianist Johnnie Johnson hit Chess Records in 1955.
Then ensued what the first of his uncountable greatest hits collections dubbed Chuck Berry’s golden decade. But “golden” is poetic license, and so is “decade.” Berry was a major star from 1955 to 1959 as well as a legendary concert draw throughout the high ’60s and long after. But note that although the three key teen anthems as well as the guitar hero foundation myth “Johnny B. Goode” all went pop top 10 in the ’50s (on what were then called the Best Sellers in Stores and Top 100 charts), not one reached No. 1, and Fats Domino and Little Richard never hit No. 1 either. Fact is, although Berry’s racial breakthroughs will always signify, his ’50s hits did somewhat better on the R&B chart, which also welcomed such canonical coups as “No Money Down” and the comic protest anthem “Too Much Monkey Business.” And in the Beatlemania-fueled 1964 comeback that followed his second prison term, the warmly pro-black but also pro-American “Promised Land,” a history of the Freedom Rides so subtle few figured it out at the time, didn’t make the top 40.
The second prison term — involving a 15-year-old girl he had reason to believe was older and always denied sleeping with, but with Chuck Berry you never know — was a turning point. The first trial was transparently and disallowably racist, the second less obvious about it. But that doesn’t mean Berry was innocent, because he was always a very bad boy — as in the 1986 autobiography replete with enticing blondes, written during the 1979 tax evasion prison term where all those cash payments caught up with him; or the 1989 lawsuit alleging that he’d set up peeping cameras in the ladies’ room of a restaurant he owned, which he escaped with a $1.5 million class action settlement plus a suspended sentence for marijuana possession. Or consider the Keith Richards-instigated 1987 Taylor Hackford documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, which, instead of turning into a publicity coup, Berry sabotaged by overamping his guitar and demanding extra cash upfront. Many stars age poorly, but the fairest guess here is that the theoretically post-racial Berry was deeply embittered by an American racism that remained in force — and was also something like a predator perv.
Yet although Chuck Berry both missed out on and misused too much of the fun he transmuted into a core value, the art with which he achieved that transmutation was always playful — sly sometimes, in fact often, but devoid of the meanness that marred his personal interactions. Plus, he was a funny guy. And for millions if not billions of people, that fun continues to inhere in music that remained indelible no matter how assiduously imitated. Its sheer musicality was irresistible. But Chuck Berry is loved first and foremost as a lyricist, and as a writer I second that emotion.
Under his own recognizance, with no say-so from anyone I’m aware of, Chuck Berry materially enriched a disreputable dialect of the English language that he clearly savored. Although he had no particular place to go and never ever learned to read or write so well, he took the message and he wrote it on the wall, and soon the folks dancing got all shook up. From irresistible words like “motorvating,” “coolerator” and “calaboose” to inevitable phrases like “any old way you choose it” and “campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat,” he was a master of the American demotic. Even after that second prison term threw him for a loop, he started back doing the things he used to do — find the late diptych “Tulane”/“Have Mercy Judge.” It’s no wonder that very late in life he not only won Sweden’s Polar Music Prize but shared the first PEN songwriting award with Leonard Cohen.
Chuck Berry cut down hard on touring a decade ago. Yet when he turned 90 he announced that he’d soon go on the road to support his first new album in 38 years. It has long seemed passing strange that four of the teen heroes in the Hall of Fame’s freshman class — Berry, Lewis, Domino and Little Richard — were living long enough to be knocking on immortality’s door. One explanation is that their musical gifts were powered by a pitch of innate vitality known to few humans. So don’t forget that Chuck Berry has a new album coming out. It’s called Chuck.
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.
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