Chuck Berry was rock ‘n’ roll’s founding guitar hero and storyteller – his music and influence will last forever
His clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm ‘n’ blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Stones’ Keith Richards, the Beatles’ George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who’s Pete Townshend
Rock ‘n’ roll was more than a new kind of music, but a new story to tell, one for kids with transistor radios in their hands and money in their pockets, beginning to raise questions their parents never had the luxury to ask.
Along with James Dean and JD Salinger and a few others in the 1950s, Chuck Berry, who was 90 when he died on Saturday in St Louis, helped define the modern teenager. While Elvis Presley gave rock ‘n’ roll its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the narrative for a generation no longer weighed down by hardship or war. Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
“He was singing good lyrics, and intelligent lyrics, in the ‘50s when other people were singing, ‘Oh, baby, I love you so,’” John Lennon once observed.
“Classic rock” begins with Berry. His core repertoire was some three dozen songs, but his influence was incalculable, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to virtually every band that called itself rock ‘n’ roll.
“His music and his influence will last forever,” pop-rocker Huey Lewis said via Twitter after hearing of Berry’s death.
In his late 20s before his first major hit, Berry crafted lyrics that spoke to young people of the day and remained fresh decades later. Sweet Little Sixteen captured rock ‘n’ roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as “groupies”. School Day told of the sing-song trials of the classroom (“American history and practical math; you’re studying hard, hoping to pass ...”) and the liberation of rock ‘n’ roll once the day’s final bell rang.
Roll Over Beethoven was an anthem to rock’s history-making power, while Rock and Roll Music was a guidebook for all bands that followed (“It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it”). Back in the USA was a black man’s straight-faced tribute to his country, at a time there was no guarantee Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was celebrating.
“Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening,” he once said.
Johnny B. Goode, the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he’ll be a star, was Berry’s signature, the archetypal narrative for would-be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in music. Berry can hardly contain himself as the words hurry out (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens”) and the downpour of guitar, drums and keyboards amplifies every call of “Go, Johnny Go!”
The song was inspired in part by Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano man who collaborated on many Berry hits, but the story could have easily been Berry’s, Presley’s or countless others’. Commercial calculation made it universal: Berry had called Johnny a “coloured boy,” but changed “coloured” to “country”, enabling not only radio play, but musicians of any colour to imagine themselves as stars.
“Chances are you have talent,” Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”
Johnny B. Goode could only have been a guitarist. The guitar was rock ‘n’ roll’s signature instrument and Berry the first guitar hero. His clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm ‘n’ blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Stones’ Keith Richards, who once acknowledged he had “lifted every lick” from Berry; the Beatles’ George Harrison; Bruce Springsteen; and The Who’s Pete Townshend.
When Nasa launched the unmanned Voyager I in 1977, an album was stored on the craft that would explain music to extraterrestrials. The one rock song included was Johnny B. Goode.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St Louis on October 18, 1926. As a child he practised a bent-leg stride that enabled him to slip under tables, a prelude to his trademark “duckwalk”. His mother, like Johnny B. Goode’s, told him he would make it, and make it big. Berry studied the mechanics of music and how it was transmitted. As a teenager, he loved to take radios apart and put them back together. Using a Nick Manoloff guitar chord book, he learned how to play the hits of the time. He was fascinated by chord progressions and rhythms.
He began his musical career at age 15 when he went on stage at a high school review to perform a cover of Jay McShann’s Confessin’ the Blues. Berry would never forget the ovation he received.
“Long did the encouragement of that performance assist me in programming my songs and even their delivery while performing,” he wrote in Chuck Berry, a memoir published in 1986. “I added and deleted according to the audiences’ response to different gestures, and chose songs to build an act that would constantly stimulate my audience.”
Berry didn’t care for hard drugs and spoke of drinking screwdrivers “without the driver”. But he knew too well the outlaw life. His troubles began in 1944, when a joy-riding trip to Kansas City turned into a crime spree involving armed robberies and car theft. Berry served three years of a 10-year sentence at a reformatory.
In the early 1960s, his career was nearly destroyed when he was indicted for violating the Mann Act, which barred transportation of a minor across state lines for “immoral purposes”.
There were two trials: the first so racist that a guilty verdict was vacated, and the second leading to prison time, one-and-a-half years of a three-year term. Berry continued to record after getting out, and his legacy was duly honoured by the Beatles and the Stones, but his hit-making days were over. Burned by an industry that demanded a share of his songwriting credits, Berry was deeply suspicious of even his admirers.
Berry was the subject of countless essays and histories of rock music, but he was his own best biographer. In Go, Go, Go, one of many songs to feature Johnny B. Goode, he celebrates his magic on stage, an act irresistible to young and old, boy and girl, dog and cat.
He sung: “Duck walkin’ on his knees, peckin’ like a hen / Lookin’ like a locomotive, here he comes again / Meow said the kitty, puppy bow, wow, wow / Go and pick your guitar, Johnny don’t stop now / oh baby.”