*If Chuck Berry were white, all across this country there’d stand statues built in his honor. During his illustrious career he’d have been mentioned in the same sanctimonious breath as blue jeans, baseball, apple pie and Coca Cola as a cornerstone of American pop culture. People would routinely dress up as him and imitate his famous onstage move, the Duck Walk.
Most important, whenever anyone thought of the origins of this music called rock and roll, instead of the marginally talented Elvis Presley, they’d think of Chuck Berry.
How do I know this would be the case were Berry white? Because that omnipresent entity known as “The White Man” (not the person, but the persona), which seldom truly completely gives it up to Black folk for anything good, almost completely gave it up to Chuck Berry.
I say almost, because while they certainly revered him, throughout Berry’s storied and influential career, they continued to tout the likes of, say, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley as his peers, when those acts couldn’t carry the guitar case of Berry, who, along with early rock and roll stars T-Bone Walker, “Fats” Domino, Big Joe Turner, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, not to mention various unsung Black singers, musicians and writers, were essential in the creation of modern rock and roll.
Fact is, among the recent years-long spate of super-duper pop star passings—James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie among them–Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Berry’s loss is, in the historical sense, the most significant, because one way or another, the St. Louis, Missouri-born enrtertainer, who passed away March 18 at home in St. Charles, Missouri at age 90, opened door for them all.
You can’t play rock and roll guitar without paying tribute to Berry’s simple but rollicking style. You can’t write a rock and roll song without somehow acknowledging Berry’s inventive penmanship. And you can’t take the stage at massive stadium dates like Coachella before sellout crowds consisting of every color under the rainbow without remembering a time when Berry often had to play to audiences segregated by law.
I was first introduced to Chuck Berry’s music not by Berry, but the Beatles. Early on, the group supplemented its songwriting/recording with covers of Motown songs and Berry tunes, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
A Beatles disciple, even the Fab Four couldn’t get me to dig Berry’s tunes; through their own songs, the group had introduced my young ears to harmonies, and there were none in Berry’s songs.
Then I noticed Berry’s signature guitar licks and his artful story-telling style in the work of other ‘60s rock bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and well, practically every other popular rock band I liked. They made me give Berry a more discerning listen.
In his songs I heard vivid, wonderful, literate, funny bite-sized adventures about young love, cheaters, fast cars, faster women and spirited, rebellious ditties dedicated to rock and roll itself.
One of my favorite Berry songs remains “Memphis Tennessee,” an ultimately heart-tugging tune about a man on the phone with an operator (pop music abounds with songs about distraught lovers leaning on the empathetic ear of telephone operators), trying to locate his girl “Marie.” Stick with the story and you learn that “Marie” is not the man’s lover but his six year old daughter, taken from him by her mother.
Onstage, Berry was the pure entertainer, shimmying and shaking and singing, all while playing his electric guitar, often a big ol’ red Gipson. On Youtube check out some of his live shows and witness his sheer zeal for performing—-and note the stark apprehension in the eyes of his rhythm section, often hired city to city, which worked diligently to follow his every cue. The meticulous Berry was legendary for being hard on his sidemen.
A shrewd businessman, Berry insisted on concert promoters paying him in cash, which got him in trouble with the IRS in 1979. A January 1962 conviction for taking a 14-year-old girl across state lines—-he got a three year prison sentence—-shadowed the musician for years.
To get a concentrated glimpse into Berry the man and his music, view “Chuck Berry Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The 1987 documentary, directed by Taylor Hackford, follows an occasionally obstinate Berry through the conception, rehearsals and performance of a concert at St. Louis Missouri’s iconic Fox Theatre on the occasion of Berry’s sixtieth birthday. Featuring Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Linda Ronstadt and as band Musical Director the Stones’Keith Richard (whom Berry punches in the mouth on camera), it’s real, raw and sometimes hilarious as it offers a history lesson on the true architects of rock and roll.
Berry insisted he’d never retire. As proof, the man recently finished a new album, Chuck, to be released soon on the Dualtone label.
He might be gone physically, but the next time you hear a rock song, past or current, listen with reverence. Somewhere in that guitar solo or in the tune’s lyrical mischief and swagger is Chuck Berry.
And yet, for all his influence on popular music, Berry, anything but a bashful man, never worked under any self-serving monikers. Little Richard calls himself “The Architect” of Rock and roll; James Brown answered to, among other handles, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and “Godfather of Soul”; the Stones are called “the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” while Michael Jackson declared himself the “King of Pop.” And Aretha Franklin truly is the “Queen of Soul.”
However, perhaps Beatle John Lennon said it best when, instead of giving Berry a nickname, put it the other way around: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]