A farewell to Chuck Berry
Hail, hail Rock ‘n’ roll. It’s impossible to put it any more succinctly or accurately as that sentiment, which was a line from Chuck Berry’s song, “School Days,” and which pretty well expresses how those who still love that old time rock and roll feel at the news of his passing on March 18. Even though he was the ripe old age of 90, it still doesn’t make it any easier to see a man, who can most accurately be called a legend of music, shuffle off this mortal coil.
Especially for those of us who still pay good money for Berry records on vinyl, the only acceptable format for his music, it comes as just another reminder of how the last pieces of the best days of rock ‘n’ roll are increasingly fading out.
The magnitude of Berry’s influence
It’s just about impossible to overestimate Chuck Berry’s influence on music. What can you say about a man who wrote such gripping songs that the bands who would become the most famous in the world, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, earned much of their early success playing them? Who that still has a pulse hasn’t heard “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music?” In fact, as a testament to his influence, the versions that people might be familiar with are probably covers done by artists decades after the originals were released by Berry.
So indebted to Berry are guitarists who have come since, they ought to pause and reflect on whether guitar-led music would even be a thing, if not for him. Along with that, just about all the rock music bands that came after him should wonder how much of whatever ultimately derivative form of Berry’s music they’re playing is really their own.
Inspiring the Beatles and the Stones
The people that Berry inspired most immediately were not short on praise for him. John Lennon, in particular, revered him so much that he once famously quipped that if rock ‘n’ roll were to be called by another name, it might as well be Chuck Berry. That’s love. On the Beatles’ BBC radio session recordings, which were released in the early ‘90s, there is a healthy dose of renditions of Berry tunes, including “Rock and Roll Music,” “Carol” and a particularly amped-up cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” with George Harrison, who sang lead on it, lamenting jokingly to the radio host that he didn’t want to play the song because he had been playing it for 28 years at that point. Harrison was only in his very early 20s at the time. At that point, in the early 1960s, the Beatles were still more of a “skiffle” group, playing mostly covers of the day, rather than the songwriting masters they would later become and Berry’s songs were a big part of their lineup. Somewhere on Youtube, there are clips of Lennon and Berry playing together on the Mike Douglas Show in the early ‘70s — a piece of rock ‘n’ roll dessert that seems almost too delicious to eat.
The Rolling Stones, the other most famous rock ‘n’ roll band, had their debut single with a Berry number, “Come On,” and Keith Richards admitted, jokingly, at Berry’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 that he didn’t think he could induct Berry because he stole every guitar riff from him. The Stones covered more than 10 Berry numbers, including “Carol,” “Little Queenie” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’.”
And so many artists have covered “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry’s most iconic song, that it’s too much to recount them all here. It’s not a stretch to say that at one point, every teenager with a guitar knew how to play the song. Today, maybe not.
But all of that took place in the early 1960s and later, and rock ‘n’ roll as a genre had existed for about a decade already. Berry’s own hits came in the mid- to late 1950s, several years after rock ‘n’ roll had already been shaped by its early purveyors, like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. But while dedicated rock ‘n’ roll buffs remember the names of Cochran, Vincent and Fats Domino, Chuck Berry is a phrase unto itself. While he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll, Berry’s name is synonymous with it — something that comes down to how he shaped the nascent genre with his guitar playing.
Turning the guitar into a lead instrument
Berry was a guitar slinger, one of the first. Where the guitar had served as mainly a rhythm instrument before him, Berry turned his now-iconic, cherry-red Gibson ES-355 guitar into a lead instrument and his songs were usually centered on a main guitar riff that would be played over and over, and then over and over in the listener’s head, after the song was over. He was bending strings and giving the guitar a voice that almost sounded human when that was a relatively novel thing to do on the instrument. It was something his electric blues cohorts, like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley were doing, too, but Berry was the one of the first mainstream artists to. His guitar-driven, riff-centered rock ‘n’ roll would become the basis for just about every popular band that came out in the years to follow and Berry himself was the progenitor of the image of the rock ‘n’ roll axe man after which later icons, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page would pattern themselves, consciously or not. It would be AC/DC lead axe man, Angus Young, who stole (or, rather, paid tribute to) Berry’s signature stage move, the duck walk, 20 or so years after its invention.
Knowing his audience
But all of Berry’s brilliant guitar work would have gotten him nowhere but, maybe, the underground blues circuit, had it not been for the genius of his lyrics and vocal style. Even though he was almost 30 when he achieved his first hit record, Berry had tapped into what teenagers were feeling and doing. The children of the war-weary Greatest Generation were throwing their parents’ hard-earned caution to the wind by buying their own cars, skipping school to hang out in juke joints and spending all of their money buying records or turning jukeboxes on to their favorite rock ‘n’ roll song.
Berry knew his market and wrote playful and succinct lyrics that spoke directly to these teens. The song “School Days” is both day in the life and commiseration of what it’s like to be a teen beholden to schedules not of your own desire.
Soon as Three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down.
Close up your books, get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street.
Berry would later revamp the same song as the more famous “No Particular Place to Go,” which tells the story of a young couple taking a drive looking for a place to make some romance. In “Roll Over Beethoven,” Berry sings about the very music he’s playing. It was rock ‘n’ roll about rock ‘n’ roll and the kids ate it up. It was exactly what the teens were doing and what they wanted to hear in their music and with a wink and a nod, Berry was giving it to them.
Chuck Berry died how we wish all great rock stars would — in his own home, because of old age after decades of providing listeners with great music. His stamina was impressive. Even into his late 80s, Berry was performing regularly, especially in his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. When at 60 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he looked as spry as he had when he first started out. In October of last year he announced that he would be releasing his first studio album in 38 years, simply titled, Chuck. It’s still due to be released later this year. Probably the ultimate testament to his longevity is that a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” was loaded into the Voyager I and II spacecraft and launched into space to be discovered by extraterrestrial life somewhere.
Chuck Berry had played music for so long and caused so much music derivative of his own to be created that his original article had begun to look quaint with the passage of time. That’s a shame because the spirit of his rock ‘n’ roll is as wild as parents of his day had charged. It was the soundtrack of unbridled lust for good times, it was a script for post-war hedonism, played with atavistic abandon. Fans will miss knowing that he was out there, somewhere, still making music but have all the more reason now to spin a copy of After School Session and daydream about sock hops, fast cars, fast women and running fingers down the soft neck of a cherry red ES-355.
By Rama Sobhani