More than any of his contemporaries, Chuck Berry, who died March 18 at the age of 90, defined rock’n’roll as a concept. Little Richard played piano-and-sax jump blues speeded up to the point of mania; Jerry Lee Lewis created a unique personal style, melding country, boogie-woogie, and gospel abandon inverted to serve lust; and Elvis Presley was much more of an icon than a songwriter.
Berry’s rock’n’roll was a guitar-driven music, a groove dancing at the apex of drive and swing, speeding up the traintrack rhythms of boogie-woogie and adding a tinge of country picking. He was being autobiographically onomatopoeic when he sang of Johnny B. Goode “strumming with the rhythms that the drivers made.” (His
pianist, Johnny Johnson, also forged the sound.) Any guitar player who’s set a groove like that and topped it by bending the two high strings simultaneously is emulating Berry — Keith Richards, John Lennon, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, New York City’s own Johnny Thunders, or the Ramones’ F-train-express variation.
He also was a great songwriter, mixing rock’n’roll groove, blues emotion, teen-spirit energy, and country storytelling with a writer’s eye for the concise, telling detail. Johnny B. Goode’s mother “drew out all her money from the Southern Trust / And put her little boy aboard a Greyhound bus.” The California-bound man in “Promised Land” riding an airliner “when the pilot told us in thirteen minutes he would set us at the terminal gate / Swing low chariot, come down easy, taxi to the terminal zone.” Back in the U.S.A., “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”
Born in St. Louis in 1926, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was the great-grandson of slaves. (According to his 1987 autobiography, his great-great-grandmother was a slave-owning widow who enjoyed reversing the era’s double standards for interracial relationships.) St. Louis has lost more than half its population and most of its cultural influence since the ’50s, but back then, as a key stop on the Mississippi-to-Chicago route of the great
Afro-American migration north, it had a fertile music scene. Berry shared its club circuit with Ike & Tina Turner and the lesser-known saxophonist Oliver Sain, who would go on to score a few minor funk-instrumental hits in the ’70s, and record avant-garde jazz musicians like Hamiet Bluiett. On the jazz side, there were Jimmy Forrest— whose “Night Train” would be a hit for James Brown — and guitarist Grant Green.
While Berry’s first record, “Maybelline,” reached #5 pop and #1 R&B, abetted by one-third of its songwriting royalties being given to DJ Alan Freed as payola, he didn’t have a number-one pop hit until the 1972 novelty sing-along “My Ding-A-Ling.” His lasting success, however, came more from his songs’ longevity as rock-band staples. “Memphis, Tennessee,” a 1959 B-side, was covered by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and an early version of the Who, and two other cover versions were top-five hits in the mid-’60s. The early Beatles and Stones albums were peppered with Berry songs. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, any act that wanted to get people up and dancing would encore with a Berry cover.
By then, Berry’s run of great songs was largely over — one of his last classics was 1970’s “Tulane,” about a couple selling weed under the counter of their novelty shop — but he was a regular on the hippie-era ballroom circuit. Tired of dealing with musicians’ quirks and alcohol and drug use, he didn’t tour with his own band. Instead, he figured that as any rock musician would know his songs, he could just pick bands up locally. This could be sublime or terrible. When I saw him at Stony Brook University in 1969, when I was 14, he was amazing. But when I saw him again three years later, from my second-row seat, I could hear the guitar player ask the bass player, “What key is this one in?”—and during the sax player’s solo, Berry yanked the mike away from the horn.
A Maryland show around the same time was much better: The opening act, a Jersey Shore band that had just put out their first album, volunteered to back him. They had to persuade Berry to accept three guitarists so their lead singer could play. “It was just the kind of night that when I’m sixty-five or seventy, I’ve got to tell my grandkids,” Bruce Springsteen would write in the foreword to Berry’s autobiography.
Berry could have benefited from the rise of punk in the late ’70s, as its back-to-basics ethic revived the careers of a lot of older rockabilly, R&B, and soul musicians, but he got derailed by a prison term for tax evasion in 1979.
His relationships with women were complicated and occasionally sordid. In 1959, he was charged with transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, after she was arrested for prostitution in St. Louis. Berry, who’d brought her from El Paso, Texas, to give her a job in his club, said he’d been told she was 21. After a trial in which the prosecutor asked Berry’s white secretary, “Did you tell your people you work for a Negro?” he was sentenced to three years in prison.
In 1987 he pled guilty to assaulting a woman in the Gramercy Park Hotel, and three years later a group of women sued him, alleging that he had videotaped them while they were undressing in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned in St. Louis. His biographer told the Times that the settlement for that lawsuit cost Berry over a million dollars.
When Elvis Presley died 40 years ago, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in the Voice that the Latino guys outside his neighborhood bodega were indifferent to the news. They were listening to disco. “Not for everyone is rock’n’roll the still reigning music,” Bangs wrote. “So I won’t bother saying good-by to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”
That’s much truer now. Rock’n’roll has largely been defined as “white” music since the ’70s, so it’s far less relevant and meaningful in a city where most people aren’t white. Hip-hop and electronica have been the dominant innovations of the last generation, in an era where people not only don’t dance to live music, they don’t even dance to records made by live musicians.
So you’ll just have to take my word that Chuck Berry was phenomenally important. Or John Lennon’s word, that if you were trying to give the live-wire spirit of rock’n’roll another name, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
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