R.I.P. Chuck Berry: A rock 'n' roll architect whose influence knew no bounds
Chuck Berry was the architect. Rock 'n' roll was designed for the young, and he was the man with the blueprints.
Did he invent rock 'n' roll? No, not wholly. But like Elvis Presley, he set it straight, gave it legs, etched forever in our minds what it meant to be young and angry with an itch you could only scratch with a pick.
He was the bridge from the blues to the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen and every teen with a haircut and a gleam. He taught rock 'n' roll to duck-walk and bare its teeth, to make it not just swing but howl. He made America’s veins pulse cherry neon.
Chuck Berry, a singer and guitarist who did as much as anyone to make rock 'n' roll matter over the past 60 years, died Saturday at age 90. And one of the last ringing chords of rock’s earliest days died with him.
Berry was found unresponsive at his home outside St. Louis, police said; attempts to revive him failed. Rolling Stone reported that Berry had recently suffered a bout of pneumonia.
It was a quiet end for the man who in 1956 roared “Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news” – lyrics that, yes, called out two of the greatest composers who ever lived to tell them their time of influence was nearing an end. Two years after Brown v. Board of Education, this ornery son of a Midwestern carpenter was the one brash enough to tell them.
Bold, brilliant, inventive, ingenious, difficult, divisive, recalcitrant, a mercenary, bitter to the bitter end – Berry was called all of these things and more, and a lot of it he deserved. He did time and/or settled out of court for a variety of misdeeds, from attempted robbery and tax evasion to unseemly accusations that he filmed women in the restroom of his St. Louis restaurant. Clean and simple and easy to lionize, his life was not.
But neither is rock 'n' roll, the sound Berry brought to life.
Berry injected sex and fire and the devil’s heavy petting into songs about cars and love and summer at a time when young listeners were just about ready for exactly that type of revolution. Some of those kids were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, even Brian Wilson. And when you’re the hero of the Stones, the Beach Boys AND the Beatles – “If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’” Lennon once said – your influence on popular music can know no bounds.
Berry, Bruce Springsteen wrote on Twitter, was "rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock 'n' roll writer who ever lived." Said Rod Stewart: "It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all."
Yes, there were others, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Berry’s own great collaborator Johnnie Johnson. Berry was one innovator of many. But only Berry wrote Maybelline, that jitterbugging ode to a perfect car and an imperfect woman that most call one of the great rock songs ever written. Only Berry wrote Sweet Little Sixteen, a song the Beach Boys later twisted into their own gigantic hit, Surfin’ U.S.A.
And the screaming, seam-bursting first notes of Johnny B. Goode – that tone, too, is all Chuck Berry. It’s one of those sounds that didn’t just inform an era, it came to define it, like the opening riffs of the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! in the ’60s or Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in the ’90s. That’s the sound that inspired country boys the world over to grab a guitar in the first place, hoping someday that people might come from miles around to hear them play, too. We may never know the extent of Johnny B. Goode's influence on music, as the song was among a select few shot into space via NASA's Voyager interstellar program, pieces of music that collectively define us as a species. (For the record, Beethoven also made Voyager's cut. Tchaikovsky did not.)
To this day, you can hear what they heard in the '50s: The sound of a man playing the guitar just like ringing a bell. There’s a reason Chuck Berry songs played such key roles in later films like Back to the Future, Home Alone and Pulp Fiction – the hip-swinging licks and itchy momentum of Johnny B. Goode, Run Rudolph Run and You Never Can Tell are undeniable, even to modern ears. Imagine how they felt at the time.
All lives have lifespans. And while Berry’s reached a robust 90 years, the same cannot be said for his life as a creator. For most of the last 40 years, Berry has performed and toured, but his legacy was largely written by the 1970s. He had been placed on a pedestal so high people began thinking of him simply as an idea – which, let’s be honest, is not that inaccurate; Chuck Berry and the idea of rock 'n' roll really are one and the same.
But then, last year, an announcement: Berry had a new album in the can, his first in 38 years. It was to come out in 2017. He did not live to see America celebrate his return to music – and celebrate they no doubt will. That’s very sad.
But if his last album did nothing more than give the world one last chance to give Chuck Berry one last perfunctory standing ovation, odds are he’d have wanted nothing to do with it. Berry’s playing was fire and vigor incarnate; it made you move because it had to. Anyone who saw the 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll knows Berry was not put on this earth to bow and wave politely. And anyone who's heard him sing School Days -- the song that gave that film its title -- knows Berry is only moved when "the feeling is there, body and soul."
As the master once sang: “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it / any old time you use it / it’s gotta be rock and roll music / if you wanna dance with me.”
A lot of people did. Generations, even. As long as the world keeps dancing to that rock 'n' roll music, you’ll always hear Chuck Berry’s body and soul. It's as clear as ringing a bell.
-- Jay Cridlin