Chuck Berry died this past weekend. He was 90 years old, and so it’s really not that surprising that he passed on, but it was still kind of jarring. After all, Berry was one of the early rock-n-roll greats, a genius of the electric guitar, a talented showman, a brilliant songwriter, and a snappy dresser to boot. But, how you sometimes know true greatness is when it permeates the public conscious and renders itself accessible even to those least likely to get it. If you’re over the age of 35, I defy you not to name a time, party or jam session at somebody’s garage or living room, where you haven’t heard some balding, mustachioed middle manager friend of your friend’s, resplendent in baseball cap and beer gut, crank out a crude version of Berry’s classic ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on a beat-up Stratocaster or pawn shop knock-off brand. Everybody’s been at that party and hung out with that dude, and while he might not have had a clue how to play Chuck Berry’s riffs on a guitar, his very existence should be testament in and of itself to the pervasive influence of St. Louis, Missouri’s number one musical son. The fact that even the most uncool of the uncool know Chuck’s music, well, that speaks volumes.
If you love rock-n-roll, you have a Chuck Berry story. My own personal experience with Berry as a performer came in the late 1980s when I was bussing tables at a Ruby Tuesday in the mall up the road from the house I grew up in in the New Orleans suburbs. The famed 50s rock icon was coming to town, and for several weeks at the beginning of 1988 there were these ads on the radio promoting the show:
Hey New Orleans! Get Ready for Chuck Berry!
You know, I would listen to that ad, and I would think, ‘Gee, what I wouldn’t give to see this guy play live!’. And then I would wonder about how much it would cost and getting to the show (I basically didn’t have a car until I was 23 and didn’t get good at driving until well into my 30s) and into the show, and I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t going to happen for me. But fate and friends in the restaurant industry lent a helping hand. There was this waiter at the Ruby Tuesday’s, this blonde guy with a perpetual grin, like a coyote’s grin, who did some roadie work on these big stadium tours. Having an all-abiding passion for rock-n-roll at the time I was ecstatic when he mentioned at the end of a shift one day that Chuck Berry was coming to town, and would I like to help pick up a few chairs at the end of the show, my reward being a free seat in the house for the concert?
Oh, what was a poor boy from Jefferson Parish supposed to do?
Of course, I said yes and when the evening of the show came around my friend picked me up, we spent a little time at somebody’s place, er, getting some party favors and by the time we grabbed a couple of nosebleed seats up in the rafters of the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena we were feeling pretty high on the experience of being there. It was dark up in those rafters, and the stage, set in the middle of what was usually reserved for college basketball, was set in the middle of the floor and seemed a couple miles down below. There was a small crowd, bigger than a bar-sized crowd but certainly not filled to capacity, and yet in spite of the size of the audience you could feel this vibe in the room, this giddy excitement over seeing one of the foundational pillars of the great art of rock-n-roll strolled up to confront the crowd.
And Chuck Berry did not disappoint.
He wore this brown suit and, aside from a slight stoop in his posture, resembled almost exactly pictures I’d seen of him in his glory days. All the pieces of the puzzle were there – the cocky stance, the slightly receding hairline done in some kind of Jet Age pomade, the Gibson semi-hollow body guitar slung on his hip. The band in the back were ciphers, a bunch of white guys sporting mullets who probably were locals and had a gig at a Holiday Inn somewhere off of Highway 90, headed east out of town. One of the weird things about Chuck Berry, and by reputation he had a lot of personal quirks, was that he never brought his own backing band on tour; it was up to the venue to do that. So, on any given night you might catch Chuck with anything from a pack of disinterested jazz hacks between gigs at a seafood restaurant to the Steve Miller Band.
It didn’t matter the night I saw him. Looking like a wizened dime store Indian in that chocolate-colored suit, Berry strode up to the microphone and bellowed something along the lines of, “How ya’ll doin’ tonight? Everybody feel alright?” Then, his practiced hands cranking the strings of the Gibson with his left hand, his right tensed and picking out the chords, he launched into one of the songs on his set. It’s 30 years on, so I do not recall which song it was, except I’m fairly certain it wasn’t ‘Johnny B. Goode’, nor was it ‘Maybellene’. Whichever one it was, it was awesome. And, being up there high above the fray I could see for myself why this guy had such an impact on every generation of rock-n-rollers who’d followed him. Everything you wanted in a show, everything you’d like to see in a performer, was there.
There was the guitar, the thing they always talked about first when they talked about Chuck Berry. There was his growling, sardonic vocals. There was the grin you couldn’t see from all that distance away, but you could feel somehow. And, there was simply the knowledge of being confronted with the reality of Berry onstage. Even blitzed out of my mind as I was, I still felt as though I were in the presence of someone who, then in his early 60s, was not quite an urban legend yet more than just a guy with a guitar strapped across his chest. This was History we were being entertained by, and you couldn’t help but feel the gravitas of the moment; here was something you’d never seen before, but would remember for as long as you were alive.
Nothing stopped Chuck Berry in live performance. Not a PA speaker catching on fire while he was playing. Not the fact that the band, familiar with the material but not up to speed with their one-night employer’s on-stage cues or idiosyncrasies, lumbered and lurched in places as it struggled to keep up with the master. Not even the time when, the order of the set list having apparently slipped his mind, he replayed a couple of numbers twice. Berry cranked out one classic rock-n-roll tune after the next which must’ve been easy for him since, after all, he wrote all of them. When the show began to wind down and a crowd of a couple dozen or so lucky ladies in the front were invited onstage to dance with the performer, the cumulative end result was transcendent, greater than the sum of its parts. It was rock-n-roll the way it’s meant to be played, by the man who kept the blueprints in his back pocket, the keys to the kingdom lost in the forgotten neural synapses in his brain.
The power of this man was something to behold live but, ultimately, I think the lasting testament to his music are the recordings, which changed the way people thought about music, especially his earliest fans. It was those early sides Chuck Berry recorded for Chess that put the kick into the backbeat of the Beatles, tempering their more Anglo obsessions with the Everly Brothers and Gene Vincent. And you can’t even talk about a band called the Rolling Stones without accepting the fact that, essentially, their entire sound and style were ripped right from Berry (it’s been said that Stones founder and longtime keyboardist Ian Stewart, upon meeting Keith Richards for the first time and hearing him play, derided him as a “Chuck Berry artist”). Listen to the so-called World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band play ‘Brown Sugar’ off their classic album Sticky Fingers, and you can hear it – this is an updated version of a Chuck Berry tune, from the odd ‘hey look at me’ tempo of the opening riff to Bobby Keys’ honking 50s-style saxophone solo. Chuck didn’t use the sax much in his recordings, but the feel that Mick Jagger, Richards, and the rest of the team are going for is purely that of the ’Brown Eyed Handsome Man’.
The Beatles and the Stones, the great two-headed monster of the British Invasion that made so many great records and convinced so many kids all across the world that they, too, had something to say with a guitar, a set of drums and a garage to practice in. Without Chuck Berry, what would’ve happened? Well, both bands would probably still have existed, and would’ve still been great, but no Chuck means the Beatles don’t sound the same; they just don’t. The Rolling Stones don’t sound remotely the same, and what effect would that have had on all the others in the decades afterwards who aped the Stones from the look of their flamboyant pouty-lipped singer to those Chuck Berry-influenced opening riffs and that chestnut of rock-n-roll that can be traced directly back to its originator, the obligatory mid-song guitar solo.
Sure, others soloed in the 1950s and some were arguably better soloists (Cliff Gallup would be a good example). But, it was Berry’s unique set of contributions that not only did he place the primacy of the guitar over the piano which, in the hands of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, had not yet given up its frontline position in this new music which was sweeping the youth of the world by storm. Berry also made the guitar the primary songwriting instrument of choice for the next generation of rock-n-rollers, and a lot of other people besides. As an example, you don’t think 60s hardcore folk singer Phil Ochs didn’t listen to 50s rock-n-roll? Think he didn’t have respect for Chuck Berry? Guess again! No-one would ever confuse Ochs with somebody who didn’t know his way around songwriting, and yet in spite of being in a different planet stylistically he clearly got his start as so many of us have – listening to 50s artists like Chuck Berry, and trying to copy what he was doing, inspired by his brilliant example.
There are an infinite number of other examples of Berry’s omnipresent influence, from Detroit’s MC5 to The Faces to Judas Priest even. I could keep this up all night. And when you think about the influence that all of these bands had, and all the bands that copied them in return, then you have to come back to two basic facts about the history of popular music over the last 60 years.
Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll.
Also, he personified it.
That Chuck created this most wholly American and majestic of art forms is not in dispute by any rational thinking human familiar with the history. But, I maintain that, rather than being considered a first among equals among the pantheon of early rock greats that carved out such a swath far in excess of their numbers, it was Mr. Berry who truly represented everything that was great about the art form, in one total package. It could’ve all gone differently had Chuck decided to stick to hairdressing and give up on that silly pipe dream of creating something that could let him play in Black blues nightclubs and cracker hillbilly country music halls. Such was the world he grew up in, and the one he interacted with. And, such was his unique genius that he was able to combine his formidable skills with six-stringed electric instruments, an amazing comprehension of the English language and in particular an ear for poetry and an eye for describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways, and a talent for walking like a duck, and sell it to teenagers. What more all-American story is that?
If you love rock-n-roll, this isn’t like some singer dying.
It’s not like the 2016 loss of some of the greatest artists in rock history.
It’s a little like finding out there was an American Shakespeare.
And, now he’s gone.
Rest in Power, Chuck Berry.