Happy Birthday to the Creator of Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Happy Birthday, Chuck Berry!
Shed 96 Tears for 96 years.
That’s how old Chuck Berry would be on October 18, 2022, and we owe him big.
When speaking of the great American artist Louis Armstrong, a musician friend reminds me, …“No Satch, No Jazz.” So may I say, “No Chuck Berry, No Rock and Roll.” Yet in life and in death, he remains perhaps the most underappreciated of all the American greats.
Yes, he was a difficult person. Yes, he misbehaved with a woman—the allegations were that he had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old Apache waitress, Janice Escalante. He successfully argued during his trial that the judge was racist and prejudiced the jury against him. No excuses, and he went to prison, unlike the countless white rock and rollers who committed similar crimes yet were able to escape prosecution and persecution. Part of Berry’s renowned bitterness came from this experience.
But the point is that he’s no less deserving of plaudits. Yes, he carried a huge chip on his shoulder. But to be Black in Jim Crow America, a chip on the shoulder is about the only perk that comes with the job. Injustice embittered him.
Berry’s Johnny B. Goode (rock’s seminal anthem) is the only rock-and-roll song included on the Voyager Golden Records sent into space in 1977. When extraterrestrial beings played the records, which also included Azerbaijani folk music and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, their message to Earth was “Send more Chuck Berry” (this according to Steve Martin).
In 1955, Berry met Muddy Waters in Chicago, who hooked him up with Chess Records. On May 21 of that year, Berry recorded an adaptation of the country song “Ida Red,” under the title Maybellene, which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard magazine’s rhythm and blues chart and number five on its Best Sellers in Stores chart. Berry had to win a court battle to undo the attempted theft of his full writing credit.
We can thank him for Roll Over Beethoven, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis Tennessee, Little Queenie, Promised Land, and a slew of other classics that defined rock and roll. Later, he treated the world to No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell, and Nadine.
Berry’s (and Bo Diddley’s) music rocked the USA with the Chess sound. His guitar style, influenced by blues artists Carl Hogan and T-Bone Walker, is a glossary of definitive rock licks. In onstage performance, he was known for his stooped one-legged hop, dubbed the duck walk.
Creator: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo | Credit: Nationaal Archief
But why claim that he invented rock and roll? There were others on the scene, notably Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Berry stood apart with his clever lyrics detailing the teenage fun of fast cars, high school life, dances, and America’s consumer culture. His swagger, guitar riffs, and great storytelling combined to create the excitement of early rock and roll. Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Take this, for example, from School Days:
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.
Up to the corner and ‘round the bend.
Right to the juke joint you go in.
Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot.
With the one you love you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance.
Feelin’ the music from head to toe.
‘Round and ‘round and ‘round you go.
White artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead covered his songs and affirmed his iconic status. The Beach Boys famously used the melody of Sweet Little Sixteenon their early hit, Surfin’ USA. On some of his tours he was backed up by Bruce Springteen’s and the Steve Miller’s bands.
Berry’s understanding of universal teenage desires brought him success and shaped rock and roll’s massive attack. As if to self-parody and take his insight into youth a step further, one might consider My Ding-a-Ling, his biggest and final hit record, a trickster prank, it being based on a wee-wee joke that appealed mainly to twelve-year-olds.
Kevin Strait, curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, said that Berry is “one of the primary sonic architects of rock and roll.” Honors include a Chuck Berry Statue in the Delmar Loop in St. Louis; the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. John Lennon said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” And from Leonard Cohen , “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.” Berry’s records, songwriting, and guitar playing rank high on many “Greatest of All Time” lists. Yet I say, he deserves more! Maybe I’m just irked that the supposed rock magazine Rolling Stone never did a special issue dedicated to him.
In the Wikipedia article on Chuck Berry, from which much of the above is taken, we have this quote by Cleveland.com’s Troy L. Smith, “Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll all by his lonesome. But he was the man who took rhythm and blues and transformed it into a new genre that would forever change popular music. Songs like Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music would showcase the core elements of what rock and roll would become. The sound, the format and the style were built on the music Berry created. To some extent, everyone who followed was a copycat.”
Happy birthday, Chuck!
I did my own little jaunt to Chicago the other week, not to Chess Records, but to WGN-TV. Click the Daytime Chicago logo below to hear what this voyager sent out to the good (and bad, and morally indeterminate) citizens of Chicagoland. It’s all of 4 minutes and 40 seconds….which is longer, I admit, than a Chuck Berry single.
Did that morning show tidbit leave you wanting more?—like in 4:40 we can’t really get to the hearts of the matter… Well, it’ ain’t just me, it’s the brilliant team at OUR GENERATION PODCAST who really grokked what Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love is all about. Their insightful questions sparked a fine conversation. If you’re a bit more interested in the Trickster tales from BOTH books (Disruptive Play is the other one . . . ), please give a listen and your support to Messrs. Wilson and Simmons, the creators at…
Logo click! Logo click!