by Julian Spivey
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’” – John Lennon
Elvis Presley is hailed as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but had he not have had Hollywood movie star good looks and had race relations not been what they were in the late ‘50s that title may likely have gone to Chuck Berry.
Presley took African-American rhythm and blues and made it suitable for white audiences or at least the young members of the white audience. Berry didn’t have to appropriate anything; he just was. And, while to some Elvis’ hip-shaking and lip curl may have signified what rock ‘n’ roll was all about to many others it’s the hard-charging electric guitar of Berry that is truly the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Berry’s lyrics focusing on the rough and rowdy life of the ‘50s teenager and essentially his creation of the guitar solo truly helped the rock genre form its rebellious ways.
Berry’s career took off in 1955 less than a year after Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” essentially coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and shortly after Elvis debuted with “That’s All Right.” “Maybellene,” a cool-sounding talk-sing song about a street race and a broken relationship, reached the top five on the Billboard pop chart and Berry’s career took off like a Cadillac Coup DeVille off the blocks. Rolling Stone said of the song, “rock & roll guitar starts here.”
Berry would continue to fill the pop and R&B charts with hit after hit over the next decade including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
By the mid-‘60s his brand of rock ‘n’ roll was sadly out of vogue, much like other artists who came up in his era, including Elvis. But, his mark on rock ‘n’ roll led to inspiring the next generation of artists like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, etc.
Some artists of the next generation were even inspired a little too much, to the point of plagiarism. The Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA,” which became emblematic of the “California Sound,” was written to the music of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” earning Berry a songwriting credit after some controversy. Berry would actually self-plagiarize later on with “No Particular Place to Go” being set to the exact music of “School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell).”
Sometimes I feel Berry’s contributions to the genre he essentially created are too often ignored, but Seger summed his legacy up quite brilliantly in his 1981 song “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” with the line: “All Chuck’s children are there playing his licks/get into your kicks/come back baby/rock and roll never forgets.”
Berry would continue to play his hits for the next 50-plus years making him the longest tenured rock star in the genre’s history – a mark that likely will never be topped. Berry played a weekly show at a venue in his hometown of St. Louis all the way up until 2014, when he was nearing 90-years old. Playing and making music would continue to the very end for Berry, who died on Saturday, March 18 at 90. The rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and hall of famer announced on his 90th birthday last October that he would be releasing his first album of new music since 1979 sometime in 2017. Berry is survived by his wife Themetta, whom had he survived would’ve celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary together next year.