Chuck Berry: King of rock ‘n’ roll

Print edition : April 14, 2017

December 31, 2010: Chuck Berry performing at the Congress Theatre, Chicago. Photo: Timothy Hiatt/AFP

April 4, 1980: Performing his trademark "duckwalk" on stage. Photo: AP

Chuck Berry (1926-2017), who practically created rock ‘n’ roll which in turn changed popular culture forever, is arguably the most influential guitar player of all time.

IN 1986, the astronomer Carl Sagan sent a birthday message to Chuck Berry which read:

“Dear Chuck Berry,

When they tell you your music will live forever, you can usually be sure they’re exaggerating. But Johnny B. Goode is on the Voyager interstellar records attached to NASA’s Voyager spacecraft—now two billion miles from Earth and bound for the stars. These records will last a billion years or more.

Happy 60th birthday, with our admiration for the music you have given to this world.

Go Johnny, go”

Chuck Berry, the man who practically created rock ‘n’ roll which in turn changed popular culture forever, the composer of immortal songs and guitar riffs, the inspiration behind the most influential musicians who changed the course of music and art, died on March 18 at the age of 90.

It may be a debatable point among academics, sociologists and aficionados, but if one had to pinpoint the exact time of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, it would perhaps be the release of the single “Maybellene” in May 1955 by the Chess label, written by an unknown, nearly 30-year-old guitar player by the name of Chuck Berry. It was a song about cars, a girl, and a failed relationship—a breathless guitar-driven number that with rhythm and words evoked the scene of a desperate car chase and a heartbreak at the end. Chuck Berry had created a new sound, a devastating mixture of hard, biting blues and the melodic lilt of rockabilly country music—a sound so seductive and timeless that even now, after so many decades of changes in musical styles and forms, it is like a breath of fresh air when suddenly heard.

“Maybellene” was one of the earliest songs, if not the first number from the Chess label, which catered exclusively to a black audience, to cross over and become a huge hit with the white crowd as well. It ushered in the new era of rock ‘n’ roll; nothing in society would be the same again. Rock ‘n’ roll gave shape and direction to the rebellion of the youth; it became their choice of music, and Chuck Berry was its first and greatest poet and composer.

Rock’s only Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, once called him the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll. “Maybellene” was followed by one masterpiece after another —“Roll Over Beethoven”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Brown-eyed Handsome Man”, “You Can’t Catch Me”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Reelin’ and Rockin” “Johnny B. Goode”, “Around and Round”—practically everything penned by Chuck Berry was a classic.

Teenage rebellion

He was an astute observer of all that was around him. Endowed with a keen business mind, he tapped into the desires and attitudes of teenagers and young adults of the time. He articulated with words and music the aspirations and the yearnings of the youth and, with his pumping guitar rhythms that were at once inexorable and melodious, gave teenagers the route to escape the principles and ideals forced on them by the previous generation. Without being overt, he created teenage rebellion in a sly, almost mocking, manner, and gave his young audience a music that was exclusively its. He sang of cars and girls and stardom, of teenage fans; he endorsed the right of the young to rock ‘n’ roll; he was irreverent, funny, urbane, sophisticated and at the same time obscene and magnificent.

You know she wiggles like a glow worm,

Dance like a spinnin’ top.

She got a crazy partner,

Oughta see ’em reel and rock.

Long as she got a dime the music will never stop.

(“Roll Over Beethoven”).

Most interestingly, he was not a young man when he wrote these songs that captured the spirit of youth—he was in fact almost 30 years old when his first single was released.

Even today, more than 60 years after the songs were written, the easiest way for a band to enliven a crowd is to play a Chuck Berry number. Time has not made his songs stale or out of date. Interestingly, Chuck Berry composed his songs strictly with a contemporary young audience in mind. Today, those same teenagers, now possibly in their late seventies and early eighties, watch their grandchildren jive to the same songs. “Hail, hail rock and roll/ Deliver me from the days of old” sounds ironical, given that what he pioneered in creating continues to remain a vibrant symbol of rejection of the past for more than half a century.

Chuck Berry was arguably the single most influential guitar player of all time. He almost always played a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar, which to him was not just an instrument but practically an extension of his body and his being. On stage it was his dancing partner, his backing vocals, his theatrical prop, and the horn section of the backing band. He was the original guitar hero in the truest sense of the term. He played and danced on stage with such effortless grace as was never seen before or since. One of his patent moves, the duckwalk—in which he would squat on one leg and hop forward while playing the guitar—has been endlessly imitated by generations of guitarists and is no less a symbol of stage showmanship as Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk”.

It was Chuck Berry who sparked the flame from which emerged the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a host of young rock ‘n’ rollers who went on to change the course of popular music and culture. Generations of guitar players cut their teeth playing Chuck Berry riffs and emulating his moves. In fact, his autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode” is perhaps the ultimate song for a guitar player: “He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack/ Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track/ Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade/ Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made/ People passing by they would stop and say/ Oh my that little country boy could play.”

Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Berry in racially segregated St. Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926. From an early age, he had problems with the law, which continued well into his middle age. While still in his teens, he was arrested for armed robbery and had to spend two years in a reform school. Although a keen guitarist right from his early age, he never seriously considered music as a career. In fact, he was all set to become a hairdresser, making extra money on the side as a guitar player. Even as he began to earn a decent income from music, he still kept up with the hairdressing job.

It was in those early years, playing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio (which later became the Chuck Berry Trio with Johnnie’s consent), that the famous Chuck Berry sound came into being. Johnson, a brilliant pianist, played a key role in the arrangement of many of Chuck Berry’s early compositions. The offbeat keys in which many of Chuck Berry’s songs are recorded—E flat or C sharp—are a clear indication of the influence of Johnson’s piano. Johnson, unfortunately, never got his due share of glory and lived most of his life in obscurity.

It was after meeting the blues legend Muddy Waters in 1955, who introduced him to Leonard Chess of the Chess Record label, that Chuck Berry dedicated his whole life to music. In 1959, at the height of his fame, he was arrested for apparently transporting a minor across a State line for immoral purposes. He had apparently invited a 14-year-old Apache Indian girl, Janice Escalante, to work as a waitress in his St. Louis nightclub. Chuck Berry served 16 months in prison in 1962 after an initial mistrial. He had to go to prison again in the late 1970s for tax evasion.

His brushes with the law made him a bitter man. An unrepentant loner, he trusted few and often gave the impression of being obsessed with money. He hardly ever gave interviews and had a deep aversion for the media. There is the famous story of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones approaching him after a performance and being punched in the mouth for getting too close. Later, of course, the disciple and the master became very close friends, and Richards organised the “Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll” concert to celebrate Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday, which served to once again revive the old magic and showcase the genius of Chuck Berry to a whole new generation.

He was one of the most singular figures in rock history who held even the greatest legends in thrall. Hunter Davis, in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, described the reaction of the lean, mean and formidable Stones, particularly Richards, at a Chuck Berry concert in the late 1960s: “…a high-cheek-boned, brooding-eyed black man came on stage wearing his guitar low as a gunfighter’s gun, stroking it with obscene expertise, and even Keith’s image… the image that grins at Death… reverted to what he was when he first heard Chuck Berry, a little English schoolboy in his uniform and cap.”

The irreverent, and caustic John Lennon could not stop himself from exclaiming “Chuck Berry! My hero!” when the two first met. This was at a time when Lennon and the Fab Four had already got the whole world at their feet.

Even Chuck Berry’s contemporaries held him in awe. Fellow legend and one of the few maverick musicians who could even upstage him on a good night, the wild genius of the piano Jerry Lee Lewis, once reminisced with a chuckle: “He’s the king of the rock ‘n’ roll. My Mama said that. I always thought I was. Well, she said, what you got is pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

In 1964, after coming out of prison, Chuck Berry saw his world had changed. The music had changed. The audience had changed. But what had not changed was the undying quality of his songs, as was evident in the number of interpretations and imitations that continued among succeeding generations of musicians and audiences.

Although his creative output had by then begun to dwindle against the glare of the new artistes of the swinging ‘60s, he still had a surprise hit in 1972, his biggest hit actually, in the obscene and salacious song “My Ding a Ling”. The song was recorded live in the United Kingdom, and Chuck Berry made the predominantly white audience sing along with him in their posh British accent while he grinned with triumphant impudence.

Although his output in the 1970s was received with indifference from critics and fans, he was still a top draw in live shows and he performed incessantly right until 2014. The popularity of his old songs never diminished, and his aura remained as strong as ever. Weeks before his death, Chuck Berry announced that he was making a new album, simply called “Chuck”. It would be his first album in 38 years.