Chuck Berry invented rock and roll. Maybe someone else would have gotten around to it if he had never lived, but then that music would’ve sounded different. It might have been good, it might have been better! But it wouldn’t sound like what we think of as rock and roll, because it wouldn’t sound like Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry was a magpie. He took elements of his music from T-Bone Walker, and some from Nat King Cole, and this and that from country artists like Bob Wills. But when he welded it all together, it didn’t sound like anything anybody had ever heard before. What it did sound like was something that everyone else wanted to play.
Chuck Berry was a unifier. He brought people together who didn’t agree about anything else. John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.’” Ted Nugent said, "If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can't play rock guitar."
Chuck Berry made the electric guitar the heart of rock and roll. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis proved that you don’t have to play guitar to be a rock star. What you do have to be able to do is craft a lick that only sounds right on an amplified guitar and then sticks in people’s brains forever. Chuck Berry did that better than anyone. Try to imagine rock and roll without the unforgettably, hair-raising guitar intro to “Johnny B. Goode” and all that flowed from that. Go on. Take your time.
Chuck Berry was a dangerous man. He went to prison three times in his life, for armed robbery, violating the Mann Act, and tax evasion. He had plausible explanations for all, but three times? There are those who argue that for this reason alone he should reign as the undisputed king of rock and roll, because danger is the genre’s beating heart. When it’s really great, you don’t know what will happen next, it could be good or bad, but it’s nothing if those aren’t always possibilities.
Chuck Berry was his own worst enemy. For most of his very long career, he toured alone. If he came to your town, in all likelihood the back-up band was composed of your neighbors. The headliner and his band took the stage without rehearsal--but only after Chuck Berry got paid up front--and he never talked to the back-up musicians, on stage or off. He’d simply launch into a song and expect them to keep up, and never mind that he often played in horn keys, like Bb, that a lot of pop musicians don’t know well. The results were ragged and often out of tune. Did he care? Was this contempt? Perverseness? Consider this: His only Number One Billboard hit was the execrable novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling.” Surely he liked the royalty checks but just as surely he must have thought, “I have written and performed more great songs than almost anyone in my generation, and the one you people like the best is this smutty piece of crap. To hell with you.”
Chuck Berry was the first rock singer-songwriter. (And one of the very few of any kind.)
Elvis and Jerry Lee performed other people’s material. So, for that matter, did most stars going back for decades. Then here comes Chuck Berry who wrote well, sang well, played well, and did all three better than most of his competition. Of course, he was not in the habit of baring his soul in his songs, so we don’t think of him the way we think of Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Paul Simon. We should.
Chuck Berry was one of the most physically beautiful men who ever lived. Consider this:
Chuck Berry was funny. Humor is the surely the most undervalued element in the rock and roll equation. Can great rock and roll exist without it? Possibly. But in the music of Chuck Berry, humor was always front and center, starting with “Maybelline,” which is really a funny take on not getting the girl. The bedrock of humor is the belief that the world is an imperfect place where things do not work out the way you hoped. Chuck Berry made his fortune exploiting that fact in a series of unforgettably wry and clever songs.
Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s best storyteller. Nearly all of his best songs are narratives. “Let It Rock” takes only three verses to capture “the heat of the day down in Mobile, Alabama,” working on the railroad track, dreaming of spending a paycheck on a brand new pair of shoes and finding new love, shooting craps inside a tepee built right on the tracks, and the ensuing mayhem once the foreman announces an off schedule train running two miles out.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” tells a different story in every verse.
“Nadine” gives me a shiver each time I hear it because the words are so casually precise: Nadine doesn’t just get into a Cadillac, it’s a “coffee-colored Cadillac.” She “moves around like a wayward summer breeze” while her frustrated suitor weaves ”through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.” It’s a vivid little quest.
Chuck Berry had depth. It wasn’t all malt shops and hot rods. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be “C’est la Vie” (or “You Never Can Tell”-- I’ve seen it titled both ways). This little Cajun-inflected song is also about teen love but this time “it was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well.” Without ever trying to oversell his tale, the lyricist turns a commonplace story--will this struggling young couple make it?--into something extraordinary with details that practically glow in the dark: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale, / Coolerator was jammed with TV dinners and ginger ale. / But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well.” The record player roars all days, “But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell.” If he didn’t give himself the rest of the day off once he had that line, he should have.
As allergic as I am to the idea that song lyrics can be considered as poetry, I’ll make an exception for Chuck Berry. You can read his lyrics on a page with no music and they hold up. But why the hell would you want to do that.