Chuck Berry is Rock & Roll.
The music he created, starting with “Maybellene” in May of 1955, established the ground rules, raised the bar and set the stage for all that was to follow.
He was the first musician to combine the essential elements of Blues and Country music and come up with something that went beyond Rockabilly. As Cub Koda writes in The All Music Guide To Rock: “Of all the early breakthrough Rock & Roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry.”
In his 1987 book, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, Chuck describes his music this way: ” The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple. Call it what you may… it’s still boogie so far as I’m connected with it.”
Another reason that Chuck Berry is seen as one of the founding fathers of Rock & Roll is because he is also one of its greatest guitarists.
When asked how he created his landmark guitar style, Chuck told interviewer Neil Strauss in 2010: “I just feel I got my inspiration, education and all from the others that came before me and I added my… I don’t even know if I added anything. I played what they played, and it sounded different, I guess.” (From “American Visionary,” Rolling Stone Magazine, Sept. 2, 2010.)
In a March 1988 Guitar Player Magazine interview, “Chuck Berry: The Story,” Chuck gave author Tom Wheeler a list of those influential artists who “came before”: Carl Hogan, guitarist with Louis Jordan And His Tympani Five; Blues guitarists T-Bone Walker, Elmore James and Muddy Waters; and the Jazz musicians tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and guitarist Charlie Christian.
Founding father, stylistic alchemist, iconic guitarist – but wait: there’s more! Chuck Berry is Rock & Roll’s greatest songwrtiter.
In the early years of his career, Chuck Berry was a thirty-something, African-American high school dropout writing for an audience of white teenagers and yet he produced hit record after hit record of what Tom Wheeler called: “classic two-and-a-half-minute novellas of churning hormones and rock fever.” Wheeler goes on to describe Chuck Berry, the songwriter, as: “a percussionist of sorts who used syllables instead of drumsticks, he fashioned his lyrics into a sly, jivey poetry that percollated with its own gimme-five lingo.”
In the Rolling Stone piece, Neil Strauss tells of Chuck Berry “discussing the hours he spends working on getting each syllable, word and phrase of a song right” and how he “agonizes over the way his lyrics fit together, their ability to stand on their own, as literature seperate from the music.”
To name a few:
“As I was motivatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a Coupe deVille.” (“Maybellene” 1955)
“Well I’m a write a little letter, go’n mail it to my local DJ. Yeah it’s a jumpin’ little record I want my jockey to play.” (“Roll Over Beethoven” 1956)
“Way down in Lou’sianna, close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” (“Johnny B. Goode” 1957)
As you read those lines, didn’t you feel the rhythm, find yourself falling directly into the cadence of the words? Now: go back. Read them out loud.
To paraphrase Albert King: “Did you feel it?”
The influence of the guitar playing, recordings and songwriting of Chuck Berry is immeasurable. Every electric guitar player at some time or another plays a Chuck Berry guitar lick. Every Rock band has at least tried to play a Chuck Berry song. The Rolling Stones included Chuck’s “Carol” on their first album and the Beatles recorded their versions of two Chuck Berry songs: “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock And Roll Music.”
Would Bob Dylan have written: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine” (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” 1965) if there had been no “Maybellene”? Would John Lennon have written “Here come old flat top, he come groovin’ up slowly” (“Come Together” 1969) if Chuck had not written “Here come up flat top, he was movin’ up with me”? (“You Can’t Catch Me” 1955)
Cub Koda says: “Quite simply, without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad of others.”
Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Happy Birthday, Chuck. Thank you for everything.