The past week marked the passing of a true giant in American – indeed global – popular culture, Chuck Berry leaving us on March 18 at the age of 90.
As much as Elvis Presley became known as the ‘King of Rock-n-Roll’, in reality the title well and truly belonged to Chuck Berry; Berry was an accomplished guitarist as well as a singer: unlike Presley, Berry wrote most of his own songs, many of them absolute classics: while Presley’s style owed much to gospel and country – indeed, most of Presley’s music was more Rockabilly than pure Rock-n-Roll – Berry’s Verse Chorus-Verse-Guitar Solo-Chorus style became Rock-n-Roll: and, in addition to his prodigious musical and lyrical talents, Berry was a consummate showman.
Chuck Berry from an appearance on French TV playing the guitar he made famous, the Gibson ES-335.
But Chuck Berry’s significance transcended mere music. Berry was a cultural icon whose influence bridged the racial divide of his era; I would argue, by popularizing black culture among white youth, he helped create a new mainstream culture, an appealing culture of cars and girls and music that transcended racial differences and laid the foundation for the political reforms that the Civil Rights movement would bring to American society.
Berry’s first hit single and ode to the Ford Flathead V8 Maybellene on the great Chess Records label. The reference to the Flathead V8’s tendency to overheat is a perfect example of the detail Berry consistently worked into his lyrics.
The appealing nature of Berry’s work can hardly be understated and is notably missing from the contemporary music scene (especially, sad to say, black music). Little Queenie is possibly the best example of that; no one is left to any doubt what Berry is talking about, but the message is delivered with a sly suggestion, not the crass and even malicious vulgarity a contemporary rapper would use in describing a similar scenario (and the way Berry wrote and delivers the lyric as a conversation with the listener is brilliant).
Footage from the 1959 film Go, Johnny, Go!
Chuck Berry’s influence was truly global; he was perhaps the greatest inspiration to the so-called British Invasion, most of the bands of the era covering his songs, The Rolling Stones and Beatles prominent among them.
Film from The Rolling Stones 1969 Tour, featured on the album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! and the film Gimmie Shelter. I personally love both the dark grainy quality of the film and the heavy roughness of the sound (Film of the mixing of this cut is available here).
As far as my personal favorite among Berry’s songs, I would have to say either Little Queenie or Let It Rock. Both are great examples of Berry lyrics; witty: detailed: bawdy subtexts yet evocative of simpler, more innocent times. Let It Rock has the advantage of its working-man setting, Berry’s guitar licks mimic the approaching train’s horn, as the beat churns forward (An excellent live cover from The Rolling Stones recorded in 1971 during the rehearsals for their 1972 Tour here).
Engineer blowin’ the whistle long and long, can’t stop the train, you gotta let it roll on…
Despite growing up during segregation and suffering a rather star-crossed (ahem) variety of personal legal entanglements, Berry’s work always sounded an optimistic note about America, a note made all the more affecting due to his obvious familiarity with the country (Consider all the detail included in the lyric to Promised Land: Berry’s years spent on the road touring the country are obvious).
Promised Land, Berry’s reworking of the American folk classic Wabash Cannonball, recorded in 1964 immediately after his release from prison for violating the Mann Act.
Some idea of Berry’s stature can be gauged from this 1987 appearance on The Tonight Show: Johnny Carson seldom deferred to any guest, but here he gave Berry a full half-hour including three musical numbers.
If one had to replace The Star Spangled Banner with something from the 20th Century to serve as our national anthem, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Back in the USA (Berry’s music has already been immortalized by NASA; recordings of some of his songs were placed on board the Voyager satellites). In a just world, similar to how Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were combined to make Presidents’ Day, MLK’s and Chuck Berry’s birthdays would be combined into a new holiday, African American Heritage Day.