The phrases “rock’n’roll legend” and “guitar hero” are often tossed around liberally when a star dies. But in the case of Charles Edward Anderson Berry – just “Chuck” to many guitar players – it’s not hyperbole. Berry’s claim to rock’n’roll greatness is beyond even discussion. As a prime hero of early rock’n’roll, he’s up there with Elvis (for guitar players and songwriters, he surely easily surpasses him). One of the most influential musicians ever? He has as good a claim as anyone. Bigger than The Beatles? Well, just ask a Beatle...
When it comes to the music Chuck made, the guitar moves and showmanship he pioneered, the very language of the fretboard pretty much all us guitar players take for granted, the songwriting skills and much more, Chuck Berry’s work and art... All that should not, and never will be, diminished.
Destined for Greatness
You can read about the bare bones of Berry’s life in any of the online obituaries – better still, read his The Autobiography for his own take on his colorful and outrageous life – but one thing worthy of remembering is Berry’s sheer drive. From a borrowed guitar and an early tutor, the Guitar Book Of Chords, in his hands as a teen, Berry simply willed himself to stardom. He spent much of his early time in prison honing his skills. When he headed for Chicago, he scrambled together 50 cents to see Muddy Waters. Other fans, and Chuck himself, were delighted to even meet the blues titan: “It was the feeling I suppose one would get from having a word with the president or the pope,” Berry recalled. But Chuck also used his ‘audience’ with Muddy wisely; “I quickly told him of my admiration for his compositions... and asked who I could see about making a record. Other fans of Muddy were scuffling for a chance just to say Hi to him, yet he chose to answer my question.”
As a result, Chuck got a live try-out with Leonard Chess, and Berry lied about having a full set-of demos back at his home. His drive impressed the label owner and Berry later revealed that Chess signed him “because of the businesslike way I’d talked to him.” Keyboard man Johnnie Johnson remembered Chuck working like crazy to push his band forward: “Berry did so many things for the band... We didn’t have a booking agency or nothing, so he got out and hustled up the jobs.”
And beyond Chuck’s hard work, there was also his art. Cars, girls, good times, bad times. Berry wrote the basics, sure, but that’s what teens were obsessed by, and it’s a format that’s never got old. In Angus Young’s words, “Chuck Berry was the Shakespeare of rock’n’roll.” Berry’s songs were part lyrical genius – no-one, literally no-one, was writing songs aimed at teenagers like he was – but they were also part of a well thought-out plan. “I play the songs they want to hear,” he said. “That makes them feel they're getting what they came for.” He was very smart. Early on, once he’d won over his own black audiences, he started playing them country songs... they’d put up with that as along as they got his R&B too, but it also got the white folks flocking to see the novelty of this “negro hillbilly.”
In the self-mythologizing “Johnny Be Goode”, he changed his original lyric of “colored boy” to “country boy” because he knew it would stand a better chance of getting on the radio. “Maybellene” grafted country to R&B in a way no-one had heard before. For good measure, the title was after one of the most popular cosmetics of the day (still is): Leonard Chess’s decision, but it was still smart and Chuck knew that every lipstick ad would act like free marketing for his own single. Berry was a hustler, yes, but a genius one too.
“It amazes me when I hear people say, ‘I want to go out and find out who I am’” he once laughed. “I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me.”
Chuck Berry – Guitar Man
Chuck Berry’s guitar style is a bedrock of rock’n’roll playing. His licks weren’t totally without precedent – he took influence from blues greats T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters and jazz pioneer Charlie Christian, among many others – but he assimilated his forebears’ style into something uniquely his that subsequently influenced us all.
The Chuck Berry guitar sound relies a lot on his use of ‘doublestops’ or two-note licks on the top two strings, punctuated by third-string bends - listen to any of “Johnny B Goode”, “Rock And Roll Music” or “Roll Over Beethoven” for typical Chuck-isms. And Berry played with humour, too. On “School Days”, immediately after singing “ring, ring, goes the bell” he stabs out a bell-like guitar lick. Berry also has very large hands, despite his lean build – this may well have helped him splash those already-talented fingers across the fretboard.
Just about every beginner rock’n’roll guitarist learns the intro to “Johnny B Goode”, and it soon became emblematic. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” could be a Chuck Berry song in all but credit and vocals. AC/DC’s Angus Young’s solos are basically Chuck Berry solos played super-fast and super-loud.
Legs apart and wielding a guitar as if a machine gun/phallus? That’s Chuck Berry. His use of Gibson ES-335s for more than sedate jazz and blues? Chuck. He was never the smoothest of players, but who really wants that in rock’n’roll? That rawness? That was Chuck Berry.
Hail! Hail! The Father Of Rock ‘n’ Roll
When any rock’n’roll star passes, there are – of course – thousands of tributes in the Twittersphere, in magazines, online, on TV and on radio, and the death of Chuck Berry has been no different. (Indeed, I’ve never known Keith Richards to Tweet so much.) And yet, the salutes for Chuck Berry in his passing were nothing new, not an attempt to “finally” give him credit. When it comes to guitar and songwriting, the best in the business had been acclaiming Berry for decades. They knew. So, to sidestep the usual round-up of Chuck Berry “R.I.P”s, here’s a selection of what others were saying when Chuck was still alive, still playing. Their words still stand, now more than ever...
Jerry Lee Lewis: “My mama said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good. But you're no Chuck Berry.’”
Angus Young: “Even on a bad night, Chuck Berry is a lot better than Eric Clapton will ever be.”
Keith Richards: “Chuck was my man. He was the one who made me say, ‘I want to play guitar.’ Jesus Christ! Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Brian Wilson: “He wrote all of the great songs and all the rock’n’roll beats.”
Eric Clapton: “There's not a lot of other ways to play rock’n’roll other than the way Chuck plays it. He's really laid the law down.”
Ted Nugent: “If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can’t play rock guitar.”
Stevie Wonder: “There's only one true king of rock'n'roll. His name is Chuck Berry.”
Joe Perry: “Chuck Berry's On Top is probably my favourite record of all time; it defines rock’n’roll. A lot of people have done Chuck Berry songs, but to get that feel is really hard. It's the rock’n’roll thing – the push-pull and the rhythm of it.”
Did Chuck Berry “invent” rock’n’roll? Nah. Let’s just say nobody did. But as John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Thank you for the music, Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry’s final album, simply called Chuck and his first of new songs for nearly 40 years, is released on Dualtone in 2017. Announcing its upcoming release in October last year on his 90th birthday, Berry wrote: “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
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