Chuck Berry: Remembering Rock Guitar’s Primary Architect
Rock and roll guitar lost its primary architect on Saturday (March 18), with the death of Chuck Berry. Berry’s legacy and influence are monumental, strewn in every corner of the guitar rock landscape. Drawing from country, swing, and rhythm 'n' blues, Berry invented something utterly unique, an original style of music that embodied perfectly the ebullient post-war optimism that swept through America in the '50s. In the process, he not only fathered some of the most important songs of the century, he also became the spiritual godfather to many of contemporary music's greatest artists. It’s hard to imagine that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Beach Boys would ever have come to exist without him.
John Lennon once famously said that if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.” It’s hard to argue otherwise. Some people credit Ike Turner with writing the first rock and roll song—specifically, 1951’s “Rocket 88”—but no one can deny that Berry was the artist who invented rock guitar. From Keith Richards to Jimi Hendrix to Angus Young and beyond, every rock guitarist who ever strapped on an electric owes Berry an incalculable debt.
“If you want to play rock and roll--or any upbeat number--you end up playing like Chuck,” Eric Clapton noted, in the 1987 documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. “There is very little other choice. He’s really laid down the law.” Clapton’s words—in one form or another—have been echoed through the years by countless players. Indeed the image of Berry wailing away on his ever-present semi-hollowbody stands Mount Rushmore-like atop rock’s fertile landscape.
In addition to his often-overlooked brilliance as a lyricist, Berry’s songwriting genius was rooted in his ability to see the exciting potential that lay in fusing together the aforementioned genres—swing, R&B and country. Key, of course, was the fact that he had settled on the perfect instrument--the electric guitar--to pull those musical forces together. Taking inspiration from Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker and Carl Hogan, Berry developed a vocabulary of licks and riffs that became, in his words, “the foundation of the style that is said to be [mine].” The linchpin for that signature style was so-called “hillbilly music.”
“The music that was played most around St. Louis was hillbilly music and swing,” Berry observed, referring to his hometown in his 1989 autobiography. “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of country stuff on our predominantly black audience. After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it.”
In due time, while perfecting his style at St. Louis’s Cosmopolitan Club in the early ‘50s, Berry and his “Johnnie Johnson Trio” began drawing crowds comprised of white and black fans in equal measure. A chance encounter with Muddy Waters prompted a visit to Chess Records, in Chicago, in May of 1955. Fatefully, after listening to Berry’s demo recordings, Leonard Chess declared Berry’s reworking of an old hillbilly song, titled “Ida May,” to be the song with the greatest commercial potential. After further tinkering, and a change of title to “Maybellene,” the song was recorded and released as Berry’s first single. The recording sold more than a million copies.
Thus was forged the template for the deluge of Berry classics that followed. Between 1955 and 1962, Berry released 26 singles—a floodgate that in essence created the fabric from which every rock guitarist would draw. Listening today to one of the many Berry anthology albums, one is struck by the endless permutations Berry uncovers within a narrow range of musical parameters. “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” might all have sprung from the same template, but each stands as a singular classic in its own right.
Berry wrote ballads as well, of course, and in their understated elegance these songs measure up nearly to their better-known up-tempo counterparts. The smoky blues of "Wee Wee Hours," the calypso-flavored "Havana Moon," and the doo-wop-tinged "Do You Love Me," for instance, reveal a side of Berry that's been too little emphasized. It's worth noting, in fact, that in the Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll a smitten Eric Clapton speculated that such songs as these were where Berry's heart really lay.
Remarkably, even as he approached his 90th birthday, Berry continued to perform those timeless classics, staging monthly gigs at Blueberry Hill--a restaurant and bar located in his native St. Louis. In a lengthy profile published in Esquire in January of 2012, writer Luke Dittrich noted that Berry was also continuing to write and record songs--although not for public consumption. The few people privy to that material claimed it held its own against the best of Berry’s ‘50s and ‘60s work. Perhaps--who knows?--a treasure trove of fresh Chuck Berry classics will one day remind us again of his greatness.