Chuck Berry died Saturday, at age 90, more than six decades after he stood America on its collective ear and almost single-handedly invented rock and roll. He was one of a handful of artists who changed American popular music forever back in the 1950s: Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley.
Berry’s songs were probably among the first rock and roll I heard, when I started listening to WLS out of Chicago in the early 1960s. His new singles, and his earlier hits (as covers and first-time-around “oldies”) were on the air a lot back then.
“Nadine,” one of three Top 25 hits he had in 1961, was certainly among those. But the balky seat belt in “No Particular Place to Go” sticks in my head, too.
By that time, though, Berry’s career was on the ropes. Over the five-year period starting in 1955, he had recorded nine Top 40 hits, including five that made it to the Top 10 (“Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode”).
In late 1959, though, he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, transporting an underage female across state lines for sexual purposes (the 14-year-old worked in Berry’s St. Louis nightclub), and convicted the following year. An appeal based on the judge’s racial comments won Berry a second trial, but he was found guilty again, and ended up serving a year and a half in prison in 1962 and ’63.
Berry had the three hits in 1961 — “You Never Can Tell” was the other one — but didn’t chart again until 1964. That year’s “Promised Land” (No. 41) was the closest he came to the Top 40, until 1972; “My Ding-a-Ling,” a novelty song, hit No. 1 that year, and a live version of “Reelin’ and “Rockin’” got to No. 27.
I had seen him two years earlier, on the final day of ill-fated Iola (Wis.) People’s Fair. To be fair, it was not the best of circumstances — the rock festival’s notorious dust-up between the bikers and hippies had started earlier in the day.
Personally, the fest had been kind of a downer from Day One, and by Sunday I was pretty burned out. My girlfriend at the time and I were out in the crowd trying to sell handicrafts when Berry took the stage, backed by an area band named Django. The performance was pretty desultory, as I recall; the main attraction and his impromptu backing band obviously had not rehearsed the numbers, and Berry seemed to be going through the motions.
That pretty much encapsulates the analyses of Berry’s career at that point. Musicians who backed him in the ’70s — among them were future stars like Steve Miller and Bruce Springsteen — said he didn’t provide a set list to his backup bands, and didn’t converse with the musicians or thank them afterwards. He also insisted on being paid in cash, part of pattern of financial hijinks that resulted in a 1979 conviction for tax evasion, and another stint in prison.
But that sort of thing couldn’t tarnish Chuck’s musical legacy. He not only recorded some of the great early rock songs of all time, his guitar playing was hugely influential on some of the genre’s best pickers — Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones among them. “It’s when I knew what I wanted to do,” Richards said of hearing Berry’s music.
"If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can't play rock guitar,” Ted Nugent said. And those licks are instantly recognizable — I can close my eyes and ears, and play those opening chords from “Roll Over Beethoven” in my mind. Berry’s performing style — the Duck Walk, the stage antics — also helped define the showmanship of rock.
But I think Berry was perhaps under-appreciated as a lyricist. Bob Dylan called him “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll,” which might be a bit hyperbolic, but Chuck did write some of the great lines in rock.
Not just the obvious ones, like “But he could play a guitar just like ringin’ a bell,” from “Johnny B. Goode.” Every bit as good were some of Berry’s lesser-known gems, like “Tidewater four ten O nine/Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’/And the poor boy's on the line.”
And would we have one of the great rock lyrics about baseball, John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” had it not been for Berry, that brown-eyed handsome rock-and-roller? “Two, three count with nobody on/He hit a high fly into the stand/Rounding third he was headed for home/It was a brown eyed handsome man.”
Fittingly, Berry was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His fingerprints are all over the “greatest” lists compiled by media organizations and others who evaluate such things. Time magazine ranked him among the 10 best guitarists of all time, and Rolling Stone picked him No. 6 on its list of the same.
Rolling Stone ranked six of Berry’s tunes among its 500 greatest songs of all time, including three in the top 100. The magazine picked “Johnny B. Goode” as No. 1 on its “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”
But perhaps the best indicator of Berry’s impact on our culture can be found on Voyager I and II, launched in 1977. The spacecraft both carry a gold phonograph record, which include the images, music, sounds and voices of Earth; Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock and roll song immortalized on those discs.
So, as his recorded music sails through interstellar space on the human-made object currently most distant from Earth, we bid farewell to Chuck Berry. Bye bye, Johnny B. Goode!