At the ripe age of 90, Chuck Berry passed away, leaving behind one of the most fruitful legacies in music history. In just short of a century, Berry carved for himself an unparalleled career that saw him have a driving hand in the invention of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s more to this musical icon than simply a memorable contribution to the Back to The Future soundtrack. Charles Andrews looks back on the incomparable life of one of the world’s most important musicians.
Redolent of the dreadful 2016, Death has claimed its first victim for 2017 – rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, Chuck Berry, at the age of 90 in St. Charles County, Missouri. Although Presley is credited as America’s first pop heartthrob and archetypal rock ‘n roll frontman, Berry was the mastermind architect that laid out the blueprints to the gritty, acerbic sound that would be utilized by various generations of bands and solo acts that were to come.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, to a segregated, middle-class family, Charles Edward Anderson Berry spent most of his formative years soaking up the local gospel, blues, country, and rhythm and blues that made up most of his surrounding environment. Combining the typical ‘Hank-Williams’ twang of country and the fast-paced 12-bar blues rhythm of rock, Berry’s enduring guitar riffs and aggressive showmanship not only defined rock’s sound, but also its hardened attitude, that would inspire future generations to come.
Much before his guitar-slinging days and what some would define as early punk, Berry spent three years in reformatory school for armed robbery and hijacking. Upon his release, he settled into married life and spent a brief stint as a factory worker in automobile assembly plants. Receiving a degree in cosmetology, he moved on to being a beautician 2 years later and jammed with various local acts to supplement his meagre income.
Inspired by Texan guitarist T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry managed to master the 2-string bend technique that would later be emulated by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and countless other bands. This hybrid fusion of hillbilly country and edgy rock ‘n’ roll quickly became a hit with white and black audiences alike and would soon reach the ears of established blues guitarist, Muddy Waters, in 1955.
— aaron kizer (@kizerarts) March 27, 2017
Upon being referred to Chess Records by Waters, Berry, with the guidance of Leonard Chess, recorded his first hit single, Maybelline, which would reach No. 5 on the Billboard Pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B charts. Besides the infectious beat and chugging rhythm, the narrative lyrics encapsulated the trends of raucous adolescents – hot rods, big drums, and the naivety of young love.
Furthermore, echoing the desires of many teenagers at the time with hits such as ‘Run Rudolph Run’, ‘School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell)’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, Berry ensured that these early and timeless rock ‘n’ roll records would sound just as raunchy and abrasive 60 years later.
Chuck Berry reached his peak from 1955 to 1958, churning out classic after classic with Chess Records, mirroring age-old high school sentiments in lyrics made to fit the rebellious 8-bar rock ‘n’ roll template that plagued the ‘50s.
From all these hits, it was ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in 1958 that would immortalize the 32-year-old for years to come. With its rapid-fire 2-string guitar introduction, the song chronicled the trials and tribulations of a fictitious working-class man who “could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell”. What is particularly alluring about this song is the way it captures the very rebellious essence of rock in its early days, which opened an avenue for people to earn money through music as opposed to settling for a typical day job. Additionally, in all his brash, confident showmanship, Berry also earned a reputation for his duck walk, a guitar-thrusting strut involving the kicking of one leg forward and hopping on the other.
By the time of the British Invasion where Berry’s influence would be heard in British rock, the man had already been charged twice with transporting a teenage girl cross-state for suspicious purposes and had many other convictions to come, including tax evasion, possession of marijuana and video-recording women at his restaurant’s bathroom. The thoughts that troubled Berry during these legal trials, which did not diminish his songwriting, can be heard on ‘Have Mercy Judge’. In particular, a peek into Berry’s obscene mind would be revealed in the innuendo-laden ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, which sold millions in 1972 at the height of the hedonistic decade and quickly became his first and only No. 1 pop single.
Despite a downward career trajectory following that hit, Berry was officially recognized as a rock pioneer in the 1980s with the conferring of the Recording Academy lifetime achievement award in 1984 and being one of the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its opening in 1986.
Forever embracing the rock philosophy, Berry continued performing well into his 80s and even had a new album in the works upon his turning 90 in 2016 – the first in almost 40 years! Consisting of new original material, Chuck is schedule for release this June.
Although Berry may have left Earth for good, the eternal ‘Johnny B. Goode’ remains on extraterrestrial tour on golden records with the Voyager I and II spacecraft, launched in 1977 and awaiting discovery.
What are your reflections on Chuck Berry’s legacy? Let us know in the comments below or via social media.