“If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
The above quote from John Lennon sums up Chuck Berry so perfectly. For some people, the phrase 1950’s Rock and Roll conjures up image of Elvis Presley, but I would have to respectfully disagree. Don’t get me wrong, in his prime, Elvis was downright iconic, but I’m not above picking on him. For one, he wasn’t a songwriter and he wasn’t much of a musician, just a good-looking guy with a nice voice. For me, it’s all about Chuck Berry. In a way, Berry marks the divide between Blues and Rock much like the division of the Common Era in the Gregorian Calendar.
The strongest influence on Berry as a guitarist is the piano music of the 1920’s called Boogie-Woogie. A dance-oriented descendant of Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie focused on bass-heavy piano rhythms. Take one listen to Clarence “Pine Top” Smith’s 1928 tune “Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie,” and it’s easy to hear this song as a precursor to Rock and Roll as we have come to know it. The rhythm played on the left hand, when played on a guitar, is the exact same rhythm that drove so many of Berry’s riffs.
Another influence, which may come as a bit of a surprise, is country music. The clean singing style of country music can be heard in Berry’s vocals, where his enunciation and timbre are very pronounced, especially when compared to electric blues players like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Berry’s 1955 hit “Maybelline” has a driving country two-step rhythm; with the augmentation of Berry’s distorted guitar, this rewrite of a country tune called “Ida Red” is comfortably seated in Rock and Roll territory.
The marriage of country and blues is what made rock and roll, and Berry was the officiant. However, he is much more than merely the by-product of his influences. He brought plenty of originality to the table, mostly in being rock’s first landmark guitar player. There is a great versatility in his playing; he makes for a rock-solid rhythm guitarist, and his lead lines are proof that Berry was a virtuoso player. One of Berry’s greatest musical achievements was the clash of rhythms between his guitar and the rest of his band. On “Johnny B. Goode,” the band is playing in swing time while Berry plays and sings in straight eighth-notes. It produces a unique effect of syncopated rhythm and an almost urgent energy. Even for those unfamiliar with musical terminology, this neat little trick will stand out to the listener.
Two of rock’s most profound lyricists, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies, have cited Berry’s lyrical style as an inspiration to their own work. Dylan ranks him as a favorite poet, right up there with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas. The early Rock song is simple in structure, almost minimalist in terms of words. Think of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti;” it’s fun as Hell, but not much going on in the department of lyrics. Berry was different. On his debut single “Maybelline,” Berry gives us a catchy, easy-to-follow chorus, but when it comes to the verses, Berry bridges the gap between Beat poetry and Rap as he throws out a tongue-twisting myriad of words.
More important than the “how” of his singing is the “what.” Berry densely packed his verses because he had so much to say. Many of his songs dealt with topics that his audience – teenagers – could relate to. “Too Much Monkey Business” details the frustrations of the in and out drudgery of work. “No Particular Place To Go” (erroneously known as “School Days” and “Hail, Hail, Rock And Roll”) was a spot-on account of the ennui of American youth, being bored both in and out of school, needing some sort of escape from monotony. “You Never Can Tell,” which was given a second life during the twist contest in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, is a song about a young married couple who struggle, with success, to attain wealth and happiness.
What has to be Berry’s finest lyric is “Memphis, Tennessee.” Taken at face value, it’s about a man struggling with a telephone operator to get through to a girl named Marie in Memphis. One can easily assume Marie is the narrator’s lover – he wants her, but “her mom did not agree” – and he fears he has lost her for good. However, a close listen to the song’s final verse reveals Marie to be the narrator’s six-year-old daughter, her mother being the narrator’s ex-lover. This extra level of detail makes what seems like a benign tale of love lost a much more involved tale of heartbreak.
Berry’s hit records in the 1950’s were on the Rhythm and Blues charts; a symbol of musical segregation and a euphemism for their prior branding as “race” records. The sad irony is that Berry’s only number one hit on the Rock charts was in 1972, with a dumb little novelty tune called “My Ding-A-Ling.” It is exactly what it sounds like: a paean to his pee-wee. The song is funny, but not exactly the source of inspiration for the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Keith Richards, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X, or any number of budding guitarists in a basement near you. Thankfully, his legacy had been long secured by then.
Chuck Berry remains one of the few living legends from the 1950’s, still playing his heart out on a regular basis. The world around him has changed: while on a package tour with Buddy Holly, he recalled politely sitting on the bus while his white musician friends ate at a whites-only restaurant. Fifty years on, those stupid Jim Crow laws were eliminated in the 1960’s, in 1979, Berry performed at the White House at the request of Jimmy Carter, a man of African descent is President and Berry holds a place in the hearts of millions of listeners the world over.