The man who was as essential as Elvis Presley to making a music form (Rock ‘n’ Roll) a central part of the world the last 60 years has left us. Don McLean wrote about the music dying with the loss of the great Buddy Holly in his song classic, American Pie; but, with the passing of Chuck Berry, the music did die.
His career did not have an auspicious beginning. He left the security of his stable family life in a Black area of St. Louis to break some laws and end up with a 10-year sentence for armed robbery at the age of 18. His most notable musical experience before being released from jail at the age of 21 was singing in the prison choir as delineated in Brown Eyed Handsome Man by Bruce Pegg.
By his mid-20s he was fronting a band, playing the local circuit. Pegg writes of Berry’s ambitious efforts to move up the musical ladder as Rock was just bursting on the scene. Most Black artists were releasing songs that would climb the Billboard R & B chart to have their song covered by a white musical act that would significantly out sell the original recording. Those were the days of Race music when radio play for artists like Berry were in question as to whether the White audience would accept them. Berry wanted to change that.
Berry was introduced to Leonard Chess by Muddy Waters. Berry wanted to start a recording career and the Chicago entrepreneur was the vehicle for that. Though other Black artists had successful R & B hits, Berry’s Maybelline became the first cross-over hit climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1955, eventually reaching No. 5. Berry’s hit became a cultural phenomenon and significant moment for Black Americans.
1956 saw Berry releasing multiple classic songs, but he was eclipsed on the pop charts by other Black artists like Fats Domino who had a series of hits. Berry continued to roll out song after song, culminating in the 1958 release of his seminal song and the seminal song of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era – Johnny B. Goode. The autobiographical song cemented him in the history of music.
Rock ‘n’ Roll went through various changes in the next few years as the White establishment fought back with a series of acts like Bobby Darin, Fabian, Bobby Rydell and Paul Anka until the British invasion started in 1963. Berry was again thrust to the front of the music scene as both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones released covers of his hit songs as part of their adaptation to the American market. The first single the Stones ever released was a cover of the Berry hit Come On.
In 2011, Rolling Stone published a list of the top 500 Rock ‘n’ Roll songs of all time. Lists like this are completely subjective. Their choices are admirable, but there is no question what the No. 1 Rock ‘n’ Roll song of all time is -- Johnny B. Goode. They did list it at No. 7, but the song is far and away the definitive Rock song. The lyrics speak of essential elements of Rock and the music is superior. There has almost never been a garage band or any band that could not play and sing this song. Name another Rock song as ubiquitous. Everyone knows the lyrics and certainly the chorus by heart. It is the essential Rock song.
Rolling Stone did justice putting Maybelline at No. 18, but abused both Roll Over Beethoven and Rock & Roll Music, listing them at No. 97 and No. 129 respectively. These two songs are easily in the top 25 Rock songs of all time. There is a reason the Beatles recorded both early in their career. The sad thing is some people probably think they are Beatles songs.
These four songs and a boatload more by Mr. Berry changed the sounds we all hear and are the foundation on which Rock was built.
God bless you, Chuck. You changed the world.