Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

America’s greatest cultural inventions have been in music. And there was no musician who influenced American music more in the 20th century than Chuck Berry. Musically, Chuck Berry created rock and roll out of blues music. But stylistically, Berry called upon not the gritty Delta blues musicians like Robert Johnson, but jazz showmen like Louis Armstrong.

You can see that affect not only in his flashy suits but in his stage moves, including the signature “duck walk,” and in his lyrics, which tend towards the assertive and even aspirational rather than the introspective and morose. Chuck Berry was not the kind of artist who went on stage to show you his pain - an essential quality for any blues musician. He wanted his songs to electrify you, and make you stop and say, like the audience of his most famous protagonist, “Oh, my, but that little country boy could play!”  

Like many black musicians of his era, Berry earned far more influence than he did fame or wealth. White musicians had more success with Chuck Berry’s music than he did, most notably the Beach Boys with their “Surfin’ USA”, an uninvited “tribute” to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” This imbalance vexed Berry his whole life, but he felt like he got the better end of the deal. His talent and originality was his trump card. You can hear this bristling insistence in his dismissive reviews of later music, such as this comment on The Romantics’ “What I Like About You”:

Finally something you can dance to. Sounds a lot like the sixties with some of my riffs thrown in for good measure. You say this is new? I’ve heard this stuff plenty of times. I can’t understand the big fuss.

He often toured without a band, instead playing with local musicians in every town. Why not travel with his own band? No need. “Everybody knows my songs anyway.” He wasn’t wrong.

The dimensions of Berry’s artistic success makes it difficult to fully appreciate him today. With the possible exception of “Johnny B. Goode,” his songs aren’t so well known as to be themselves part of the American pantheon that still reappear on radio and at wedding receptions and so on, like the songs of the Beach Boys or the Beatles or Elvis Presley. The casual listener hears Chuck Berry as a knock-off of “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Hound Dog”, which enjoy the unimpeachable familiarity of old friends. Maybe Berry’s glossy suits and high hairdo come off as an early version of Bruno Mars left on the cutting room floor. It’s hard to understand today how fresh Chuck Berry’s music was when it first came out.

But they’re all stealing Chuck Berry’s act. They’re stealing partly because it’s a really great act. But also because it’s so beautifully simple - mostly 12-bar blues, sped up and put to a beat, with the additions of few key guitar riffs and an invitation to dance. It’s irresistible enough to catch fire and rich enough to continue driving music even six decades later. Everybody still knows Chuck Berry’s songs, whether they realize it or not.

RIP.

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