As the architect of the aural rebellion known as rock ‘n’ roll, St. Louis native Chuck Berry, who died last Saturday at the age of 90, was a complicated man. A musical and lyrical genius who was a premier guitarist, with his stylistic mash-up of blues and country music in his 1950s recordings “Maybellene,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode,” he developed a sound that didn’t take long to set the world ablaze.
Still, no matter his genius, Berry definitely had his issues. Having spent time in prison after being convicted in 1960 for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes,”years later he admitted to installing hidden video cameras in the women’s bathroom of a restaurant he owned, but only for the purpose of catching a worker he suspected of stealing. He was never found guilty in court, but later did settle with the 59 women that sued him.
“Chuck Berry’s kudos as the king of rock ‘n’ roll is much deserved,” former Billboard editor and writer Janine Coveney says, “but his behavior over the years kind of diminished [my] appreciation of him.” Despite this, a few years back after being gifted with an album of Berry’s greatest hits, Coveney was surprised when it became a favorite in her collection. “He’s so well known for his guitar playing, but his sense of lyricism and storytelling were also so pristine and imaginative. Listening to tracks like ‘No Particular Place to Go’ or ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man,’ he was a master. He could take these mundane moments and make them magical.”
Writer and former Def Jam Records publicist Bill Adler, whose former client LL Cool J sampled Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode” on his 1987 jam “Go Cut Creator Go” agrees. “Those songs captured what it was like to be young in America at that time,” Adler says. “There is love of cars and girls, speeding and dancing. But at the same time, the lyrics were race-neutral, which was what helped him crossover to the White audiences in a different way. He wasn’t talking about blues or soul; one of his biggest songs is ‘Rock and Roll Music,’ and that’s what the kids were connecting to.”
Berry’s sound inspired folks not only on American soil but also across the ocean in England. Young men named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (the Rolling Stones) and John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the Beatles) were also digging the boom of Chuck and incorporating it into their own music.
“Berry was legend who breathed life into legends,” Living Colour guitarist and Black Rock Coalition (B.R.C.) co-founder Vernon Reid says. “I don’t care if it was Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana; if they had a guitar in their hand, then they passed through the gateway of ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ We all had to do it.”
Growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Reid first heard Berry’s music on the oldies station WCBS. When he began playing guitar a few years later he referred back to those classic riffs, but it was watching clips of Berry’s vintage performances that sent thrills through the budding rock star. “Chuck Berry’s stage craft was so crazy. His duck walk and things he did with his knees were highly influential,” Reid says.
Of course, much of Berry’s contributions have been overshadowed through the years by the mythology of Elvis, The Beach Boys (who swiped Berry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their own “Surfin’U.S.A.”) and countless others, which was part of the reason Reid and writer-musician Greg Tate co-founded the B.R.C in 1985 to school folks about the musical contributions of our African-American elders.
“In all areas of American popular music, African-Americans have been in the forefront,” Reid explains. “Whether you’re talking about blues, jazz, folk and rock, we were there. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard are our holy trinity. Berry gave rock form and language in many ways. He influenced rockers who went on to influence other rockers.”
A few years after Reid had become a rock star himself with the release of Living Colour’s classic debut Vivid (1988), he played with Berry at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater when the icon was FYI, I didn’t see this when I looked to try to confirm] “Chuck wasn’t always the most personable guy,” Reid says, laughing. “He was just one of those dudes who just started playing, and you were either with him or you weren’t.” In 2012, he met his idol again when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—to which Berry was the first person inducted in 1986—sponsored a tribute concert in the legendary performer’s honor.
“I was backstage and just looking at the array of guitarists there to honor him; Lemmy from Motörhead, pop star, it was amazing. But the running joke all night was who was going to play ‘My Ding-a-Ling,’ his last big hit in 1972 but also a No. 1 song. People like to act as though they’re embarrassed by the song and call it a novelty, but it was a runaway success. It was also his most transgressive song.” Although the track was censored on some radio stations when released, it still became his only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1. In 1991, Leaders of the New School sampled the track and swiped the title for its debut A Future Without a Past…
Rock guitarist Danny Chavis of the Veldt grew-up in North Carolina listening to his grandma’s records and “just loving Chuck’s rhythm,” while cultural critic and musician Greg Tate, who has a wonderful essay about Berry in recently released Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, listened to his mother’s record collection in Ohio and was an instant fan. “I remember I found a Chess Records collection called The Blues Volume 2. There was a song called ‘Thirty Days,’ and that was one of the records that made me interested in rock history.”
Although Tate is also a fan of fantasy and science fiction films, he has always refused to watch Back to Future because it depicts Michael J. Fox’s character inventing Berry’s patented moves and sound as he plays “Johnny B. Goode.” “Every time that movie comes on, I turn off the television,” Tate says. “I’m like, f–k you, McFly.”
After Berry passed over the weekend, I was pleased to discover a clip of Prince playing “Johnny B. Goode” paying tribute to the master; another genius bowing down to the original.
“Chuck Berry wrote the playbook; other people ran the plays,” says writer Ben Greenman, whose Prince book Dig If You Will the Picture will be released next month. “A visionary car song like Prince’s ‘Little Red Corvette’ was in fact a revision, a distillation and extension of the themes that Berry laid out. Everyone who came after Chuck Berry came after Chuck Berry, in every sense.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, Berry’s last album, Chuck, will be released later this week.