From time to time the evolution of a species takes massive leaps forward due to the pressures and opportunities of circumstances. Chuck Berry’s musical emergence in 1955 with “Maybelline” marked a huge jump in evolution of American music. He brought rhythm and blues together with some experience playing in a country band and put them to work in the midst of the new forms of music that were emerging from Memphis and elsewhere. Though not the first to play rock and roll, no one had a larger, more lasting impact on what rock and roll would become than Berry. His bravado, “duck walking,” and indomitable rock attitude made him the Father of Rock.
When Berry forged his reputation, he made the new art form his own. His driving rhythms, showmanship, guitar solos, irony, lyrical accessibility, and those distinctive riffs revealed the influences of his friends and mentors like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, T-Bone Walker, Johnnie Johnson, and, later on, his friend, Carl Perkins. While the connections to older musical traditions were evident, what he brought together was so remarkably original that it stood on its own as the most potent representation of the emerging youth culture of the 1950s. Rock and roll was their music, not their parents’, and Berry was the standard bearer.
When Berry walked into Larry Chess’s Chicago studio in 1955, referred there by the legendary bluesman,Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley was already bringing R&B into the mainstream, but his music was more derivative than original (Elvis did not write most of his songs). Berry became the most prominent original artist of the era with his remarkable talent as a writer and performer.
In the 1950s, the generational divide was evident as white parents often forbade their children to listen to“black music” (or other, worse monikers): rock and roll, R&B, or blues. Original rock and roll music from folks like Berry, Bo Diddley, or Little Richard was troublesome for those white parents on several levels—they didn’t understand the music AND these singers were black. To deal with the resistance, record companies invested in cheap knock-off artists, most prominently Pat Boone, who sang really horrible, and shamelessly opportunistic, cover versions of the originals (“garbage” is the word that comes to mind). Yet, despite the racist opportunism of record companies, Chuck Berry kept recording records that were as scandalously successful and fresh as The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Metallica, Pearl Jam, or U2 were in their generations.
In 1956 Berry released “Roll Over Beethoven.” It was as much manifesto as it was pop music artifact. Berry wrote it as a response to his sister’s insistence on playing classical music on the family piano when Chuck wanted to play R&B. Of course, the song gives classical composers Beethoven and Tchaikovsky permission to roll over in their graves at the emergence of rock and roll. It makes reference to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Morning,” nursery rhymes, the Mills Brothers’ “Glow Worm,” and the juke boxes that everywhere around America were starting to play rock and roll for young people to dance to. In two minutes and 23 seconds, Berry proclaimed that rock and roll was an unstoppable musical force that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky should just get used to.
The invincibility of rock and roll leaped further with “Johnny B. Goode” in 1957. For my money, “Johnny” was Berry’s magnum opus. More than any other song of the era, it blasted out the whole aesthetic of rock music—rhythm, story-telling, authenticity, and guitar driven magic. It was the only rock recording including the Voyager spacecraft that was launched into deep space in 1977, and virtually everyone who makes up “top rock songs” lists include “Johnny B. Goode.” This song marks such a powerful progression of American music that it features prominently in the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future. That particular scene in the movie even shows how that song would eventually lead to later evolutions of rock and roll. In my own family, the song is a fixture in my conversations with my brother. Any time I tell him about a new guitar player I’ve discovered, he always responds, “But can he play Johnny B. Goode?”
Berry’s life was not without problems, though. In 1959 he was arrested for transporting a 14 year-old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes,” in the language of the Mann Act. His first sentence was vacated citing racist comments from the judge in the case, but upon retrial, he was convicted and ordered to serve three years in prison and pay a fine. While the circumstances of the case show a potentially plausible explanation of the crime in question, perhaps why the fine was not more harsh, Berry later had other troubles. In 1989, charges were eventually dropped after incriminating video tapes were found at his home. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor drug possession charge (62 grams of pot were also found), which gave him a reduced six month jail sentence. He also found himself in prison for four months for tax evasion after it was reported that he would only accept cash for performances. Still, these, and other, run-ins with the law, did not prevent him from being welcomed to the White House by Presidents or from being among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Last week the rock music world lost an icon when Chuck Berry died. His music endures. He created the format of rock, the lasting force by which young people ever since have expressed themselves. Rolling Stone ranks him Number 5 on their “Top Artists of All-Time” list, behind four artists he profoundly influenced—Rolling Stones, Elvis, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Chuck Berry gave America and the world rock and roll. He is the Father of Rock and Roll. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum says that Berry "laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” That stance has been copied ever since he first walked into Larry Chess’s studio in 1955.