Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the March 1, 2017, print edition of Campus News. He passed away today. RIP.
By Dave Paone
In the spring of 1955, in the form of the song “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry planted his musical seed into the American music industry (and American popular culture), conceived an entirely new sound in music and subsequently earned the title, The Father of Rock & Roll.
While music scholars debate exactly what the first rock & roll song is, much less who wrote it, they pretty much agree with Berry’s paternal title.
Berry continued to write and record songs, many of which are considered the DNA of virtually all rock & roll that followed, as well as all pop music we hear today.
So what exactly is rock & roll? According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “The genre is often described as a merger of black rhythm and blues with white country music….”
And more specifically, what makes a Chuck Berry song a Chuck Berry song?
According to Brian Kachejian, editor-in-chief of ClassicRockHistory.com, “Chuck Berry incorporated the same, basic chord progression that fueled the music of the blues. That progression utilizes the first, fourth, and fifth chords of the major scale. The chords are played in the order of what is known as the 12-bar, blues progression.
“Just about every Chuck Berry song follows the same pattern. However, Chuck Berry’s creative guitar licks played over those changes is what separated him from the blues musicians and created a fresh, new sound that developed into rock & roll.”
“If you can call it my music,” he said in the 1987 feature documentary, “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Then there are the lyrics. Berry has a love of poetry and was able to write lyrics that are not only poetic, but relevant to his teenage audience at the time.
Songs such as “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Almost Grown” and “No Particular Place to Go” contained lyrics to which teens could easily relate.
John Lennon once said, “In the’50s, when people were just singing virtually about nothing, he was writing social-comment songs; he was writing all kinds of songs with incredible meter to the lyrics, which influenced Dylan and me and many other people.”
In “Hail! Hail!,” Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones says, “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does. There was something about the sound. Such a great, total, overall sound came off the needle. That’s when I knew what I really wanted to do.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Berry should be extremely flattered. Countless bands have covered his songs. In the early days of The Beatles, when they played hole-in-wall clubs in Hamburg, Germany, they played several of his compositions. In a few years’ time, many of those were recorded in a studio and included on their early albums.
The Rolling Stones’ first single was Berry’s “Come On” and they’ve covered a total of 13 of his songs in their career (thus far).
Artists have been covering Berry songs for decades. To date, including live performances and bootlegs, there are a grand total of 176 recordings of 44 songs covered by 77 acts. That’s a lot of imitation.
However, some artists may have gone too far. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys claimed the music to “Surfin’ USA” was homage to Berry. Berry didn’t hear it that way; he argued it’s a blatant rip-off of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” sued Wilson and won.
Berry also sued Lennon for pilfering his lyrics for The Beatles’ “Come Together”… and won that case, too. (It was settled out of court.)
Paul McCartney freely admits he stole some of Berry’s music, note for note.
He said, “Here’s one example of a bit I pinched from someone: I used the bass riff from “Talkin’ About You” by Chuck Berry in “I Saw Her Standing There.” I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fit our number perfectly.”
Then there are the endless motion pictures and TV shows that feature Berry songs. The Internet Movie Data Base lists 235 movies and TV episodes that use them. The two most famous ones are the twist contest in Pulp Fiction (“You Never Can Tell”) and the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Back to the Future (“Johnny B. Goode”).
When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the band begin playing, the injured band member he replaced makes a phone call from the wings. He says, “Chuck! Chuck! It’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!” and he holds the receiver up to the music. Now you know why that’s funny.
By the end of the 1960s, rock & roll had morphed into an entity other than what Berry originally conceived. Groups such as Led Zeppelin had a different and much harder sound that could no longer be called rock & roll, so the music was simply called rock, yet the Berry genes were still dominant.
One of the new rockers from the 1970s was Bruce Springsteen.
Berry is a Springsteen favorite, with seven covers: six live and one studio.
Nineteen-seventies rocker Ted Nugent places Berry number one on his list of greatest guitarists.
He wrote, “There is no question in my musical mind that His Highness, Chuck Berry, took this relatively new electrified instrument and unleashed a torrent of innovative tones, patterns, licks and unprecedented lyrical cadence and outrage that fired up the way and tore down all possible walls for all future guitar jammers.”
So we can connect the dots from Berry to the next generation of rock & rollers (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) and then to the third generation (Bruce Springsteen, Ted Nugent). But what of more current music?
Run-D.M.C. will connect more dots for us.
The pioneering rappers from Queens, New York, paid tribute to Berry when they performed at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert in 2012.
“This is like me paying homage to one of the first, greatest rappers of all time,” Run said. “If there was no Chuck Berry, hip-hop wouldn’t be as cool as it is.”
We can continue connecting dots. Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers has described Berry as “a musical scientist who discovered a cure for the blues.”
Lady Gaga has publicly stated Berry is one of her influences. Regarding the song “Vampire Money,” frontman Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance said they were, “channeling Chuck Berry” among others.
As the countless bands before them, My Morning Jacket (plus frontman Jim James when he tours solo) love to perform Berry songs in concert. James performed two last December when playing in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Indie rock band Arcade Fire did the same thing (playing “Roll Over Beethoven”) in 2014.
Prince performed “Johnny B. Goode” on French television and also played it for reporters during a press conference for the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007.
Last April, when Prince died, social media gave him a sendoff that no other celebrity has had to date. According to Wikipedia, “In the first five hours after the media reported his death, ‘Prince’ was the top-trending term on Twitter and Facebook had 61 million Prince-related interactions.”
So what sendoff will Berry get? He’s 90 years old and not immortal. He plans to release his first studio album in 38 years this year, so he may be in the public’s eye again when he goes.
In “Hail! Hail!,” director Taylor Hackford asks Berry how he’d like to be remembered after he’s gone. Berry replies, in part, “I just hope it’s real, and it’s a fact, which will be the truth….”
In our world of social media, with endless platforms from which to state facts and express opinions, the truth of which Berry speaks can easily be shared by anyone who has anything to say about him. Come the day when it’s apropos to state those facts and express those opinions, he may or may not get a sendoff as big (or bigger) than Prince’s.
Only time will tell.