1926 - 2017
“If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon observed in 1972. From country to jazz and blues, Chuck Berry’s music stood like a signpost at the crossroads of America’s major guitar styles, pointing the way ahead
Some musicians can be neatly summarised by posterity when they die. Chuck Berry was never going to be one of them. He made the attempt himself, in an autobiography, and in some ways you have to go far to beat his own description of who he was as a guitarist, in the context of the great players who had gone before him.
“Charlie Christian played amplified guitar with Benny Goodman’s quartet. He was the greatest guitar player that ever was,” Berry opined. “But he never looked up from the guitar. But I put a little dance to it. They appreciate seein’ something along with hearin’ something.” They certainly did. A million people bought Maybellene – his glib reworking of the old Bob Wills country song Ida Red (Maybellene was the name of a cow in a school storybook he had read, Berry claimed). Its slice-of-life storytelling and easy wit, married to duck-walking guitar licks, became Berry’s calling card. While his flamboyant showmanship on guitar was borrowed from that great blues originator, T-Bone Walker, his actual sound was an alloy of blues, swing and country, bemusing black audiences who knew him as a ‘hillbilly’ guitarist initially.
“I wanted to play blues. But I wasn’t blue enough,” Berry said in 2001, recalling his relatively affluent upbringing. “I wasn’t like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. We were doing well compared to many. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic, these novelties. I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that.”
These merging influences made Berry both broad in appeal, but also hard to pin down. He took apparently disparate musical styles and, with the electric flash of a smile, welded them together to form the boogie-based superstructure of rock ’n’ roll – a gutsy but populist and song-led approach that The Beatles and Stones in far off England later made their own. It also formed, in sweetly sanitised form, the basis of The Beach Boys’ early work, too – just think of the intro riff to Surfin’ USA and you see how deeply Chuck’s innovative style informed the 60s pop and rock revolution – in fact, Berry was later awarded a co-writer credit for that one.
The mercurial qualities of Berry’s music were mirrored in the man himself, who was by no means universally liked.
“The thing about a love song is that one is not likely to be able to compose a real good one if one is not endowed with that magnificent feeling during the process of writing it,” he once enthused, romantically. Yet the same man was also accused, in 1989, of installing a camera in bathrooms at his Southern Air restaurant to covertly film women using the conveniences. He was subsequently sued in 1990 by numerous women who had visited the restaurant, with whom Berry later reached a class-action settlement. Likewise, his later career was marred by a reputation as a difficult artist to work with, who allegedly wouldn’t play encores unless an extra fee was paid and fined venues who didn’t provide his preferred Fender Bassman amp $2,000. He also hired local scratch bands of often poor quality to back him on tour, vandalising his own legacy even as he traded on it. It’s hard to tolerate, much less venerate, such behaviour in a hero. What we will always be indebted to Chuck Berry for, however, is his role as the father of rock ’n’ roll: an electrifying instigator, innovator and hell-raiser on guitar whose galvanic licks form the double-helix DNA of most rock riffs played today. Hail, hail indeed.