Chuck Berry

Guitarist - - Chuck Berry - Words Jamie Dick­son

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.

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