Berry in­flu­ence on rock un­lim­ited

Guitar leg­end died Satur­day at 90 at his St. Louis home

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY HIL­LEL ITALIE

Rock ‘n’ roll was more than a new kind of mu­sic. It was a new story to tell, one for kids with tran­sis­tor ra­dios in their hands and money in their pock­ets, be­gin­ning to raise ques­tions their par­ents never had the lux­ury to ask.

Along with James Dean and J.D. Salinger and a hand­ful of oth­ers in the 1950s, Chuck Berry — who was 90 when he died Satur­day at his sub­ur­ban St. Louis home — helped de­fine the mod­ern teenager.

While Elvis Pres­ley gave rock ‘n’ roll its li­bidi­nous, hip-shak­ing im­age, Mr. Berry was the au­teur, set­ting the nar­ra­tive for a gen­er­a­tion no longer weighed down by hard­ship or war. Well be­fore the rise of Bob Dy­lan, Mr. Berry wed­ded so­cial commentary to the beat and rush of pop­u­lar mu­sic.

“He was singing good lyrics, and in­tel­li­gent lyrics, in the ’50s when other peo­ple were singing, ‘Oh, baby, I love you so,’” John Len­non once ob­served.

“Clas­sic rock” be­gins with Chuck Berry, who had an­nounced late last year that he would re­lease his first new al­bum since 1979, called “Chuck,” some­time this year. His core reper­toire was some three-dozen songs, but his in­flu­ence was in­cal­cu­la­ble, from The Bea­tles and Rolling Stones to vir­tu­ally ev­ery garage band or arena act that called it­self rock ‘n’ roll.

In his late 20s, be­fore his first ma­jor hit, Mr. Berry crafted lyrics that spoke to young peo­ple of the day and re­mained fresh decades later. “Sweet Lit­tle Six­teen” cap­tured rock ‘n’ roll fan­dom, an early and in­no­cent ode to the young girls later known as “groupies.” “School Day” told of the sing-song tri­als of the class­room (“Amer­i­can his­tory and prac­ti­cal math; you’re study­ing hard, hop­ing to pass”) and the lib­er­a­tion of rock ‘n’ roll once the day’s fi­nal bell rang.

“Roll Over Beethoven” was an an­them to rock’s his­tory-mak­ing power, while “Rock and Roll Mu­sic” was a guide­book for all bands that fol­lowed (“It’s got a back­beat, you can’t lose it”). “Back in the U.S.A.” was a black man’s straight­faced tribute to his coun­try at a time there was no guar­an­tee Mr. Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was cel­e­brat­ing.

“Ev­ery­thing I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the peo­ple lis­ten­ing,” he once said.

“Johnny B. Goode,” the tale of a guitar-playing coun­try boy whose mother tells him he’ll be a star, was Mr. Berry’s sig­na­ture song, the ar­che­typal nar­ra­tive for would-be rock­ers and among the most ec­static record­ings in the mu­sic’s his­tory. Mr. Berry can hardly con­tain him­self as the words hurry out (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Or­leans/Way back up in the woods among the ev­er­greens”), and the down­pour of guitar, drums and key­boards am­pli­fies ev­ery call of “Go, Johnny Go!”

The song was in­spired in part by John­nie John­son, the boo­gie-woo­gie pi­ano man who col­lab­o­rated on many of Mr. Berry hits, but the story eas­ily could have been Mr. Berry’s, Pres­ley’s or count­less oth­ers’. Com­mer­cial cal­cu­la­tion made the song uni­ver­sal: Mr. Berry had meant to call Johnny a “col­ored boy,” but changed “col­ored” to “coun­try,” en­abling not only ra­dio play, but mu­si­cians of any color to imag­ine them­selves as stars.

“Chances are you have ta­lent,” Mr. Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”

He re­ceived a Grammy for life­time achieve­ment in 1984, and two years later be­came a char­ter mem­ber of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Pres­ley, Buddy Holly, Lit­tle Richard and oth­ers. In the 1990s Mr. Berry be­gan giv­ing monthly con­certs in the in­ti­mate set­ting of the “Duck Room” of the Blue­berry Hill club in St. Louis, draw­ing vis­i­tors from around the world. At times he was joined by his son, gui­tarist Charles Berry Jr., and daugh­ter, In­grid Berry Clay, on vo­cals and har­mon­ica. He mar­ried their mother, Themetta Suggs, in 1948. They had four chil­dren.

Charles Ed­ward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1926. As a child he prac­ticed a bent-leg stride that en­abled him to slip un­der ta­bles, a pre­lude to the trade­mark “duck walk” of his adult years. His mother, like Johnny B. Goode’s, told him he would make it, and make it big.

Mr. Berry stud­ied the me­chan­ics of mu­sic and how it was trans­mit­ted. As a teenager he loved to take ra­dios apart and put them back to­gether. Us­ing a Nick Manoloff guitar chord book, he learned how to play the hits of the time. He was fas­ci­nated by chord pro­gres­sions and rhythms, dis­cov­er­ing that many songs bor­rowed heav­ily from the Gersh­wins’ “I Got Rhythm.”

He be­gan his mu­si­cal ca­reer at age 15 when he went on stage at a high school re­view to per­form a cover of Jay McShann’s “Con­fessin’ the Blues.”


Paul Brown and daugh­ter Lacey Brown, 10, visit the statue of Chuck Berry on the Del­mar Loop in St. Louis Satur­day upon the news Mr. Berry had died at 90.

Mr. Berry, widely con­sid­ered to be one of the found­ing fa­thers or rock ‘n’ roll, in­flu­enced ev­ery­one from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dy­lan.

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