Berry influence on rock unlimited
Guitar legend died Saturday at 90 at his St. Louis home
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.