by Desney Cody
The late John Lennon once said, “if you gave rock n’ roll a name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
We have recently lost a lot of great artists, actors and people. But perhaps, the most affecting were the musicians, like Chuck Berry. He shaped an entire generation. And unfortunately, he’s gone now, too. Chuck Berry was an American guitarist, singer and songwriter, and a pioneer of rock n’ roll. He had died on March 18, 2017. He was 90 years old.
Chuck Berry modified rhythm and blues in a way that transformed the music of the time, into what we know as rock n’ roll, influencing countless artists. “‘Chuck Berry, he just leapt out of the radio at me,” Keith Richards said while honoring Berry at the 2013 Polar Awards in Sweden. “I ate him basically, I mean I breathed him—it wasn’t just food, he was the air I breathed for many years when I was learning guitar and trying to figure out how you could be such an all-rounder. Such a great voice, such a great player and also such a great showman… it was all in one package.’” Chuck Berry is one of the few of the names that we know, even if we can’t name a song or an album. And as much as I hate to say it, I was in that same boat. I knew who he was and who he influenced but I didn’t really understand his influence.
Chuck Berry was born in 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was inspired by music at a young age, specifically, by Nat “King” Cole. His first performance was at his high school, “During his debut performance in high school, he sang a song called “Confessin’ The Blues” that was considered edgy for the time and place.” From then on, he continued to work on his guitar playing, and he joined a few jazz groups and played at clubs around St. Louis. Through all of this, he came into his own as a person and artist, with his own sound and style, that was like no other. What set him apart from artists like, Elvis and Buddy Holly, Berry was much more electric and charismatic. He developed the “rock n’ roll attitude.” He made songs that appealed to teenagers, and people who were young at heart, by talking about having a good time, and fulfilling dreams. The songs “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “ Johnny B. Goode,” were his biggest hits and they developed a rock n’ roll trademark. There was a style or “swagger” that he had; this attitude of being the biggest and the best, and his fans fell in love with that and tried to emulate it. While Berry set the poetic tone of rock n’ roll, he was also a performer. Berry wrote infectious guitar riffs that drew from rhythm and blues rhythm and blues. Joe Perry, from Rolling Stone says, “It’s not so much what he played — it’s what he didn’t play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along..”
A lot of people don’t know exactly who Chuck Berry was. They know the name, and maybe the face, but outside of “Johnny B. Goode,” he might be a blank page. And that is okay. But I think that his death is going to shine the light on him, the light that has been too dim for the last 38 years without any new music. It’s never too late to fall in love with an artist–no matter how old, if they are dead or alive or whatever it may be that has held you back from experiencing their art. I think that Chuck Berry’s music and art will have some sort of resurgence because of his death, while unfortunate. But him and his legacy will live on forever, so it ain’t all that bad.