Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926-2017)
Rock N’ Roll legend Chuck Berry has taken that final bow.
As a songwriter, Berry was the Ernest Hemingway of Rock N’ Roll. He got right to the point. He told his stories in short sentences. You got it told in a two minutes burst, using well-chosen words. He was also really smart: He understood that to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers, and that’s what he did. Everything in his songs is about being a teenager. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to capture everyone.
Berry had a career that lasted seven-decades and he had long string of hits, including the classics Roll Over Beethoven, Maybellene, and Johnny B. Goode.
His influence was huge. Even kids today are playing those same three chords, in that same style. He influenced nearly every major recording artist, but some artists covered him too well. The Beach Boys borrowed parts of Sweet Little Sixteen for their surf anthem Surfin’ U.S.A. without crediting Berry. The Beatles’ Come Together was close enough to Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me to bring a lawsuit against John Lennon. To settle out-of-court, Lennon agreed to record You Can’t Catch Me for his album Rock N’ Roll (1976). In the 1970s, turning up the guitar amps and his sound became Punk Rock. You can hear it the music of The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. In our own century, you can hear it in The White Stripes too.
Berry received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1984 and was among the first inductees to the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986, inducted by Keith Richards.
Berry appeared in a dozen films, doing his distinctive bent-legged “duck-walk” in several teen-exploitation flicks of the 1950s. He was the main focus of documentary Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll (1987), filmed at a concert in St. Louis to celebrate his 60th birthday. It featured Eric Clapton, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, who recalled being told by his own mother that Berry, not he, was the true king of Rock N’ Roll.
His songs were covered by Neko Case, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Presley, M. Ward, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Wanda Jackson, David Bowie, Simon & Garfunkel, MC5, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, AC/DC, RUN DMC, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, Stephen Rutledge and Ricky Nelson.
Lennon: “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
Mick Jagger said: “Berry lit up our teenage years and blew life into our dreams”.
Bruce Springsteen called him: “A giant for the ages”.
Writer Stephen King tweeted: “Chuck Berry died. This breaks my heart, but 90-years old ain’t bad for Rock N’ Roll. Johnny B. Goode forever.”
Berry continued performing well into his 80s. In 2012, he headlined a concert on a genre-spanning bill that included Run-D.M.C. and Merle Haggard. Berry’s was even extraterrestrial Johnny B. Goode is on a golden record in NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977 and floating out there in space awaiting space travelers to find it.