Think about your favorite rock band that's alive and performing today. Now think about the music they likely listened to growing up, the artists and bands that inspired them. Then jump one more generation, to the ones who inspired the inspirations. If you've gone back far enough, you're at the beginning of rock n' roll, a post-WWII era where the genre was in its uncertain infancy and novelty ditties like "(How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window?" topped the charts. In the 1950s, there were a handful of pioneers of the genre playing their part - Buddy, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Elvis - but at the time, they were only seen as slightly up-tempo offshoots of blues or country. Only one artist was the first to create not only the quintessential rock n' roll sound, but also the rock n' roll essence, that image of an electric guitar-wielding wild-man strutting across the stage as the crowd goes wild. With the simple opening guitar riff of 1956's "Roll Over Beethoven," Chuck Berry
introduced the world to a new, completely unique sound that would change the music world forever. Needless to say, we lost an important figure in the story of music this weekend, a kind of figure that we may never see again in our lifetimes: The archetype for an entire genre.
Chuck Berry wasn't the first rock 'n' roll artist (see previously mentioned names), but he arguably was the one who perfected it. The story of how he combined blues, R&B, and country and sped up the tempo to create that signature high-energy shuffle has been told almost to the point of cliche, but that's really only scratching the surface. With that crazy new sound and through his own actions, Berry defined the "rock star" template that we still expect to see today. The small-town boy from the middle of nowhere using his guitar skills and a little luck to rise to fame and see his name in lights isn't just the subject of Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode." That's the story we've come to expect from rock stars, working-class dreamers who rise to fame on their own artistic merit. It was Berry that created that "everyman" aesthetic of rock music that made it such an accessible and accepted art form from the very beginning, a quality that can still be seen to this day.
Of course, sound only takes you so far. You also gotta walk the walk, leave an impression that will stick with people and make them come back for more. Berry understood that better than anyone else, and clips of his performances show he knew how to match the music's energy with his own on-stage antics. You watch Berry go bug-eyed, make exaggerated facial expressions, duck-walk, strut wildly across the stage, throw his body on the floor during a solo, and you see rock's heavyweights within his showmanship. You see Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar behind his back and lighting it on fire. You see the Beatles playfully screaming and swinging their hair around onstage. You see Keith Richards strutting along with Mick Jagger. You see Jimmy Page playing the guitar with a cello bow. All these legends took cues for their stage personas from somewhere, and Chuck Berry was instrumental in giving rock that sense of energy and youthful vigor.
All of this isn't to say Berry was at ease with his legacy, however. The reality was that he came off as combative, if not bitter, of the music he inspired, to the point where he became notoriously difficult to work with throughout his life. Before the movement he helped create could really take off, and before his own career could reach the success it deserved, Berry was imprisoned for transporting a minor across state lines. By the time he was released in 1963, rock music had moved on without him, from underground black musicians to white teenagers using his work as a template for their own music. The Beach Boys even swiped Berry's song "Sweet Little Sixteen" and reworked it into their own megahit, "Surfin' USA."
Though Berry continued to make music throughout the 1960s and 70s, his career never fully recovered after his arrest. He felt like he never received proper credit from all the white artists who reached otherworldly fame in large part thanks to him, and he remained jagged towards people even when they wanted to pay tribute. The 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
was supposed to showcase the 60th birthday concert organized for Berry by superfan Keith Richards, and while there are some memorable performances, the film is widely remembered for displaying Berry's quarreling with everyone around him. Though it's not in the film, Richards also famously told the story of when Berry punched him in the face
for touching his guitar. Throughout his later life, Berry chose to perform with amateur house bands than professionals, never wanting to feel challenged by other people sharing his stage.
Berry spent most of his life feeling that rock and roll was his and only his, to the point where he refused to fully embrace his own legacy. That said, even while he was prickly about his impact, the man never gave up or packed it in. Until he was forced to retire due to health issues in 2014, Berry had been recording the same music and touring the same way he always had, refusing to change with the times and the many musical trends he lived through. He was even working on a brand new album at the time of his death, which his estate is still planning to release this year. Sometimes it's counterproductive for an artist to stick to their guns and not adapt their sound, but because Chuck Berry's music was so unmistakably iconic in the first place, his work has become somewhat of a time capsule. No matter what year it was recorded, Berry's music harkens back to a very specific time in 20th century America, a time when the youth was just beginning to revolt and rock music looked like a flash in the pan. With short, sweet, but wildly clever songs, Berry captured the sound of young teenagers who went to the juke joints after school, danced all night with friends, and wanted something different than what their parents wanted for them. His music shows how far rock has come, embodies all the lessons later musicians learned from him, and proves how much those musicians owe their very existence to him. It's hard to say if Chuck Berry ever found peace with what he left behind, but that doesn't mean we can't thank him any less.
So c'mon folks, one more time, with feeling: Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll! / Deliver me from the days of old! / Long live Rock n' Roll! / The beat of the drums, loud and bold! / Rock, Rock, Rock n' Roll! / The feelin' is there, body and soul!