“Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.” – Chuck Klosterman
Harrison, my 22-year old son, is fascinated by the concept of heaven. Whenever the word comes up in conversation, he will invariably start listing off the people, cats, and dogs (You have no idea just how many dogs have walked the Hyde campus!) he has known in his life who now reside there. Now there’s a new name on his list: Chuck Berry.
Harrison is also fascinated with certain musicians. (Not sure where that comes from…) He probably listens to Abbey Road daily and he never tires of NRBQ, Steely Dan, or… Chuck Berry. The thing is, as a young man with autism, he has no understanding of the place that any of these musicians hold in the often pretentious canon of popular music. He just knows what he likes. He’s not alone.
Rock ‘n’ roll began at the intersection of the style of Elvis Presley and the substance of Chuck Berry. As John Pareles wrote in yesterday’s (3/19/17) New York Times, “While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.”
I mean, among the early pioneers, who else is in the running? As great as “Rock Around the Clock” is, can you name any other songs by Bill Haley & The Comets? And as for Jerry Lee Lewis, his own mother once said to him, “Now you and Elvis are pretty good, but you ain’t no Chuck Berry.” Far be it from me to take anything away from Little Richard or Bo Diddley, but there’s a reason that “Johnny B. Goode” was selected for inclusion on the Golden Voyager Record launched in 1997 and currently the farthest human made object from earth. Those folks knew what they were doing when they decided, Well, if there is intelligent life out there in space, they really need to hear this song.
Sure, rock ‘n’ roll is a derivative genre with all sorts of influences that came before, but ever since rock ‘n’ roll became what we in today’s world call a “thing,” musicians have been searching for their place on the intersection of Chuck and Elvis.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan all know that they did not create said intersection:
- John Lennon himself famously said, “If they gave rock ‘n’ roll another name, they might call it Chuck Berry.”
- Dylan called Berry “The Shakespeare of Rock.”
- And just what was it that caused the teenaged Keith to spark up a conversation with Mick on that Dartford train platform? Why, it was the item tucked under Mick’s arm: a copy of Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops (1960). And what was the Stones’ very first release? A cover of Berry’s “Come On.” (Note: You gotta give it up for the Stones’ Berry covers – e.g., “Carol”and “Little Queenie” – they’re consistently compelling.)
And the generation following those three know the same:
- “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived.” — Bruce Springsteen
- “If you want to play rock ‘n’ roll or any upbeat number… you end up playing like Chuck.” – Eric Clapton
- “When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock ‘n’ roll, if you want to play rock ‘n’ roll, you have to start there.” – Joe Perry, Aerosmith
- “The idea of intelligent rock ‘n’ roll probably starts with Chuck Berry.” – Donald Fagen, Steely Dan
While it’s hard to pinpoint his magic, I think it is somehow tied to the “and” and ‘n.’ It’s those instantly recognizable infectious guitar licks and those straight to the heart lyrics. And it’s those two ingredients – those licks and those lyrics – coming at you at the same time, coming at you all at once.
Talking about the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, Keith Richards once said, “Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” Perhaps Chuck Berry’s genius is the simple fact that while others were trying to decide between the rock and the roll, he staked out the ‘n’ all for himself. (With no small amount of swagger.)
Neither Harrison nor I know for sure. We only know that we’re Chuck Berry lifers. And as long as we “got a dime, the music will never stop.”
Onward, Malcolm Gauld