He was the father of rock and roll…
Oh, don’t talk to me about Bill Haley. Boomers were barely conscious at the time “Rock Around The Clock” was a hit, if they were alive at all. And Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were vastly influential – especially in the U.K. – but the progenitor who pushed it over the top, made rock a staple, was Chuck Berry.
Not that we had any idea who he was either.
But we knew the songs.
“Tutti Frutti” was already in the rearview mirror.
But not only did the Beatles cover “Rock And Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven”
But the Beach Boys ripped Chuck off for their gargantuan hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which was really “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Chuck’s got a bad reputation.
As being an ungrateful SOB who demanded cash upfront and played with unrehearsed pickup bands. Keith Richards tried to give him a victory lap with that movie, but thereafter the Glimmer Twin testified as to Chuck’s bad behavior and I’m not sure if Berry’s reputation ever recovered. You usually only get one shot at a second chance.
But you’ve got to cut the guy a break, he was there at the beginning!
Berry was punk before punk, as in he did it his own way with the basics, with no trappings. Every band in a garage owes a debt to Chuck Berry.
And for years the road was a cash business. Even at this late date if you haven’t been ripped off by a promoter, you’re not in the business.
And until Peter Grant flipped the script, the act got the short end of the stick, the promoter made all the money.
And it wasn’t until the ’70s that sound systems were any good, people basically cheered over the music. Did it make any difference whether the band was tight? It was more about the experience, being there, in the presence of a renegade. That’s right, once upon a time rock and roll was dangerous.
But that time is long gone.
Don’t hate Chuck Berry.
The truth is most performers are mercurial jerks. Do you know how hard it is to make it? DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO WRITE A HIT SONG?
When everybody else was using the usual suspects, Chuck composed his own hits. That’s the mark of a genius, when you can channel greatness out of thin air.
So by time the British Invasion happened, Chuck was mostly done. He only ended up having one more hit, the novelty “My Ding-A-Ling.” But at least that’s more hits than today’s classic rock acts manage to eke out.
And talk about influence…
ELO‘s cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” jump-started their career.
And Brian Wilson testifies about the Four Freshmen, the vocal groups, but the band from Hawthorne, California that was not a cappella. It needed a soundtrack, and not only were they influenced by Chuck Berry, as I stated above, they ripped him off.
So this is not the 21st Century. Wherein acts have hits and then fade into obscurity along with their music.
And it’s certainly not the 21st Century where everything is niche. Berry’s hits were not only huge, they’ve sustained! Even little kids want to know if Maybellene will be true. And “Johnny B. Goode” is a bar band staple.
We know all his songs by heart. Even though most of us were not around when they dominated the hit parade.
Berry was a black man in a white man’s world.
And he refused to accept second-class status. Chuck Berry was a beacon, an artist, who felt if he walked into the wilderness following his own muse the people would come with him.
And they did.
So at this point they die and we shrug. After all, Mr. Berry was 90 and no one lives forever.
But the truth is an era is disappearing in front of our very eyes. One in which experimentation was in music, not tech. One in which people were enthralled by the radio, not their mobile handset. One in which there was television, but if you really wanted to know what was going on you listened to the radio.
And the fuel was rock and roll.
And it was a big tent. Didn’t matter how you looked, attitude was key, and Berry had that in spades – along with talent and inspiration. What a concept.
It was simpler back then. The lightning bolt hit and you tried to capture it in a bottle, get it down on wax, distribute it all over the country, will it into a hit. It was less a battle plan than a skirmish, we were developing it as we went along.
To the point where the highest goal in America is to be a rock star.
People label bankers and techies and athletes – winners in all walks of life – as rock stars. It means not only are you rich and successful, but that you’re doing it your own way, beholden to no one, forging your own path.
Chuck Berry was there first.