The Great Chuck Berry, Remembered Forever

This extraordinary musician and performer helped usher in rock 'n' roll — with heart, soul, grit, and drama

by Lee Habeeb | Updated 23 Mar 2017 at 10:32 AM

“If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might have called it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon once said. As most people know by now, Berry, whose guitar licks, brash self-confidence, and brilliant storytelling and songwriting skills did as much as anyone to define rock ‘n’ roll’s potential and attitude, died on Saturday at his home near Wentzville, Missouri. He was 90.

When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Keith Richards declared, “It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played.” Watch and listen to a few Chuck Berry videos — and you’ll know for certain this Stones rocker wasn’t lying.

Bob Dylan once called him “the Shakespeare of rock and roll.”

Berry inspired many such quotes during his career. Jerry Lee Lewis, his onetime rival who famously set fire to a piano on stage when Berry was set to close a show, said years later, “[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.'” And Bob Dylan once called him “the Shakespeare of rock and roll.”

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, the man who would become Chuck Berry grew up in a segregated, middle-class neighborhood, the fourth of six children. As a young man, he soaked up all of the gospel, blues, country, rhythm and blues a young man could.

But he also soaked up his share of trouble. Some rock ‘n’ rollers do their best to cultivate a bad-boy image — Berry didn’t have to work at it. He knew trouble from an early age, spending time in reform school for a robbery he committed at age 18.

He would later get in trouble with the law for drug possession, income tax evasion, and transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.

Related: Five Top Artists Influenced by Chuck Berry

After his stint in reform school, Berry received a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology and worked for a time as a beautician. But music was his real calling — and wealth and fame his real ambition. By the early 1950s, he was playing guitar and singing blues and pop standards and an occasional country tune with local combos. Shortly after joining Sir John’s Trio, led by the pianist Johnnie Johnson, Berry revamped the group’s music and took over the band.

Of his key musical influences, none was bigger than Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker. Berry picked up the technique of bending two strings at once, and turned it into his own signature sound and style that came to be known as the Chuck Berry lick — a lick that would be emulated by The Rolling Stones and countless others.

Berry also understood the qualities of country music that made the form so popular, and added a hillbilly twang to his guitar lines. He understood intuitively the mercurial power of the storytelling aspect of country music. It’s lyricism.

Berry’s hybrid musical influences, along with his striking good looks, charisma and showmanship, drew white as well as black listeners to gigs at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. That’s because his two main vocal influences attracted black and white listeners, too. Berry managed to merge Muddy Waters’ gritty, guttural vocals with Nat King Cole’s smooth, polished style.

Because Berry was as comfortable with blues as he was with the sounds of country music, he confounded audiences. Crowds of urban blacks would perform dance steps generally associated with rural whites, and white folks would dance in ways traditionally associated with urban blacks. In addition, his clear, precise diction as a vocalist — which he learned from Nat King Cole — was a departure from the wild, shouting style associated with the so-called race music of the day.

"A lot of places we played, they thought Chuck was white until they got a look at him," one musician said of Berry.

He and his band were headliners in St. Louis, but Berry wasn't satisfied with being the top musical gun in his hometown. So he ventured up Highway 55 in 1955 to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago. It was a night that changed his life forever.

"I listened to him for his entire set," Berry told a reporter back in 2000. "When it was over, I went up to him, asked him for his autograph, and told him that I played guitar."

"How do you get in touch with a record company?" the young Berry asked Waters.

"Why don't you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?" Waters told Berry. Leonard Chess was one of the owners of Chess Records.

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Berry made his way to the company office and sat in a store across the street awaiting the arrival of the label boss. When Chess arrived at the entrance, Berry rushed over and made his big pitch. Chess was immediately impressed by the young man's self-confidence and told him to come back with a tape of his own material. Berry returned the following week, bringing with him the other members of his trio.

"Chess heard potential in one of Berry's songs. A variant of an old country song by the same name, 'Ida Red' had a 2/4 backbeat with a hillbilly oompah, while Mr. Berry's lyrics sketched a car chase, and the narrator 'motorvatin' after an elusive girl," wrote New York Times music critic Jon Pareles.

Searching for a name for his first hit on Chess Records, "Maybellene," pianist Johnnie Johnson told NPR that "we looked up on the windowsill, and there was a mascara box up there with 'Maybelline' written on it. And Chess said, 'Why don't we name the damn thing 'Maybellene'?'"

The song was renamed, and in a long studio session, Chess and the bassist Willie Dixon got the band to punch up the rhythm. And the rest was history. The record was the very first by a black artist to outsell covers of a song by white artists.

Through the late '50s and '60s, Berry would write hit after hit, and go on to define the contours of rock 'n' roll along with peers like Elvis Presley and Little Richard. In the early 1960s, Berry's songs would inspire a new generation of rock stars from places as disparate as England and California, influencing the British Invasion and Surf Rock. The Rolling Stones released a string of Berry songs, including their first single, "Come On," and the Beatles remade "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music." The Beach Boys reworked his "Sweet Little Sixteen" into "Surfin' U.S.A." Berry ended up suing them — and won a songwriting credit.

But what made Chuck Berry's music supremely distinctive were the narratives tucked beneath the driving rhythm's and the pulsating tracks. Berry was, in the end, a great wordsmith and a great American storyteller, who just happened to use rock and roll as his canvas.

"Writing a song can be a peculiar task," he wrote in his autobiography. But in his sure hands, Berry's lyrics could cover as much ground as most short story writers. The longtime rock critic Robert Christgau called Berry "the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan."

Related: Coal Keeps the Lights On: The Story of an Unlikely Singer-Activist

Back in 2012, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum hosted the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Some of America's greatest writers were there, including the late Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Simon was there to introduce his hero, Chuck Berry, and talk a bit about his lyrics.

Simon talked about the deep grooves and musicality of Berry's writing, and the dense imagery captured in his songs. Simon then read the lyrics of a song we all know, but had probably never really heard before. The song was "Johnny B. Goode." If you care to, read these lyrics aloud as you would a poem, and you'll feel their power.

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringin' a bell
Go go/Go Johnny go/Go/ Go Johnny go Go/ Johnny B. Goode

Simon took a breath, and then read the second verse.

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sittin' in the shade
Strummin' with the rhythm that the drivers made
The people passin' by they would stop and say
Oh my but that little country boy could play
Go go/Go Johnny go/Go/ Go Johnny go Go/ Johnny B. Goode

Simon took another breath. He was clearly moved by the power of this very stark and evocative tale. He then read the beautiful final verse, which would ring loud as a bell to any American son or daughter who ever had a dream, and any mother who dreamed with them.

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people comin' from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight."
Go go/Go Johnny go/Go/ Go Johnny go Go/ Johnny B. Goode

"It is such a great story," Simon told the enraptured audience. "For me, when I was a kid, it was like a magic place to hear this description of rural America. It's like, Zora Neale Thurston territory, the song. An amazing bit of writing for the 1950's that left a powerful impression on me, a kid who just started playing guitar in New York City."

That's the power of music. It transcends race, class, and geography. Simon, a Jewish kid from Queens, New York, was moved by the storytelling of this young black man from St. Louis he'd never met.

But Simon wasn't finished. He went on to read the lyrics from one of Berry's greatest compositions. And certainly one of his best stories. The song is "Memphis, Tennessee," and, again, read this one aloud to yourself. And be prepared to cry.

Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
Because my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She's the only one who'd phone me here from Memphis, Tennessee

Simon paused. He was visibly moved by the emotional territory the opening verse captured. He then continued.

Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge
Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Simon finished things up, reading the final verse of this very sad, very tragic song.

Last time I saw Marie she's waving me goodbye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

Berry's songs, for all of their pop appeal, had real heart and depth. And touched upon fundamental aspects of the human drama. Ambition, love, sex — and loss.

"We're all indebted to Chuck Berry," Paul Simon told the audience, and Chuck Berry. "No songwriter influenced my generation to a greater degree than he did."

Berry announced last October that he'd be releasing his first record in over 38 years. "This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy," said Berry about the release of the album when it was first announced. It was a reference to Themetta, his wife of 68 years. "My darlin', I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!"

Luckily for all of us, the label just announced that Berry's final record, called "Chuck," will be released posthumously in June. A statement from Berry's family said all there was to say. "While our hearts are heavy at this time, we know that he had no greater wish than to see this album released to the world, and we know of no better way to celebrate and remember his 90 years of life than through his music."

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

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