Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll any more than any one person invented the electric guitar. He was simply the perfect conduit through which it flowed, and that current shot through me at an early age. It’s almost as if rock and roll was waiting for him to show up. He was young (although not as young as he claimed), a good-looking showman who played guitar and sang his own songs. The crushing poverty and racism he’d suffered in the South had him eager to duck-walk his way out of there. He synthesized blues riffs, country rhythms and guitar licks copped from guitarists like Muddy Waters, Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker into a new style, an unrelenting rhythmic framework to carry his evocative lyrics about cars, girls, school and work. He took over pianist Johnnie Johnson’s band in St. Louis and spent the next 60 years thrilling crowds and bending people to his will through intimidation, arm-twisting, capricious decisions and erratic behavior. But the man’s early music was powerful enough to help us overlook his sometimes abhorrent behavior later in life.
Chuck died Saturday at age 90, and social media buzzed with tributes and memories of his concerts. Celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, who’d once played in one of Chuck’s backup bands, paid his respects. I filled the house with his music and drank a toast to the true king. But Monday morning, there wasn’t a peep on the morning TV news shows about his death. Last year, when we lost Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Glenn Frey, the media paid proper attention. Without Chuck Berry, those artists might not have had careers at all.
The very term rock and roll is synonymous with Chuck Berry, but for all the influence he had, and all the adoration he received from fellow musicians and the screaming throngs at his concerts, the man never really received his due. The greatest indignity suffered by Chuck Berry was not the lawsuit filed in 2000 by Johnson, who helped him write many of his seminal hits and later demanded a big chunk of Chuck’s fortune (the suit was dismissed). It wasn’t even the robber’s roost of promoters, managers and record company execs who ripped him off early on, causing an obsession with money for the rest of his career. No, the biggest slap in the face to the man who is widely regarded as the father of rock and roll is the fact that his only No. 1 record came in 1972, a salacious piece of novelty schlock titled “My Ding-A-Ling.” It wasn't even his song. He’d copped it from a kids’ song and replaced the lyrics with double entendre jokes about his pecker. With all the brilliant hits he’d released, from “You Never Can Tell” to “Rock and Roll Music,” this was the only one that topped the charts. That had to stick in his craw.
But that’s a typical twist from a decidedly non-typical American life. If you know his story, you know he beat some damn long odds to fight his way to the top of the heap. His infamous touring method is widely known. He wrote very specific contracts and held promoters and club owners to every single detail, or else he’d refuse to play. If they failed to supply a pair of Fender Dual Showman amps, for instance, no dice. He didn’t travel with his own band, always playing with a local backing group. These musicians would ask the man which songs he planned on playing, and he’d turn to them and say, “Chuck Berry songs!” He flew alone with his guitar, rented a Cadillac to drive to gigs, and always got paid in cash before the first downbeat.
I got to see him in Seattle in the late 1980s, on a double bill with Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee opened, and was a huge disappointment. He looked old, seemed cranky like he’d missed his afternoon nap, and showed none of the fire of The Killer who used to kick over benches and set pianos ablaze. Then Chuck took the stage and announced his presence with authority. He delivered his standard show (45 minutes, including exactly one duck walk) and the place went nuts. At one point he even invited requests. We all sang his songs back to him, and the thrill was almost unbearable. A few days after the concert I bought my first real electric guitar, a cherry red Lyle copy of the Gibson ES-335 Chuck has played for most of his career. I’ve been a hollow-body man ever since.
It wasn’t just his double-stop guitar style that grabbed me. His lyricism is a form of poetry I’ve always aspired to. His eye for detail and economy of language become razor sharp observations that paint a vivid picture. In “Nadine,” for example, the girl he’s chasing doesn’t just get in her car—he sees her “walking toward a coffee-colored Cadillac.” His wordplay, fondness for alliteration and sometimes outrageous rhymes infiltrated my own style early on. The way he tended to place one syllable per beat is a technique that drives the way I write to this day.
He was revered by the Beatles, adored by the Stones, and respected by most of the great rockers who’ve come up since the early 1960s. If you’re an electric guitar player of any stripe, you owe some debt of gratitude to this cantankerous, unpredictable genius. The fraternity of rock’s original architects is shrinking, with only Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard still kicking. But Chuck was the king of them all. With his death, a door closes on an era, the first epoch of rock and roll. Bye bye, Johnny. Johnny B. Goode.