In this Oct. 17, 1986 file photo, Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Mo. (James A. Finley / AP)
Chuck Berry was one of the undisputed, all-time greats of rock and roll, a founding father of the music that shook and shaped the world. He was rock’s first great songwriter and first guitar hero.
His influence on Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (as well as every other star of the rock ‘n’ roll firmament, from Buddy Holly to Bruce Springsteen)is enough to guarantee musical immortality. The guitar solo he ripped out for Johnny B. Goode in 1958 is still the simplest, sweetest solo ever conceived, the one every young guitarists learns and feels like they can conquer the world.
The classic songs he wrote in those early rock and roll years created a new form of American musical poetry: hip, snappy, funny observations of 50s and 60s teenage life in a promised land of cars, telephones and air conditioned consumer dreams that have been played by other musicians ever since, and are still propping up bar band sets to this day.
If his death doesn’t shock us in the way of some other musical greats, it is because he outlived so many of the people he influenced. He made it to the ripe old age of 90, when so many of his protégés and acolytes had fallen by the wayside. But Chuck Berry was a monumental talent, an ultimate rock star, and everyone raised on rock and roll knows it, and every musician of the rock generation owes him a debt of gratitude. Even if, sometimes, it felt like he might spit it back in your face.
Berry was a tough customer, not always loved by the authorities or his peers. He grew up hard and poor in St Louis, Missouri in an era of racial discrimination. He went to reformatory school as a teenager for robbing a car at gunpoint (cars seem to figure prominently in Berry’s story). He had his sexual peccadilloes that caused run-ins with the law that left him embittered. He spent a year and a half in jail at the height of early fame (from February 1962 to October 1963) for having sex with a 14-year-old girl he had allegedly transported across the state line for “immoral purposes”. Berry always believed that his trial was perverted by racism. But much later, in the 1980s, he settled a law suit with 59 women who accused him of secretly filming them in the ladies bathroom of a restaurant he owned in Wentzville, Missouri. His innuendo laden comedy hit My Ding-A-Ling from 1972 may have been more indicative of Berry’s personality than some of his more-well regarded classics. He was no angel, that’s for sure.
He did not always treat his own music with the respect others did, sometimes playing with pick up bands with whom he barely deigned to rehearse. He would turn up for a tour, hire some local rockers who often were nowhere near his own level of musical brilliance, decline to rehearse, show up for the gig, demand to be paid in cash before going on stage and turn in peremptory sets and often refuse to play encores. The stories about Berry behind the scenes in the music business were rarely flattering. A journalist friend once managed to secure an interview with Berry at an Irish festival in the Eighties but the old curmudgeon insisted it be done from inside his limo, with the journalist standing outside, and the window rolled down just a crack. Even when lifelong fans like John Lennon bent over backwards to pay their respects, Berry would often treat them with suspicion and contempt. In 1972, Berry became so irritated by the guitarist accompanying him on stage at the Hollywood Palladium that he ordered him off. It was Keith Richards, who had put the band together as a favour for Berry and left in a state of dejection . But still Richards returned for further punishment on many other occasions. Berry’s behaviour did not seem to stop any of his admirers loving him and consider playing with him an honour. His music played too big a part in so many lives to ever be ignored.
Chuck Berry, with guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, celebrated Berry's birthday on stage with a special concert at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis on Oct. 17, 1986. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
If Berry felt hard embittered and hard done by, he had very good reason. If he had been white and that talented, he would probably have been bigger than most of the acts he influenced. Really, he was rock’s first auteur, the complete package, a guitar slinging singer-songwriter of genius with his fingers on the pulse of the nation. Quite apart from his own astonishing catalogue of classics, so many all-time great rock songs bear Berry’s distinct imprint, from the Beach Boys Surfin USA to The Beatles Back in The USSR and Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. John Lennon concocted Come Together from bits of Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me (“Here come old flat top, he come grooving up slowly” is just a very slight twist on a Berry line). His hero was not impressed and threatened to sue, so Lennon later recorded the original by way of financial recompense.
Berry was a complicated, brilliant man with one of the greatest song catalogues ever. Maybellene, Rock and Roll Music, Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Oh Carol, Memphis Tennesse, Little Queenie, Come On, No Particular Place To Go, You Never Can Tell. The titles roll of the tongue and set you careening down musical highways, heading for the horizon in a brand new airmobile, custom made, a Flight De Ville … “You can’t catch me,” as Berry sang. Now no one will.