Chuck Berry, the man who changed the face of popular music forever, is no more. He passed away, at the age of 90, on Saturday (March 18) at his residence located outside St. Louis, Missouri. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, but known universally as Chuck, his rocking and rollicking songs, bouncy guitar riffs, and onstage duck walk defined rock and roll forever.
The impact and influence of Berry on popular music spanned over six decades – as a lyricist, singer, guitarist and showman – far beyond the considerable sales of his distinctive, unprecedented recordings, which served as a bridge between black rhythm ’n’ blues and white rock and roll. In fact, Berry’s pioneering efforts of amalgamating country and blues with these genres – along with lyrics that spoke about DJs, records, fast cars, girls, dancing, guitars, and jukeboxes – set the template for everyone, including the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
The Beatles covered no less than nine Berry tracks in their recording career, with singer/bassist Paul McCartney calling Berry “one of the greatest poets America has ever produced” in the liner notes of a 2014 Chuck Berry box set. Meanwhile, in ‘The Beatles Anthology’, John Lennon is quoted as having elevated Berry above the status of mere songsmith. “(He) is one of the all-time great poets,” said Lennon, “a rock poet, you could say. We all owe a lot to him, including Dylan. In the ’50s, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to his lyrics.”
The Rolling Stones outdid The Beatles, though, covering 13 Berry songs and, for the trivia-minded, the band was apparently formed a year after singer Mick Jagger spotted his old primary school chum, guitarist Keith Richards, holding a Berry record at the Dartford railway station in Kent, England, in 1961. There is every likelihood that this legend is true as director Taylor Hackford’s acclaimed rockumentary, ‘Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’, which chronicled two shows held to support the rock and roller’s 60th birthday, was organised by none other than Richards, who also doubled up as a guitarist and as a music producer.
Others who have recorded Berry songs range from Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Johnny Hallyday through The Animals, Kinks, Faces, AC/DC, Status Quo and Sex Pistols, to Jimi Hendrix, Emmylou Harris, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, the Beach Boys used the tune of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the basis for “Surfin’ USA” and had to credit Berry as a writer to avoid a potential lawsuit for plagiary.
One of my more recent connects with the legend occurred in 2014 when I was invited to video record my comments for the preview of “Gibson Through The Lens” – a photographic exhibition organised by guitar manufacturer Gibson on those legends that have utilised Gibson guitars – and, without any hesitation, I chose Berry.
What I did not know then is that, three years down the line, Berry, who was believed to be in retirement, would announce the release of a new album this year, his first in 38 years, simply called ‘Chuck’.
Like most youngsters in the 1970s, one of the earliest bands I listened to and loved was undoubtedly The Beatles. I was listening to their compilations before moving in reverse to their stand-alone albums. ‘Rock N Roll Music’ – released in 1976 – was one such compilation, a double-vinyl disc that I purchased from the now defunct Rhythm House in Mumbai, which still remains part of my collection. The name of the album was a Berry original composition, as also another track, “Roll Over Beethoven”. In fact, The Beatles ‘rival’ band the Rolling Stones’ debut song, “Come On”, which was released in 1963, reaching no. 21 on the UK singles chart, also happened to be a Berry original. With a pedigree like that, there was little doubt about Chuck Berry’s credentials as a rock and roll great.
Berry’s lucky break in the recording industry occurred when he travelled to Chicago in May 1955 and met blues guitarist Muddy Waters, who suggested that Berry contact Leonard Chess who had by then set up his own record label, Chess Records. In fact, the genesis/popularity of the company was superbly encapsulated in a 2008 musical biopic, Cadillac Records. The film explores the musical era from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, chronicling the life of the influential Chicago-based record company, and a few key musicians who recorded for it.
With Chess Records, Berry recorded “Maybellene”– his adaptation of country song “Ida Red”– which went on to sell over a million units, reaching no.1 on Billboard magazine’s Rhythm and Blues chart.
During his teens, Berry played the blues, borrowing both his guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from blues musician T-Bone Walker. Fans of the film Back To The Future, like me, will clearly remember the reference to Berry and his great song, “Johnny B Goode”, played with Berry’s antics by actor Michael J Fox. “This is an oldie,” is how the song is introduced by Fox’s character, Marty McFly, “but uh… well, it’s an oldie where I come from” – keeping in mind that, in the memorable scene, the song is still some three years from being released.
Meanwhile, returning to Berry’s forthcoming album, ‘Chuck’, which will now be released posthumously, it features family members Charles Berry Jr (on guitar) and Igrid Berry (on harmonica), who are provided an opportunity to showcase their respective talent on an album that was to be father Chuck’s first one since 1979’s ‘Rock It’, containing new songs, all written and produced by Berry himself.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its opening in 1986, cited for having “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound, but a rock and roll stance”. With his passing, the world may have lost a popular music pioneer, but his ‘Rock And Roll Music’ will live forever, played and replayed no doubt by more musicians to come.