Chuck Berry 1926-2017

Chuck Berry's passing on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 90 is the most momentous death in all of American popular music since Robert Johnson's death at age 27 in Greenwood, MS. in 1938. He is, after all, without exception, the man who created rock'n'roll. Berry wrote, often in league with pianist Johnnie Johnson, many of what are now considered the classic songs of rock 'n' roll.

Berry is also the man who confirmed the guitar as the central instrument of rock 'n' roll—he was a perpetually underrated guitar player. Devoted to using a Gibson ES 350 arch top guitar (often in red), Berry created many of the guitar riffs—the opening of "Johnny B. Goode" stands out—that people now think of as rock'n'roll. He was also a crafty lyricist, particularly adept at telling stories like "Back In the USA," making up terms like "world wide hoodoo" (from "Thirty Days"), and forcing rhymes, "I must admit they have a rockin' band/ Man, they were blowin' like a hurricane" ("Rock and Roll Music").

And then there was the man's swagger. A mix of biting crankiness and yawning insecurities, he was the original rock'n'roll pirate—the man who put the devil in the devil's music.

Chuck's life story is a tangle of triumph and self-sabotage. He was famously moody and difficult, traits that were on full display in Taylor Hackford's ageless and wonderful rock documentary, Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll. Along with writing many of the classic rock 'n' roll hits like "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and of course "Johnny B. Goode," about the country boy who could play his guitar like "a-ringin' a bell" and doing his patented duck walk across stages all over the world, the articulate and cagey Berry suffered from racial prejudice and his own mistakes. In 1962 he served time in jail for transporting an underage girl across state lines. In 1979 he served time for tax evasion, which was most likely a product of his habit of wanting to be paid in cash. In 1989 he was sued for allegedly videotaping women at his Missouri restaurant. And in 2000, Johnnie Johnson sued him for songwriting royalties. That case was dismissed. An infamous 1993 Spy magazine article dug even deeper into Berry's dark side.

A star at Chess Records in the later 1950s/early '60s, Berry's recording career trailed off in the 1970s, though some of his later studio records like 1969's Concerto in B Goode and his 1970 return to Chess, Back Home, are surprisingly listenable and contain a number of memorable Berry tunes. His music was kept alive through countless cover versions. The Rolling Stones' "Around and Around," The Kinks' "Beautiful Delilah," versions of "Johnny B. Goode" by The Sex Pistols and Jimi Hendrix, Emmylou Harris's "(You Never Can Tell) C'est La Vie" and George Thorogood's "It Wasn't Me," all come to mind. While his touring schedule slowed considerably as he aged, Berry continued, almost to the end, to play one night a week at the Blueberry Hill restaurant in the University City neighborhood of St. Louis. His final album, which at the time of his death was self-titled, is supposedly coming out on the Dualtone label later in 2017.

All lovers of vintage vinyl know that Berry's second Chess LP 1435, 1959's black-label mono Chuck Berry is on Top, which is very tough to find in good condition today because it was such a party record, is an astonishing display of songwriting prowess. Out of 12 tracks, 8 are bonafide hits. "Almost Grown," "Carol," "Maybellene," "Sweet Little Rock & Roller," and "Johnny B. Goode" are all on side one. "Little Queenie," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "Around and Around" are on side two. Also on the record is "Blues For Hawaiians" which is one of the first of Berry's odd island tunes, the best known of which is "Havana Moon."

Not surprisingly, John Lennon, may have said it best: "If you tried to give rock'n'roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"

dalethorn's picture

The real king of rock-n-roll.

Brown Sound's picture

Yes Dale, he indeed was the real King! And it was also nice that Mr. Baird did not play kick the dead guy this time out.

dalethorn's picture

I see a little nudge on that "dark side" here and there though. But then, we come from the blues - I think it was someone in L.A. who put on a blues show who said "Wanna know what the blues is? It's about something you ain't got, and you're never gonna get. Then again, it could be about something you do have and you're never gonna get rid of." One of my favorite Chuck Berry lines in Promised Land mentions Rock Hill SC, where I sometimes stay with relatives. Makes me feel at home.

Edit: I should also mention 'Carol' and 'Little Queenie' - two Chuck Berry hits featured prominently in the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, including Altamont, which ended up on the live Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out album, plus the famous Live'r Than You'll Ever Be bootleg. Those two tracks by the Stones at that time were more influential than most people imagine, being at the peak of the Stones' influence and musical raw power.

dalethorn's picture

More Chuck Berry: Recalling the phone number in "Promised Land", I googled it and found a very nice article on the man and his music. Then I realized that he was imprisoned at the height of his career (1959-1963) for crossing a state line with a minor, which led me to another individual (Jerry Lee Lewis) who had his career thrashed by association with a minor, albeit he was legally married to her. Different people, different circumstances, but very much connected by time and place and the early days of rock-n-roll.

Jancuso's picture

Like to share this, from Reference Recordings artist, Doug MacLeod:

"When I was a teenager I backed him up playing bass at a 'Teen Hop' in St. Louis. Four years later I'm flying home on leave from the USN. I get on the TWA jet heading to STL from DC. I see him in first class as I headed to my seat in coach. I asked the stewardess if I could just take a moment to say hello to a gentleman in first class. I was wearing my uniform so I believe that's why she let me go up there. I introduced myself to Mr Berry and told him I backed him at a Teen Hop back home. He said, "What you doing now?" I said, "I'm in the Navy, going home on leave." He said, "Where you sitting?" I said, "In the back". Mr Berry said, "Not any more, you're sitting up here with me." So this sailor flew on a TWA jet to STL with Chuck Berry in 1st Class."


Chuck Berry's passing on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 90 is not the most momentous death in all of American popular music since Robert Johnson's death at age 27 in Greenwood, MS. in 1938, since Johnson was at peak creativity, while Berry hadn't done anything creative for decades.

Guido Muldoon's picture

A rather small minded response, not well thought out at all. Whether Chuck passed at 27 (as so many rockers have) or at age 90 in no way diminishes his titanic achievement. His effect on popular and rock music and culture far exceeded that of any other artist in the last 100 years (at least).

Listening to his complete catalog of recordings (as I have in the last few days) I am dumbfounded, awed and regenerated by his incomprehensible genius. The sheer volume of his output is staggering.

Nearly all of his songs became hits as well as covers by countless artists from the most humble garage bands to the most famous megastars. The Rolling Stones, and to a lesser extent the Beatles, either recorded and/or performed dozens of Chuck's tightly constructed masterpieces. He was practically worshipped by the Stones.

It is certain that neither of these two bands nor countless others would have been formed had not Chuck's music inspired them.

We are all flawed individuals, geniuses often more so than us mere mortals. Chuck wasn't perfect but his music certainly was.


I did not comment on, or attempt to diminish his "titanic achievement". My comment was entirely about Mr. Baird's statement that "Chuck Berry's passing on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 90 is the most momentous death in all of American popular music since Robert Johnson's death at age 27 in Greenwood, MS. in 1938".

Which it is not.

There is nothing especially momentous or consequential about this death on this date. From the perspective of American popular music, it might well have happened after the release of "My Ding-a-ling" in 1972.

Mr. Johnson's death was consequential and momentous because he was cut off at peak creativity. You can see what Mr. Baird was reaching for, but puleeze.

I attended many of Mr. Berry's Thursday night gigs at Blueberry Hill. They were jolly fun, but he was coasting on his past. He had not made any contribution to American music for decades. Titanic though his total creative contribution was.

dalethorn's picture

Small-minded indeed, as we see from the addition "bathroom" response. Well, Sinatra hit someone, George Michael did a bad in a restroom, PeeWee Herman as well. But we forgive, and after all, their careers are not about their bathroom behaviors, legal or not.

My wife's brother collected together about 10 thousand recordings by Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson 1 and 2, and hundreds of others. We've listened to most of it over the years, and one thing I can say about the Blues as a lot of these originals experienced it - it could be life-threatening, like lead poisoning and stuff ("...a little spoonful of '45").

As much as I love these old guys, the only blues artists I think of when it comes to having a large and direct effect on music in my lifetime are Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and perhaps one or more of the writers like Willie Dixon. Their influence, in my opinion at least, is due to many factors, not just how "great" they were or how powerful their personalities were. In Chuck Berry's case, I'll bet that there are thousands if not millions of people who wouldn't trade the experience of seeing him live close-up, for many years *after* his last big hit, for anything else comparable.


<< In 1989 he was sued for allegedly videotaping women at his Missouri restaurant. >> Through a hole in the Ladies Room that he drilled. It's not like he was watching them eat.