Last Monday, October 18 marked the 84th birthday of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry. He has led a controversial life filled with stints in jail, but no one can deny that he ranks as a leading architect of rock. He combined country with rhythm and blues, adding a healthy dose of innuendo-filled lyrics, to create a new kind of music that thrilled teens and horrified parents in the 1950s. As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states on its Chuck Berry page, his music is "required listening for any serious rock fan and required learning for any serious rock musician." Classics such as "Johnny B. Goode," "No Particular Place to Go," and "Sweet Little Sixteen" are such an integral part of the rock and roll canon that it's easy to forget how groundbreaking these songs were, and how they inspired teenagers such as Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Keith Richards to delve into music.
Born in St. Louis, Berry showed talent for writing lyrics and a deep love for the blues as a student. By the early 1950s he played in a variety of St. Louis clubs, forming the popular Chuck Berry Trio in 1954. Playing to African-American audiences, Berry honed his craft and developed a flair for showmanship. He caught the attention of blues great Muddy Waters, who advised him to approach Chess Records with a demo. That demo turned out to be an early version of "Maybellene"; when Chess released the single in 1955, it became a top-twenty hit. Scoring such a hit served as a milestone not only for Berry, but for music. An African-American artist had cracked the largely white pop charts, a rare achievement in the 1950s. Subsequently he racked up hits, enthralling audiences with his energetic live shows, which included his signature "duck walk" move. Despite his success, he failed to score a number one hit until 1972, when a live recording of the risqué "My Ding-A-Ling" became a surprise success. Astoundingly, Berry still performs extensively today.
What comprises the Chuck Berry sound? Take a hard-driving beat, add in blistering guitar solos, and overlay both elements with sophisticated lyrics that touch on universal themes of teenage angst and the power of rock. The recordings incorporate a raw, live sound, firmly entrenched in the blues tradition. However, instead of the typical "my baby left me" laments, he used clever wordplay. Who else could have penned a lyric like "Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news" from "Roll Over Beethoven"?