"If rock and roll had another name it would be Chuck Berry" - John Lennon
Born in 1926, Chuck Berry was an elder statesman of rock even at its inception.Joining the Johnny Johnson trio, Berry, who at the time made his living as a painter and decorator, soon became the band's frontman, and the band became the Chuck Berry Trio because, as Johnson said 'you a real go-getter'.
A meeting with Berry's idol Muddy Waters got Berry a meeting with Leonard Chess, but Berry's style, while based in the blues, was far smoother than that of Waters - as he said 'Why can't I do what Pat Boone does and get played by all the white people?'
The before his first session for Chess Records Berry decided to have a writing session. He wrote four songs, including Maybelline, Wee Wee Hours and Roll Over Beethoven. Maybelline, based on the country song Ida Red aka Ida Mae but renamed after the brand of makeup, became a huge hit, but Berry was disconcerted to discover that along with his name on the credits were the names of Alan Freed, the most popular DJ of the time, and Russ Fratto, who apparently owned the shop where the sheet music was printed. Berry soon decided never to let himself be ripped off like this again.
However, it is questionable whether Berry himself ripped off quite a few people, most notably Johnny Johnson - Johnson recently sued Berry, claiming to have co-written the music for many of Berry's big hits, though he was languishing in obscurity until Keith Richards tracked him down for the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.
It is possible, even probable, that Johnson did co-write the music for the songs in question, but this is somewhat missing the point. Melodically Berry's songs are unremarkable, and the chord sequences are nearly always simple blues progressions such as would naturally evolve out of jams with other musicians (and Johnson was a mainstay of Berry's band for years, augmented by various drummers and, in the studio, bass legend Willie Dixon) but what made them remarkable were the lyrics and the guitar playing.
Berry was the first rock songwriter (with the possible exception of Jerry Leiber) to deal with themes other than the most basic teenage preoccupations, although he dealt with those as well. The lyrics to Too Much Monkey Business for example deal with the preoccupations of day to day life for a postman, a soldier, a petrol station attendant and a man whose girlfriend is trying to get him to settle down. As an R&B song this would not be unusual (see Fats Domino's Blue Monday for example) but for a track aimed at a teenage audience this was something unusual. His lyrics always had a sly wit about them few could match, often aided by his colourful neologisms - who else would think of calling a fridge a 'coolerator'?
His other great innovation was his guitar sound. Put simply he invented rock guitar as we know it. While obviously synthesised from a variety of sources (the riffs used in Louis Jordan's big band records, the guitar playing of Charlie Christian) his double stringed blues licks became the standard that every guitarist since has aspired to. Many can play faster, but they're still playing variations on Berry's licks.
Berry's career hit a downturn when he was jailed for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. He claimed she was teaching him Spanish. On his release, he had a few more classic releases, but the fire had generally gone.
Other than a fluke hit in the 70s with the atrocious My Ding-A-Ling, horribly enough his only number one hit, Berry's career as an artist pretty much ended in the early 60s, and he hasn't released an album of new material since 1973. However there was a resurgence of interest around his 60th birthday, the celebrations for which featured Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt and Robert Cray among many others paying homage to him. He became decidedly less popular in the early 90s though when it was discovered he had secret videotapes taken in the women's toilets of a nightclub he owned, showing customers on the toilet.
Berry continues to tour to this day, playing with pickup bands he has never rehearsed with, only doing his famous duck walk if paid extra, and demanding an extra fee be paid in cash before any encore. Despite all that, he's still Chuck Berry, which means he's still rock and roll personified.
Berry was never a great albums artist, but here's a list of just some of his classic individual tracks. I will undoubtedly miss more than I name...
Johnny B. Goode
You Can't Catch Me
Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll
No Particular Place To Go
Wee Wee Hours
Roll Over Beethoven
Too Much Monkey Business
Sweet Little Sixteen
Reelin And Rockin
You Never Can Tell
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Back In The USA
And too many more to name...
Chuck Berry died March 18, 2017 at ninety years of age.