Many people were involved in the creation of rock’n’roll,
but there’s a good case that one man was more important than anyone else. His
name was Chuck Berry and he has just died at the age of ninety. He didn’t make
a lot of money during that long life, but he influenced a lot of people and
brought pleasure to even more.
Even those who don’t know his name and have never heard a
note of his music could be called Chuck Berry fans, because his songs and his
style were the foundation on which bands like the Beatles and the Rolling
Stones built their own careers. He was born in 1926 to a poor black family in
in St. Louis, a big city in the southern American state of Missouri. Later in
life, he would say that his childhood wasn’t a happy one: his parents eventually
divorced and he had to struggle to survive.
But perhaps those difficult early days supplied the fuel for
his later career: Chuck Berry was a driven man who never stayed still and who
was performing almost to the very end of his life. You could say that his
guitar was his life-line: it enabled him to drag himself out of poverty and
into the hearts of music fans around the world. But the best musical instrument
ever made is no use to someone without talent. Berry had talent in abundance: as
his most famous song puts it, he “could play a guitar like ringing a bell!”
That’s from “Johnny B. Goode”, which has been covered by
countless other bands down the decades. It was full of life and energy,
embodying the optimism and endless possibility felt by American teenagers in
the 1950s and ’60s. Although he was well into his twenties by the time his
career took off, Berry understood what young folk felt and liked. They wanted exciting
new music for their energetic new lives. Berry supplied it with classics like
“Roll Over Beethoven”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Rock’n’Roll Music”, “Sweet
Little Sixteen”, “Back in the USA”, “No Particular Place to Go”, and “The
But they weren’t classics in those days: they were the
freshest sounds around. They still sound fresh today, even though the teenagers
they delighted back then are in their seventies and eighties by now. Berry
delighted them on stage too: he couldn’t just write great songs, he could
perform them with style and charisma. But his success didn’t make life any easier:
after being jailed for three years at the age of eighteen for robbery, he might
have hoped that he’d never see the inside of a prison again.
If so, those hopes weren’t realized. He was a famous
musician in 1960, but he was arrested for “taking an under-aged girl across a
state line” to work in a night-club he owned. He said he’d thought she was
twenty and that she only complained to the police when he fired her. It didn’t
do any good: he went back inside for another three years. He practised hard
behind bars and when he got out his playing and singing were as good as ever.
But his music wasn’t fresh and new any more: from then on, he would be an
influence, not an innovator.
New stars were honing their craft across the Atlantic in
Liverpool and London. When the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to America, you
could say that they were taking Chuck Berry back home. From John Lennon to
Keith Richard, they all acknowledged how important the American master had been
in shaping and inspiring their own music. Indeed, John Lennon would later lift
part of Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” wholesale for his own song “Come
Together”. Berry was on the right side of the law this time and won a
settlement against Lennon.
But the settlement was amicable: Lennon hadn’t lifted the
tune because he held Berry in low esteem. Quite the reverse! But Berry would
never enjoy the huge material success of those he inspired. Only one of his
songs ever made it to number one, a throw-away number called “My Dingaling”,
and he continued to tour for so long not just from the joy of performing but
from financial necessity too. He would have more trouble with the law along the
way, but nothing would ever shake his importance in the history of rock’n’roll.
He was there at the beginning and many people would say he was the best. The
King is dead – long live the King’s music!