Every time you see a rocker strutting the stage, slinging their guitar around and cutting loose with killer riffs, Chuck Berry’s musical DNA is at work.
Berry, who died Saturday at 90 according to the St. Charles County Missouri police department, created the rock star blueprint more than 50 years ago and generations later, there’s still nobody who can touch the original. It’s no wonder that when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland inducted its inaugural members in 1986, the Brown Eyed Handsome Man was at the head of the class.
From the time Berry first hit the scene with Maybellene in 1955, he defined the sound, the swagger, the style of a rock and roll star. He was the show. And to this day, guitarists pay homage banging out his wicked licks and imitating his signature duck walk.
He blew the fuse in many a jukebox with songs like School Day that spoke directly to the teens that embraced him: “Soon as three o’clock rolls around/you finally lay your burden down/Close up your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street.” They may not have wanted to learn the Golden Rule from mean-looking teachers, but “tight dresses and lipstick,” and Cadillacs “doin’ about ninety-five” sure struck their fancy.
Berry was so energetic, charismatic and unique that he rendered moot the prevailing racial barriers of the 1950s that kept most African American musicians out of the mainstream. He had a knack for gauging what his audience liked and then giving it to them. His witty, libidinous lyrics spoke of girls, motorin’, and footloose fun. “If you get too close, you know I’m gone like a cool breeze,” he crooned on You Can’t Catch Me. Who can’t empathize with him on No Particular Place to Go, when his plans for a little moonlight romance are thwarted by a balky seat belt or his lament about life’s pressures on Too Much Monkey Business?
His virile concoction of country hillbilly guitar licks and spirited R&B was the high-test that fueled the rock and roll engine. Even being locked up in 1962-1963 couldn’t keep his fire from spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and others gained traction during that time by covering Berry songs. Even Elvis dipped into his catalog. More than 75 different artists have done Berry songs. Johnny B. Goode alone has seen at least two dozen versions.
Berry and his music were built to last. Scandals couldn’t keep him down. Neither could passing fads or changing tastes. His salacious euphemisms and rebellious spirit still resonate.
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Source: USA Today/Steve Jones
Photo: Walter Bieri, EPA