E=Mc2 – Albert Einstein
Rock and Roll – Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry invented rock and roll.
Whatever it was before him, some analogous, coagulated pre-form that would come to be known as rock and roll, is ultimately irrelevant in the hands of Chuck Berry, because as a cultural, iconic, lyrical, American force, what happens in, say, the first thirty seconds of “Johnny B. Goode”, is the very foundation for all that came after it. Six decades of a genre, a movement, a youth zeitgeist fused together in volume, rhythm, sex, greed, freedom, slashed together in 1955 and wood-shedded along the Chitlin’ Circuit through Jim Crow and out the American Bandstand tiny mono speakers and flickering black and white televisions in 1958 has had some legs. Duck-walk, two-string bending, riff-laden rapper delight is a celebration of all things. It is, he is, the symbol of that most cherished American institution; excess.
Yes, Virginia, there is no Aquarian Weekly or Rolling Stone or certainly no Rolling Stones or The Beatles or The Beach Boys or The Velvet Underground or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix or AC/DC or MTV or The Sex Pistols or Madonna or Jam Master Flash or Beyoncé or whatever the hell is smoldering in some garage somewhere around your corner without Chuck Berry. The thread leads back to the further reaches of lurid New Orleans brothels and the primordial sweat of Mobile swill and the smoky whiskey-stench of a Chicago South Side juke joint, but it really begins in a shape that forms this thing, this huge, unstoppable thing; filled with rebellion and seduction and speed and drugs and death and rebirth and subversive poetic fashion rebuke in the slender, dark, smooth tones of a Chuck Berry song.
Elvis Presley wanted to be black, and those who were not black got that. Mostly. And those who didn’t were fooling themselves. This is all you need to know about the import of the purported King of Rock and Roll. You see, Chuck Berry had no interest in being white, but he was interested in their ears and eyeballs and their greenbacks and he knew how to get in there, like a generational virus. And he did not need Ed Sullivan or the Colonel or some ostentatious Memphis mansion between Bluebird and Craft to prove it. This is what the twelve-bar, I-IV-V, four-on-the-floor fat-back boogie woogie shuffle gets you. It’s a fever, man, and it spreads.
There can be a strong case that none of it has not improved a whit from the moment it emerged from those amplifiers when Chuck Berry got the screaming Gibson hollow-body ES-335 turned up, a piece of eminent machinery built by some enterprising guitar engineer that could not have imagined what the hell he had wrought.
If he is known for nothing else, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was an alchemist. He transformed Mississippi mud-water and Midwest exhaust-pipe fumes into gold. Grits and burgers, bobby socks and pig-tails, souped-up engines and Army jocks and testosterone fist-fight, slick-talking pool hall jail-cats and apple pie, baseball, corner-store egg-cream slicksters dr-rrrrropin’ the coin right into the slot. Hail, hail, little sweet sixteen, the middle class pimple-faces are taking over and it’s time to give them a lesson in the street-walk jive. Make no mistake, Chuck Berry was first and foremost a capitalist; his rise to fame and his individualist nature along with an uncompromising attitude permeated his life and his art reeked of it.
Chuck Berry became in many ways both the figure and bane of the American edict; his subversion of the button-down, conservative 1950s and its bursting sexual rage of rock and roll eased neatly into one of the most profitable, conglomerate showbiz industries known to the Western world. You could not undo Chuck Berry. He made damn sure you could never go back. It was his little invention that made the American way the choice over every other way, as it also assisted greatly in dismantling its hypocrisies.
Berry was deeply and richly mid-America, like the car and the microwave and the step one-two-three soldier boy after the second war to end all wars. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, as a blues trope—the fourth child out of six; you make up the rhyme if you wish. He grew up in the snooze of the kind of mass wealth that is accumulated when you stomp the conquerors of Europe and carve the world up for amusement. His daddy was a builder and a Baptist deacon, who could preach about concrete and Jesus and his mamma, a school principal, was smart and beautiful, and took shit from no man.
It was when he may have heard those scratchy J & M 78’s of Caledonia Inn’s Professor Longhair and Fats Domino that he picked up the instrument that would make him the first guitar hero. Right around the same time he was sent to the rather auspicious Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men after a botched car robbery that may or may not have included a gun. He would not botch the guitar. It was far more lethal and lucrative. He would wield it as his weapon of choice for another 70 years, turning an entire movement into his plaything in the process.
The two best things Chuck Berry would ever do would be to join a rhythm and blues outfit called the Jonnie Johnson Trio and then stumble into Muddy Waters, whose acquaintance would lead to his signing with the legendary Chess Records.
Johnson, arguably the finest and certainly the most influential boogie-woogie pianist of the era, provided a stage for Berry to expand on his T-Bone Walker moves; slide, spin, split, and ramble, whilst riffing wildly beneath a torrent of foot stompers. Johnson would also be the template for the songwriter he would become; many of the best of Berry’s work is heard first from the piano, what those who would play with him quizzically understood as those “strange keys”; all flats and sharps that would keep pace with what was first the realm of the 88 keys to salvation. Ain’t no coincidence what is sometimes considered as the first ever rock and roll song, “Rocket 88”, by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, set the tempo of the instrument in 1951. Soon to follow would be freaks and madmen the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
It was Berry’s unique combination of piano phrasing and the horn riff that he clipped from Louis Jordan’s 1946 romp, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do it Every Time)”, that provided him a signature guitar intro for nearly all of his rockers, and most famously, the aforementioned “Johnny B. Goode”, which is without question the most recognizable rock and roll song from its inaugural period and covered in more styles of music than almost anything written from the era. Johnson’s contributions to Berry’s work is paramount and helps to better understand his signature beat-turning guitar solos that shift and toss the rhythms inside-out, a device so imitated but never duplicated it is almost criminal.
For his part, Muddy Waters, who had already invented the rock band with his electric Chicago outfit of bass, drums and guitar, would be all that the young guitarist needed to gain the favor of Leonard Chess. In a little room on South Michigan Avenue, Chuck Berry would record a song called “Maybelline”, a thrasher version of some bumpkin ditty he turned into hot-rod metaphor heaven. With all its V8 Ford/Cadillac Coupe DeVille scatting and chug-chug guitar raunch, it is pure Americana and yet it isn’t. It is what would later be attributed to epiphany songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “She Loves You” and “When Doves Cry” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that are at once familiar, but on a more primal level come on disturbing in the best sense. “Maybelline” shattered the glass before anyone knew it was there to be shattered.
The car/girl thing was Chuck’s raison d’être, and subsequently the very core of the rock and roll ethos. The engine of the nation and the engine of your loins and the engine of the music and the manic state of fury that comes from good times; this is where Chuck Berry splits from the black blues experience. Even in his most famous blues number, “Wee Wee Hours”, there is a tenderness not found in the braggadocio or steamy sexual threats that could never have found a place on mainstream radio in 1955. There are no snake-moans or painful yawps associated with anything in his reliably formulaic canon. Joy and youth and a love of fun reached beyond the racism that plagued the nation.
Chuck did something unique; he did not fight or comment on or bludgeon the great racial divide, he ignored it. “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” obliterate lines and would define the latter half of this decade and the first wave of rock and roll by attracting those who would make it the billion-dollar concept, as it would become in the hands of whiter and in many cases non-American faces.
In the glare of The Beatles, his “Rock and Roll Music”, a clever mashing of musical styles made to bend to Chuck Berry’s will, became a mantra. Lennon and McCartney both understand the inner couplet rhyming of “use it/lose it/music/if you…want to dance with me” that they nicked it for dozens of songs. And in the hands of The Rolling Stones “Round and Round” becomes a sinister caterwaul against insipidness. Watch something truly horrifying as Mom & Pop Lunch Pail sit agape while digesting the Stones on national TV rip their way through that song and usher in the next half-century of satanic debauchery. Watch them use the 1960s to invent the ‘70s while giving us Berry’s 1950s.
Perhaps this lineage can best be described in two seminal Chuck Berry compositions, “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956) and “Back in The U.S.A.” (1959); both set a dizzying course from The Beatles “Come Together” to The Beach Boys “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to The Beatles again in “Back in the USSR” to Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, which ends up in some circular parody of itself and still out-shines the bunch with lyrical gems like “I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll / Moanin’ siren, ’twas the state patrol / So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn / Bye bye New Jersey, I’ve become airborne.”
By the time this was all happening, and the 1960s happened, and all those bands and their offspring were pouring so much syrup on Chuck’s pancakes you could hardly taste the damn things anymore, Mr. Berry was done. Or sort of done. At least done as an American institution. Or a perceived American institution. As much as an African-American man can be. But he became again the first in a long line of rock and roll miscreants, outlaws, and nose-thumbers.
The lore goes like this; at the end of the 1950s, before all the noise from England when the pop charts were thrust into an opaque dissonance of Pat Boone blahs, the second most important singer/songwriter of the first rock and roll wave, Buddy Holly, died in an airplane crash, Little Richard became a preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis went off and did the Southern thing and married his 13-year-old cousin, and Elvis went into the army. Chuck Berry, as a prelude to the coming decades of anti-social, anti-authoritarian acts, went to jail.
The official records state he made a mockery of the Mann Act, when he allegedly had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old Apache waitress, whom he then transported across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl at his club. After several appeals on the grounds that (clear thy throat) the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him, he went to prison for 17 months.
For all intents and purposes that would be the end of the glory years for the man who gave us the music, the guitar hero, the outlaw rocker, and the mantra-poet that everyone from Dylan to Nas has since liberally borrowed.
But, of course, Chuck Berry would hear of none of it. He toured and toured and did more touring, in caravans and festivals and by himself, grabbing only his guitar and a hat and coat and meeting reverentially confused young musicians along the way from Bruce Springsteen to Keith Richards to my dear friend and once band-mate, Barry Geller. And for good measure as last resort to piss off and endear all at once, he oddly had his only #1 record in 1973 with a double-entendre tour-de-force called “My Ding-a-Ling”, which you needn’t be Fellini to deconstruct.
What followed were, to put it mildly, “the mean years” in which “dealing” with Chuck Berry became something of a Herculean chore; whether promoters or musicians, the press, the fans, whomever. For a great example of his prickly-to-outright-bitchy demeanor check out the 1987 tribute concert film, Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, which illustrates clearly that this is a man who trusted no one and listened to less. The aforementioned Keith Richards, who looked at Berry as nothing less than a messiah, spends the entire journey from rehearsals through the show fighting with him. This makes perfect sense since Keith’s best feature, beyond commandeering the guitar and staying alive, is social combat. The first time these two met Berry punched him in the face.
I can say, for my part, I have played and sung Chuck Berry songs my entire adult life and enjoyed every note and syllable, and for some time, in the 1980s—during which in a one-year span early in that decade I would see both Chuck and Muddy perform on separate occasions—I would make it a prerequisite that anyone worth his weight had to at least get through one of those tunes to make the grade.
The very DNA of this thing that has enchanted me viscerally and intellectually for my entire life begins and in many ways ends with Chuck Berry.
He may not have invented freedom and rebellion and seduction and mischief and rollicking fun, but he distilled it into a goddamned raucous art form.
Good work, if you can get it.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.