When time travel adventure Back to the Future included the conceit of the white 1980s teenager, Marty McFly, inventing rock ‘n’ roll, there was really only one song to hang it on – Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. Legendary is an overused adjective in popular culture, but Berry’s passing is a salutary reminder of what a giant in the field actually looked like.
The process by which new genres emerge from previous music forms is complex and muddy, and the boundaries between them porous. So John Lennon may have been exaggerating when he said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” But not by much.
In terms of contributing to the shape of popular music culture in the 20th century and beyond, he had only a handful of peers. He was the keystone for subsequent pivotal figures in the development of rock – The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Hendrix all covered his songs, and his influence is writ large throughout their playing. Likewise, The Beach Boys’ early career was propelled by almost note-for-note takes of his riffs and licks.
In fact, both the Beach Boys and Lennon were to fall foul of plagiarism suits pertaining to their use of Berry’s work, and Berry was himself sued in 2000 by longtime collaborator – pianist Johnnie Johnson – for a share in the credits to a string of hits like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “No Particular Place to Go”. Johnson’s suit, which concerned 50 songs, was dismissed due to the length of time that had elapsed since the songs were written, over which period the songs had become classics.
Rock, rhythm and jazz
Although Johnson’s contribution to Berry’s work was significant – Berry had originally joined Johnson’s band as his musical career started to take off – there’s more to the development of a musical form than chord progressions and musical arrangements. Simon Frith has written that genre exists between different sets of conventions in music – how it sounds, how it is performed, how it is sold and its embodied values, or ideology. It is at this intersection that Berry emerges as a focal point in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Musically, he was open about his debt to a range of guitar players, from a range of genres, from Muddy Waters to Carl Hogan and Charlie Christian. But his unique skill was to infuse these with a sense of urgency against a driving backbeat. From details like foregrounding the double-stop (two strings played at once) to the overarching dynamics of his playing, he produced the template for the rock guitar solo. His famous “duckwalk” and swinging movements also centralised the guitar solo, and took the guitar centre stage, not just as a musical instrument but also as a visual prop and performance tool.
As a writer, also, he captured the spirit of his age. His lyricist’s eye allowed him to meld the world weary, hard living concerns of the blues with a narrative style that crystallised the experiences of the first generation growing up in the post war era of American popular cultural dominance. Replete with automobiles, Sears Roebuck sales and jukeboxes, his songs kept one foot in the history of black American musical experience but hooked it to the pop consumption culture of the present.
Treading a tightrope between quasi-comic vignettes (the troublesome seatbelt of “No Particular Place To Go”) and emotive punchlines (the absent daughter of “Memphis, Tennessee”), his narratives were also innovative. In the first person but at a knowing, often winking, remove from the action, their echoes could still be heard decades later in the storytelling of rappers.
He was keenly aware, too, of the different audiences in an America that were still deeply segregated. He drew on country as well as blues and jazz, and he had a sharp sense of how to bridge the demographic divide by deliberately modulating his vocal delivery, as he explained in his autobiography:
Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinction diction. The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down-home blues in the language they came from … When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.
Neither was he beyond addressing the inequities of the racial divide in his music, although his commercial impetus and self-identification as an entertainer first and foremost meant that he did so obliquely, rather than head on. He changed, for example, the semi-autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode” from a “coloured” to a “country” boy to widen the song’s applicability and appeal.
A universal legacy
Ultimately, Berry’s peak period as a recording artist was relatively short and, also blazing a trail for the moral and legal ambiguities of rock that were to follow, he was arrested in 1959 for transporting a minor across state lines. Despite a successful appeal against the initial sentence on the grounds of racist comments made by the judge to the all-white jury, he still served two years after a retrial. The break in his career saw recorded music take his pop innovations to the next level, as rock ‘n’ roll, filtered through British acts like The Beatles, burst its creative banks to become the rock of the 1960s.
Berry maintained his appeal as a live performer, despite intermittently shaky performances due to his insistence on touring solo and playing with unrehearsed pick-up bands in every town – a legacy of his early losses on the road, and determination not to be ripped off again. But neither these, nor further legal travails in the 1990s, could undermine his status as a founding father of rock.
When the Voyager space probes were launched in the 1970s, they carried a record representing the various different sounds of human civilisation. In among Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and folk musics from around the world, sits “Johnny B. Goode”. It was a controversial inclusion at the time, with folklorist Alan Lomax arguing that it was “adolescent”. But adolescents grow up, and Berry’s literacy and capacity to straddle musical genres as well as adult and teenage concerns, laid down the groundwork for modern rock and pop. He became the legend that other legends referred back to.
A year after the launch of the Voyager spacecraft, Steve Martin mocked up a cover of Time magazine on Saturday Night Live with a response from alien civilizations: “Send more Chuck Berry”.
Adam Behr receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council