In Bob Seger’s 1977 single “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” his driving ode to rock’s timeless place in our lives, he reminds us that “all of Chuck’s children are out there, playing his licks.”
Seger didn’t need to drop a last name: Chuck, to anyone whose pulse ever thumped to a guitar played just like ringing a bell, could only be Chuck Berry.
Berry’s death Saturday at age 90 spurred an outpouring of accolades for a man praised variously as a legend, pioneer and king who led us to hail, hail rock 'n' roll. But Seger sang it most accurately all those years ago: Berry’s the father of the ageless music that changed the world.
Using a mere three chords, syncopated with his lefty pinky forever reaching down and tapping the neck of his Gibson guitar, the son of St. Louis not only redefined music, but the very power and possibility of youth. From “Johnny B. Goode” to “Sweet Little Sixteen” to “Maybellene,” the duck-walking Berry bent strings —freeing the feet and the soul while unleashing the spirit lurking in the psyche of post-war teenagers.
It’s tempting, but an oversimplification, to view Berry as a musical bridge between early rhythm-and-blues and the 1960s rock explosion. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Berry rose to fame in the 1950s as the American interstate system began connecting, at least physically, the divided country.
All musical roads led to and sprouted anew from Berry, who took blues, gospel, big band and country and, wielding the power of electrification, melded them into a rollicking creation that traveled at lightening speed across the globe.
Sure, Elvis Presley — Berry’s 1950s peer in playing alchemy with genres — sold more records. But fans can argue Berry forged a longer and stronger influence on the musical titans who followed.
Berry became the common primary inspiration linking the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, three disparate and dominant acts. "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'," John Lennon once declared.
Lennon, with Paul McCartney, borrowed from the master on songs from “I Saw Her Standing There” (the bass line from “Talkin’ About You”) to “Come Together” (the opening lines from “You Can’t Catch Me”).
Berry also presaged the era of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and other gods of the six-string, kicking off his songs with siren-call riffs that put the lead guitar at the center of rock. And Bob Dylan might not exist without Berry, who became rock’s first poet, proving that pop lyrics could transcend sappy love songs.
Berry infused his tunes with word play (the very title of “Johnny B. Goode” is a pun). He conjured clever imagery (“You know my temperature's risin'/And the jukebox's blowin' a fuse,” Berry sang in “Roll Over Beethoven”).
He could be a little naughty, too, griping in double-entendre-filled “No Particular Place to Go,” his best guys-gals-and-cars tale: “All the way home I held a grudge/For the safety belt that wouldn't budge.”
Berry also displayed a sardonic streak that he employed to both satirize and celebrate the illusion of all-American greatness. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” could be read as a commentary on race relations, wrapped in braggadocios (“Back ever since the world began/There's been a whole lot of good women shed a tear/For a brown eyed handsome man”).
In “Back in the U.S.A.,” Berry suggested his country didn’t always live up to its promise: “Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?/From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay?/You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.”
Berry, who earned Kennedy Center honors in 2000, wasn’t always treated like a king in the U.S.A., growing up amid segregation and getting sentenced to prison twice. He performed well into his 80s, and even has an album coming out this year. But in later years, he always toured on his own terms, often traveling alone and fronting makeshift backing bands.
The complexity of the genius behind the deceivingly simple classic pop songs shined through in "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the 1987 documentary about the all-star tribute concert Rolling Stone Keith Richards put together to mark Berry’s 60th birthday. In one remarkable sequence, Berry repeatedly schools Richards on how to play the opening riff from “Carol.”
Richards and all of Chuck’s children will be playing his licks forever. But nobody played them better then their inventor, Chuck Berry, the father of rock 'n' roll, which never forgets.