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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Chuck Berry

Without Chuck Berry, who died last month, we wouldn't have rock and roll as it is today. It is said of D.W. Griffith that he created the grammar of movies. Berry invented the grammar of rock and roll.

He innovated so many things: he basically invented the guitar riff. When I played his greatest hits the first song, "Maybelline," has just that brief little lick, but as soon as you hear it, you're there in his world. He also established the basic rock combo as guitar, bass, piano, and drums. And, for a many already in his thirties, he set the lyric style of the genre: girls, cars, and the music itself.

Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926, did a little stint in jail, worked in an automobile factory, but then recorded "Maybelline" with Chess Records in 1955. Although there was certainly some "borrowing" going on, Berry wrote all of his own material ("Maybelline" is a version of another song, "Ida Red"). But that song really had everything Berry would be known for: the guitar riff, the heartbreak of teenage love: "Maybelline, why can't you be true?" and cars--the song erupts into a race between a Cadillac and a Ford.

Berry also was a bit meta--he wrote many songs about rock and roll itself. "Rock and Roll Music," and "Roll Over Beethoven" are two songs about why rock was great, and is there a greater line in early rock than "Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news." He wrote many songs about dances, such "Reelin' and a Rockin' ("Well I looked at my watch and to my surprise, I was dancing with a woman that was twice my size").

What may have been lost in Berry's legacy is his gift as a lyricist. Dylan called him rock's greatest lyricist, a pretty high honor. He didn't write what we think of as poetry, but the words were engaging, to the point, and had a kind of magic to them. Consider the words from perhaps his greatest song, "Johnny B. Goode":

"Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell."

It was noted by many at his death that this song is on a disc attached to the Voyager space probe, and is on its way out of the solar system. Millions of year from now some other race may be enjoying it.

Berry's career slowed down after the British Invasion (even though all those bands were influenced by him) and a conviction of violating the Mann Act. But he did come back with a few songs that are well-known: "You Never Can Tell," which Quentin Tarantino revived in Pulp Fiction in the Travolta-Thurman dance scene, and, ironically, the one hit that Berry didn't write, "My Ding-a-Ling," a novelty double entendre song, was his only number one hit on the Billboard Chart (in 1972). He did have three number ones on the R&B chart: "Maybelline," "School Day," and "Sweet Little Sixteen."

That a rock star lived to be ninety is not a tragedy, but nevertheless his loss will be felt. Listening to his greatest hits all week was a great tonic. He was also a great showman, who patented the "duck walk" seen above, and continued to play live shows well into his eighties.

Mr. Berry: Hail, hail, rock and roll!

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