You can’t just listen to a Chuck Berry song.
Your foot taps, your head bops like a metronome. A slow, wide smile creeps across your face. Berry’s sinewy guitar riffs — the thunderclap of “Johnny B. Goode,” the locomotive throb of “Maybellene,” the electric spark of “Sweet Little Sixteen” — demand engagement and movement. More than songs, they’re invitations to ebullience.
That’s what it must have been like for those who first marveled at Berry’s music when his career took off in 1955, and that’s how it feels today as his songs flood the airwaves and Internet in tribute to the seminal singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who died last Saturday at the age of 90.
And that’s how it will be 50 years from now when some kid stumbles, for the first time, onto the music of the man who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without Berry, the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Presley wouldn’t have existed — certainly not in the manner that garnered them critical and commercial acclaim.
Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” is often cited as the first true rock ’n’ roll song. Yet it was Berry who took country, R&B, and pop, and marinated them in his own distinct St. Louis style to form an irresistible whole that shook up the world musically and culturally. Long after many of his contemporaries were retired or dead, Berry was still performing, well into his 80s, a stellar showman and guitarist, and one of the greatest musicians this nation has ever produced.
About Berry, John Lennon, who with the Beatles covered “Roll Over, Beethoven,” once said, “If you had to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
At the John F. Kennedy Library, in 2012, Berry became one of the first recipients of PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, a recognition well earned. If early critics were quick to dismiss rock ’n’ roll as a crass fad — Frank Sinatra branded it “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear” — there was no denying that Berry was as crafty and deft a songwriter as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. He was an erudite storyteller who gave voice to teenage ennui and joy (though Berry was well past his adolescent years), the machinations of love found and lost, and even the ecstasy (and hilarious frustrations) of cruising around in a car with “No Particular Place to Go.”
During the PEN New England ceremony, Dylan, in an e-mail, called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll.” Like the Bard, Berry’s cultural mark is indelible; he is one of the primary threads in the DNA of American popular music. From his signature “duck walk” to his literate lyrics and evergreen tunes, Charles Edward Anderson Berry didn’t just help invent rock ’n’ roll. He was rock ’n’ roll — and always will be.