Opinion
    Next Score View the next score

    Renée Graham

    Renée Graham: Sorry, Elvis — Chuck Berry is the king of rock ’n’ roll

    Chuck Berry performed at the Music Hall in Boston in October 1971.
    Globe Staff/File
    Chuck Berry performed at the Music Hall in Boston in October 1971.

    Father. Godfather. Pioneer. Founder. Architect.

    Chuck Berry’s death last weekend had obit writers and news anchors scrambling for thesauruses to find just the right word to describe his monumental contributions to rock ’n’ roll. Yet even as the honorifics grew more lavish, there remained one title no one dared bestow upon Berry: The King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

    That designation was long ago given to Elvis Presley. As the story goes, Presley was discovered because he fit the job description conjured by Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips: a white man who could sing like a black man. (For the record, Presley never sounded black.) Presley was an imitator, his kingdom a myth shared from generation to generation; repetition gave it the texture of fact. Berry was an originator, but in 1950s America, no black man could ever be anointed the king of anything.

    Advertisement

    Berry, who wrote, composed, and performed some of the greatest songs in pop music history, including “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” knew all about cultural appropriation decades before it became a buzzy shorthand for white people co-opting the ingenuity of people of color.

    Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
    Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s website entry for Berry gets it wrong: “After Elvis Presley, only Chuck Berry had more influence on the formation and development of rock & roll,” it claims. Any unbiased conversation about the foundation of rock ’n’ roll begins with Berry; he isn’t “after” anybody. But Presley is elevated because, as a white man, his provocations then seen as sexualized, even dangerous, were mostly tolerated. No black performer could have gotten away with such antics. Berry, meanwhile, had to change the words “colored boy” to “country boy” in “Johnny B. Goode” to make it more radio friendly for a wider, whiter audience.

    In the 1950s, when Berry was at his creative zenith, both Presley and Pat Boone were outselling him. At least Presley could flat-out sing and inject a song with tension and swagger; by comparison, Boone, who made declawed versions of such classics as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” was a warm bowl of vanilla ice cream. He was comfort food for a nation terrified that rock ’n’ roll, a colloquialism for sex, would corrupt tender white minds and morals.

    For America, this was nothing new. Three decades earlier, white bandleader Paul Whiteman (yes, that was his name) dubbed himself “The King of Jazz,” even though his notion of this distinctly African-American music leaned more toward syrupy symphonic compositions than the riotous sound that cornetist King Oliver, an early influence on Louis Armstrong, was creating in New Orleans. As with 1950s rock ’n’ roll, some wanted jazz, but only with a different complexion.

    Still, one needn’t look any further than the artists influenced by Berry to understand his dazzling musical legacy. The Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Taylor are among those who performed his songs. (The Beach Boys didn’t just cover Berry; their “Surfin’ U.S.A.” sounded so much like Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” that writing credit and publishing royalties were ultimately signed over to Berry.)

    Advertisement

    Always confident about his talents, Berry probably knew exactly where he belonged in the pop music firmament — at the top. He was not a blueprint for rock ’n’ roll; that suggests he was simply an outline for something great to be built later. Berry was already great.

    In death as in his long life and career, Berry is still being hailed, but only to a certain point. Time for that skewed history to meet reality. So roll over, Beethoven and, this time, tell Elvis the news — Chuck Berry is the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

    Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.