And so another rock ‘n’ roll icon, Chuck Berry, has departed the stage. Along with Little Richard and James Brown, they seemed to individually integrate the music of the 1950s and ’60s that many young Americans were listening to. Race music, as it was called, lent itself to the blues and R&B, both rural and urban, but never quite crossed over to white audiences. When this triumvirate appeared, that glass ceiling of separation was shattered.
What made their music so appealing was not only the raw energy of the sound, but the visual theatricality onstage and on television. And although James Brown and Little Richard would be impossible to imitate because of their unique style, Chuck Berry was already garnering the attention of young musicians, both homegrown and across the pond in England, who listened, studied and stole his licks. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one had to only look at the who’s who that imitated him. The list is endless . . .
Not only was Chuck Berry an accomplished guitarist, he was also a fine lyricist and poet—he was a craftsman of tunes. He could tell a great story in three and a half minutes. With his steady voice and clear diction, his words simple and rhythmic, he painted the picture for you. Whether it was straight-ahead rockers (“Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen”), odes to unfaithful women (“Maybelline,” “Nadine”), songs about the breakup and heartbreak of a family (“Memphis, Tennessee”) or the slow-tempo story of a young Cuban woman waiting on the docks for someone (“Havana Moon”), Chuck Berry easily guided you to the emotions he wanted you to feel, and you did! Before long you knew the melody and the words. What more can a songwriter ask for?
So here’s to you Chuck Berry. Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll.
E. G. Singer lives in Santa Rosa.
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