It is a loss to the world today, but a rather weird loss because somewhere in the cosmos, literally, Johnny B. Goode is playing. When the Voyager spacecraft began its mission to see what’s “out there” in galaxies we’ve never seen, it included a recording of Johnny B. Goode. A man who suffered under a racist judicial system in his own country — going to jail for tax fraud when others would have gotten a slap on the wrist and a payment plan– has now been heard all over the galaxy. That irony was not lost on him.
Neither was the fact that he, a legend of Rock ‘N Roll, only had one number one hit in his entire lifetime. It was the novelty song “My Ding A Ling”. Does that even seem possible? No, but it is true. That said, The Beach Boys felt compelled to give him writing credit for one of their early songs — I think it’s “Surfing U.S.A”, but I’m not sure. Brian Wilson wanted to give the man his “props” (proper respect) and did — not because he had to, by legal dictate, but because he wanted to honor Berry. John Lennon, when guest hosting the Mike Douglas show, also showered respect on Berry. Keith Richards decided to film “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll” as a tribute to Berry, and yet there’s a section of the movie where Berry is alone with other Black musicians, (including Little Richard) and Berry is angry about the way White musicians like Pat Boone had treated him and “his kind”.
Chuck Berry is a prime example of what it meant /means to be a famous Black man in America. The best at what he does, and yet mistreated because of his color. But Chuck Berry was a mixed metaphor in so many ways — playing piano chords on a guitar, where they are more difficult, led to his signature sound. In his prime in the 1950’s, he could only be heard by a certain section of the population at the time. In the beginning, that thing we call Rock ‘N Roll was called “race music” — it was the music that “the colored people” listened to until Elvis played it. That’s why Elvis was such a scandal at first — because he played their music, making him a perfect form of teenage rebellion — like White folks physically, but singing the sexualized songs of “those colored folks” that was so dangerous.
In addition to that, he threatened all kinds of ideas about Blacks. When they weren’t considered intelligent people, or supposed to be political, Berry wrote lyrics like “he was campaign shouting like a Southern Democrat” in “Maybelline” — and made them fun — as White pop stars sang “moon, spoon, and June” in theirs. The song, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N Roll” knows it’s being subversive when it says “deliver me from the days of old”.
After losing popularity in the U.S. somewhat, he and bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and rockers like Little Richard were rediscovered in England by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton, and that’s when he probably made most of his money — post-prime. After that, he was an icon. George Thurogood owes much of his career to Chuck Berry, as do the Stray Cats, and every other rockabilly act ever. Chuck Berry is one of the few people in rock music with his own genre/identifiable sound. Like Hank Williams’ style in country music, there are things called “Chuck Berry licks” which are recognized by people worldwide. Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley in blues, Harry Chapin in folk-rock “story-songs”, all have risen to that iconic level where people can recognize the work, pay tribute to it, or mess with it but they cannot be ignored.
I saw him twice in my lifetime — during the 50’s revival of the 1970’s and in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. He did not disappoint. For an old guy then he moved, sang, “duck-walked” and challenged other musicians all night long. Today, ar age 90, he died, never to do that again.
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N Roll! Chuck Berry has died. Long live Chuck Berry.
Resisting with peace,