I didn’t grow up knowing who Chuck Berry was. I grew up on The Beatles. One Christmas I got The Beatles Second Album – the first of many, many albums I would wear out – and Beatles ’65. Two songs from those albums always stuck out: Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. The driving beat and raucous energy of those two songs were exhilarating. I also grew up on The Beach Boys. One of their most popular singles was the song Surfin’ Safari even though I preferred Shutdown which was on the B-side.
Eventually I’d hear some guy named Chuck Berry singing Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music on the radio. “Wow! Those are the songs from my Beatles albums!”, I said to myself since Facebook hadn’t been invented yet. And when I heard that same Chuck Berry sing Sweet Little Sixteen, I was like, “Whoa! That sounds exactly like Surfin’ Safari!” Too young to care about such things as copyrights, I thought it was clever how The Beach Boys used different words for his song. Much later I would find out that when the song was initially released, Brian Wilson was listed as the sole songwriter even though the song’s publisher was ARC which was the publishing arm of Chuck Berry’s label, Chess Records. Later releases of Surfin’ Safari corrected the “oversight” and cited Berry as the co-writer.
Somewhere along the way, I had that transformative experience everybody has the first time they hear Johnny B. Good. A greatest hits collection would find its way into my ever-growing stacks of wax. I’d even witness him make a comeback in the 70s with his last Top 40 album The London Chuck Berry Sessions. This album had his last two radio hits: the horrific My Ding a Ling – a juvenile song beneath his stature and inexplicably his only #1 song; and a rollicking live version of Rockin’ and Reelin’.
The truth is, I actually grew up on Chuck Berry. Eventually, I’d come to realize that but for a long time, I had no idea. And at some level, we’ve all listened to Chuck Berry without knowing it. Because no matter what rock music we’ve ever listened to, we were in some way listening to Chuck Berry. Go ahead and call Elvis “The King”. But before there was a King, Chuck Berry had already established The Kingdom. The revolution started with Maybelline. The Kingdom was announced with Roll Over Beethoven. And it was universally recognized with Johnny B Good.
This kingdom was built on three fundamental principles: a relentlessly driving beat; hot guitar licks; and songs about girls, cars and playfully rebellious fun. Whether you’re listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Beach Boys; Springsteen or Prince; Van Halen, AC/DC or The Black Keys; or pretty much any rock group you can think of, you’re listening to the music of Chuck Berry’s kingdom.
This is the legacy of Chuck Berry – we’ll ALWAYS keep hearing him not merely on Classic Rock or Oldies stations but in any new song embodying the principles of The Kingdom. As John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
But his legacy is his songs, too. If you’re going to learn to play rock music, you will learn to play his songs. And Chuck knew that. As he continued to tour later in life, he stopped touring with a band. Rather, it was the promoter’s job in each city to find musicians to back him that night. In other words, in any city in the country, Chuck could count on there being competent players who knew his music.
One night in Maryland, a young Bruce Springsteen was hired to back Chuck. Typical for Berry, he showed up five minutes before he was scheduled to go on stage. When asked by Bruce what songs he and his band were going to play, Berry simply answered, “We’re gonna play some Chuck Berry songs.”
Some Chuck Berry songs. In the hymnal of rock and roll, there are some Chuck Berry songs. However, his inspiration is in every song in the book.
Rest in peace Chuck Berry and may your V-8 Ford keep motivatin’ over the hill with no particular place to go.