Chuck Berry was born as Charles Edward Anderson Berry in October 1926. In a totally different, formally segregated world. Yet he managed to change the world of rock and roll with his songs, influencing hundreds upon hundreds of white teenagers in the western world to play his songs and take it from there right onto this day.
My introduction to his music went indirectly. Being too young to know his music directly or to hear his direct influence on the beat boom coming out of England, the first time I knowingly heard a Chuck Berry rock and roll song was in the winter or early spring of 1974. I deliberately write rock and roll as I do not need to be remembered of that awful song 'My Ding-a-ling'. Somewhere I had heard Johnny Winter's blistering version of 'Johnny B. Goode' and very shortly after that Jimi Hendrix' version that a friend had on the 'In The West' live album. It more or less stayed that way for a while. I learned some more songs but never the original. Starting with 'Carol' and 'Little Queenie' on the Stones' 1970 live album. That changed with a very cheap cd around 1990 with his greatest hits. The quality was so bad and some songs were abominable live recordings. Not an invitation to learn more. That would take some more years.
I only learned how important Chuck Berry really was to the generation behind him when I viewed the picture 'Hail Hail Rock And Roll' on TV somewhere in the 90s. Keith Richards deciding to give Berry a good backing band and Chuck Berry being a total asshole all of the time. Doing his best to derail the whole venture right up to the last minute and start a song, on stage, in a different key than agreed and practised on. The music was great though. The "duckwalk" present and all.
Don't forget that other hail moment in a movie as well. In 'Back To The Future' Michael J. Fox plays a blistering version Van Halen style of Johnny B. Goode with the band of "Chuck Berry's cousin". "Chuck, listen, this may be the sound you were looking for" while his cousin holds up the phone for him to listen. The world that the movie showed us, the world where Marty McFly turns up in, is the world that Chuck Berry described and in a way gave back to the youth of America and to poorer Europe a few years later. A world of promises, full of cars, freedom, girls and Saturday nights dancing and drinking.
One of the stories I had learned in the meantime, was about the payola system of dj Alan Freedman. The other side to the glamour story, the less glamorous. Freedman's name forever is tagged to Berry's first single. The only way to get his song 'Maybelline' on the radio was to give Freedman songwriting credits. On the other hand there's a theory that the best of Chuck Berry's songs were at least co-written by his pianist Johnnie Johnson. Most songs are in chord progressions that are illogical for the guitar, not for the piano. As young men like Brian Wilson put a new lyric over what basically is a Chuck Berry song. 'Surfin' USA' holds the name Berry next to Wilson for some time now.
For people my age a party with a live band is not complete without at least one Chuck Berry song on the setlist. Mostly because of the versions by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and all those other bands that played and recorded his songs in the early to mid 60s. Fact is that it is a good question whether The Rolling Stones would ever have become this band if Mick Jagger did not have an import Chuck Berry (and Muddy Waters) album under his arm at that fateful meeting on Dartford's railway station. Something bonded there that changed the face of rock and roll. Right up to this day that bond is intact. When I practice with my band, the biggest smiles always come out when we've played 'Johnny B. Goode'. It just makes us feel sooo good.
Chuck Berry has been in contact with the law many times, served jailtime and in general seems not to have been a very nice person. At the same time he was a family man, married for nearly 70 years. Never judge a book by the cover. Yet, all this is inconsequential to his legacy as one of the people who shaped modern music.
On his 90th birthday he announced a new record called 'Chuck'. His first since 1979. Sadly it will be released posthumously. For now let us hail hail rock and roll, as his music will live forever and inspire many people over the years to come. People who start playing guitar and learn rock riffs will always learn a few of or based on his.
You can listen to 'Johnny B. Goode' here: