PORTRAIT

Chuck Berry (1926-2017): Rock Icon

Chuck Berry (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
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The father of rock ’n’ roll, sings off

WHO INVENTED ROCK ’n’ roll? It’s one of those big messy debates music historians have been having for decades. Some will cite Jimmy Preston’s Rock the Joint (1949) or Fats Domino’s The Fat wMan (1949), some will point to Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 (1951), some elsewhere. The truth is nobody really knows. There was no Big Bang moment. Its origins are mostly hazy, believed to have come together sometime around the 1940s and 50s. This was when former slaves and their descendants were moving to urban centres, Blacks and Whites living closer than they ever had, emulating each other’s fashion and music. And this coming together, with White musicians taking up Black music, led to a blending of all sorts of musical traditions, from jazz, swing and blues to gospel, folk and country.

But if there is anyone who can credibly lay claim to the invention of rock ’n’ roll, it is Chuck Berry. His guitaring style took such a firm hold of rock music that his influence can be heard in the riffs of everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since.

Talking about Berry, Eric Clapton, in the 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ roll, has this to say: “If you want to play rock ’n’ roll, or any upbeat number, and you wanted to take up a guitar, right, you end up playing like Chuck... Because there is very little, actually, other choice. There is not a lot of ways to play rock ’n’ roll other than the way Chuck plays it. He’s really laid down the law.” Keith Richards, who was famously punched by Berry for touching his guitar, says in the same documentary, that Berry developed his brand of rock ’n’ roll by transposing the familiar two-note lead line of jump blues piano directly to the electric guitar, creating what is now instantly recognisable as rock guitar music. John Lennon was more succinct. “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name,” he said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”

Berry wrote, sang and played some of the big songs of the 1950s and 60s. Unlike his early contemporaries of the genre, he wrote almost all of his own material—beautiful lines filled with back-alley poetry and folksy humour, something rock music aspires to even now.

Born to a middle-class black family in St Louis, Berry did several odd jobs before taking up music seriously. He also had several run-ins with the law. As a teen he was put into a reformatory for robbing businesses and cars at gunpoint. In the 1980s, he was accused of installing a camera in the bathroom of a restaurant he had purchased.

Despite the acclaim, Berry was either extremely modest or pretty straightforward. He would demand money before gigs, saying he wanted to be popular because it made him more money. He told Rolling Stone back in 2001, “I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs White people could buy, because that’s nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal: to look at my bank-book and see a million dollars there.”

When the Voyager 1 was launched back in 1977, it was decided that phonograph records about the earth should also be sent with it, just in case an alien with a record player, or perhaps even a future human, would chance upon it. Several things were eventually included, from a recording of human brainwaves to the music of Mozart, Beethoven. Amongst them was Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Old square folks, of course, complained. The music is too adolescent, they griped. To which, the chairman of the committee that made the selection, said, “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.”

Berry’s music will live on forever, not just here on earth, but blasting away millions of years later in the far reaches of outer space.