R.I.P Chuck Berry

During the video Mr. Berry says that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was dedicated to a young fan in Denver, Colorado.

From The Chicago Tribune (Greg Kot):

Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at 90, was one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. More than any artist of the ‘50s, his songs exploded with imagery that saw rock ‘n’ roll not just as a fad but as the future — a vision of freedom that transcended generation and race.

Berry’s opening solo on “Johnny B. Goode” blared reveille for subsequent generations of rockers. Every rock guitarist since is in his debt. In addition, Berry wrote and sang at least two dozen rock ‘n’ roll classics, including “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Back in the U.S.A.,” many of them recorded at Chicago’s Chess Studios in the 1950s and ’60s and later covered by countless artists, including the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’ “ John Lennon once said…

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis in 1926, Berry grew up singing in church and listening to blues and country music on the radio. An admirer of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Nat “King” Cole, he began playing guitar in high school. As a teenager, he was sent to a reformatory after being convicted of attempted robbery. He moonlighted as a beautician in St. Louis and worked on a car assembly line to support his family. While in his twenties, he led a three-piece blues group during regular weekend gigs.

Berry developed a sound that synthesized genres and created the most popular template for rock ‘n’ roll: a small, guitar-led combo performing original songs. A half-century before, country guitarists borrowed riffs and runs from blues performers. Berry flipped the formula; he was essentially a country-music guitarist who added blues inflections and a faster rhythm-and-blues beat. Plus, he played electric guitar, and the amplification enabled him to simulate the sound of two or three guitars playing at once. He thickened the sound by employing a two-string technique, sliding along the frets and bending them to create enormous power and drive. His tone evoked a trumpet.

Berry’s staccato-laced rhythmic drive also derived from swing jazz and the ebullient boogie-woogie played by another St. Louis musician, pianist Johnnie Johnson, who would become his often unsung collaborator. Johnson would sue Brown in 2000 for songwriting credit on more than 50 songs, but the claim was dismissed because a judge determined too much time had passed since the songs were written. Together, they played counterpoint melodies and solos that raised the excitement level of countless classic songs, with Johnson’s strong left hand and Berry’s hard strumming beefing up the rhythmic pulse.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who acknowledged that his own rhythm-guitar style was based on Berry’s technique, said the guitarist “always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme.”

The Berry-Johnson partnership was forged on New Year’s Eve 1952, when the guitarist was enlisted as a last-minute replacement for an ailing saxophone player in the Johnnie Johnson Trio in East St. Louis. Berry became a regular in the already well-established band, and soon became the star attraction with a style that included his signature “duck walk,” skipping across the stage in a half-crouch while playing his guitar.

“Every weekend, they’d be looking for Chuck,” Johnson told the Tribune in a 1992 interview. “When he’d play that guitar, the people would form a circle and square dance. Chuck did this song from the Grand Old Opry, ‘Ida Red,’ and the people loved it.”


Berry came to Chicago in spring 1955 determined to become the next Muddy Waters. On hearing Berry’s guitar playing, Waters was impressed enough to introduce him to Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, who encouraged the handsome, articulate stranger with the big hollow-body guitar to make a demo tape.

The tape included Berry’s bid for blues stardom, the slow, sensual “Wee Wee Hours,” with a lavish Johnson piano line. But Chess much preferred another song on the tape, “Ida Red,” an old country song that Berry juiced up with comically exuberant boy-chases-girl lyrics involving a Cadillac Coup Deville and a V-8 Ford.

“The big beat, cars and young love,” Leonard Chess later said. “It was a trend and we jumped on it.”

Chess liked the song’s upbeat tempo and saw it as a way for his blues label to break into the teenage pop market. He was right. By Aug. 20 of that year, the song he retitled “Maybellene” was the No. 5 pop record in the country.

The song was as distinctive lyrically as it was musically. In the first line of his first hit, Berry coined the term “motorvatin’,” as if he were bent on reinventing the English language even as he invented rock ‘n’ roll. The longtime critic Robert Christgau called him “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan.” Narratives populated with images of cars, girls and school brimmed with humor and underdog charm. At a time when most grown-ups sneered at rock ‘n’ roll as mere juvenilia, Berry invested it with poetic power. Rock ‘n’ roll, in his telling, was more than just a passing fad, “kids music” that would be dismissed and forgotten in a year or two. In the vision laid out in Berry songs from “Roll Over Beethoven” to “Back in the U.S.A.,” rock ‘n’ roll was a world of endless possibility, a promised land where even a poor black kid could be a star.

His lyrics invariably identified with teenagers in their endless struggle with adult authority, and championed the idea that fun was just as much a part of growing up as preparing to be an adult. But he also infiltrated the charts with seemingly upbeat songs that painted subtle portraits of racism (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) and satirized the work-day runaround (“Too Much Monkey Business”).

He also celebrated his newborn sound and its break from the past. As an African-American who had his fill of the status quo, there was double-edged meaning when he sang, “Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll/Deliver me from the days of old.”

The narrators and protagonists in his songs were inevitably thinly veiled alter-egos, never more so than “Johnny B. Goode,” the little country boy “who could play his guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell.” He also demonstrated a feel for Latin music in “Havana Moon,” doo-wop in “Almost Grown” and deep blues in “Childhood Sweetheart.” From 1955 to 1959 he had nine top-40 hits, an African-American in his thirties who embodied the yearning, joy and frustrations of a largely white, teenage audience.

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