Remembering Chuck Berry, Rock 'N' Roll's First Great Thinker

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Remembering Chuck Berry, Rock 'N' Roll's First Great Thinker

When Chuck Berry died Saturday at age 90, it revived the old debate: Was Berry, not Elvis Presley, the true King of Rock ’n’ Roll?

It’s a debate complicated not only by America’s knotty race relations but also by disagreements over what we value most in our artists. But the term “king” implies a kind of power and popularity that Berry never quite attained.

During his peak period of 1955-1964, Berry had six Top 10 pop hits and 13 Top 10 R&B hits. During that same period, Presley had 32 Top 10 pop singles and 19 Top 10 R&B hits; Presley had 16 No. 1 pop hits; Berry had none. Berry’s only chart-topper—and only other Top 20 number—was his controversial 1972 novelty song, “My Ding-a-Ling.” And, of course, Presley’s chart power extended far beyond 1964.

If you want an African-American rival for Presley’s crown, you’re better off promoting Ray Charles. Like Presley, Charles was a special singer who not only sold a lot of records but also moved people in profound ways. Like Presley, he combined country, blues and gospel to invent a new kind of American singing. Berry was a good singer but nowhere near as good as those two.

Berry’s claim on history, however, is based not on popularity or heart-melting vocals but on his two groundbreaking inventions: a new way of playing the guitar and a new way of writing lyrics. These innovations yielded not only Berry’s own great singles but also much of the best music from The Rolling Stones, Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Band, Bruce Springsteen and more.

There were great guitarists in rock ‘n’ roll before Berry, but figures such as Scotty Moore and Ike Turner were applying old hillbilly and blues styles to the new rhythm. Berry invented a new rock ‘n’ roll guitar style—a way of playing the melody with double stops (striking two strings at the same time to create a harmonized note) that resembled neither single-note leads nor strummed chords.

He aptly described that sound on “Johnny B. Goode” as “he could play a guitar just like a-ringing a bell.” It did sound like a bell: each note rang clear but with overtones that bolstered its power. This enabled him to combine the qualities of lead melody and rhythmic harmony into sharply defined lines.

Moreover, those lines rarely resembled the conventional licks that country and blues guitar players used; instead they were often based on piano figures invented by Berry’s longtime partner Johnnie Johnson. As Berry’s greatest guitar disciple, Keith Richards, pointed out in the 1987 film documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, Berry often played with piano phrasing and in piano keys that most guitarists avoid.

Johnson deserves more credit than he gets for creating those figures, but Berry performed the alchemical transformation of piano playing into guitar playing, and in doing so decisively moved the instrumental emphasis in rock ‘n’ roll from the piano—as played by Charles, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis—to the guitar.

Even more crucial were Berry’s contributions as a lyricist. While most early rock lyrics were little more than off-the-cuff rhyming to a vamp—as are many pop lyrics still today—Berry’s words from his very first single, 1955’s “Maybellene,” were obviously written down and worked over. For him, it wasn’t enough to merely echo a conversation that his listeners might be having. He wanted to paint a picture with details so vivid that each listener could imagine a particular time and place.

Berry was in love with language, and he used words as knowingly and agilely as he used the notes in a blues scale. He wasn’t content to say that he was chasing a girl; he had to specify that the girl was driving a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, “sitting like a ton of lead.” When he catches up to her, they’re “bumper to bumper, rolling side by side,” a phrase as sexual as it is automotive. And when the dictionary failed him, Berry made up his own words, such as “motorvating,” a combination of “motoring” and “motivating” that sums up the hormone-fueled car chase perfectly.

And he was equally adventurous in his subject matter. He articulated youthful rebellion in songs such as “School Days,” “Almost Grown” and “Anthony Boy.” He spoke boldly of interracial romance in songs such as “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Havana Moon.” He gave rock ‘n’ roll its first theoretical basis as an art form in songs such as “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.”

If we can’t call Berry the King of Rock, we can call him rock ‘n’ roll’s first Great Intellectual. That might seem a strange description for someone whose high school education was interrupted by a two-year stint in reform school for an armed robbery. But schooling is not the only way to become an intellectual. It’s always a mistake to assess anyone’s mental heft by the degrees listed after the name—and that was especially true in the segregated America of the 1950s; self-education was often more important than institutional education.

The more you pay attention to Berry’s work, the more you realize that he knew just what he was doing. Every idea is presented as a sensual image, and every image is evoked by carefully chosen words. Unlike other great lyricists in early rock ‘n’ roll—such as Jerry Leiber, Doc Pomus, Willie Dixon and Felice Bryant—Berry fronted a band and thus pioneered the concept of the rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter. It’s no wonder that all the rock ‘n’ roll intellectuals to come—especially fellow autodidacts as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Bruce Springsteen—all genuflected at the altar of Chuck Berry.

Berry did not make it easy for his reputation to prosper. He was by all accounts a prickly man who alienated those most devoted to him—most notably Richards. He had reason to be ornery; he was convicted on transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes in a racially biased trial and spent 20 months in prison at the height of his career. Less defensible was his installation of a video camera in the women’s bathroom at his restaurant in Missouri. A police raid found the tapes at his house, and he had to pay a lot of money to settle the case.

He emerged from his prison stint in 1963 with his songwriting skills not only intact but deepened—as songs such as “Nadine,” “Promised Land” and “Tulane” demonstrated. But they didn’t sell particularly well, and the creative drive seemed to go out of him. He enjoyed a fluke No. 1 hit with “My Ding-a-Ling,” a dumb but funny joke song about genitals, but he didn’t release a studio album between 1979 and this year, a gap of 38 years.

I’ve heard the new album, Chuck, and while it’s not his best work, it’s good enough to deserve Berry’s name on the cover. Paste will have a feature when the record comes out in June, but in the meantime, we’re left with the lingering impression that even if he wasn’t a powerful monarch, Chuck Berry was a philosopher king, rock ‘n’ roll’s first great thinker.

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