By Tim Stegall
John Lennon famously once stated, “If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” Which means rock & roll was pronounced dead at 1:26 pm, March 18, 2017.
This is no hyperbole, no melodrama. It really does feel like Charles Edward Anderson Berry, born 90 years ago in St Louis, Missouri, embodied this music we all love more than any other artist. Elvis Presley was most certainly the rightful “King of Rock & Roll,” but Chuck Berry WAS rock & roll. The form; I-IV-V chord progression, chunka-chunka rhythms, playful blues verse bordering on teenage poetry, a lead style consisting of viciously down stroked double-stops/hammer-ons/pull-offs played through a distorted tube amp, is all his. Rock & roll’s vocabulary, its grammar is the Chuck Berry songbook: “Johnny B Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Oh, Carol,” “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” the list is endless.
Cash money says anyone who has ever picked up an electric guitar to play rock & roll started with Chuck Berry. In my case, I actually started my lessons with two songs: “Bang A Gong” by T. Rex, which in actuality was “Little Queenie” filtered through Marc Bolan’s odd vision; and the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis,” which was the basic Chuck Berry template and every last one of his signature guitar licks squeezed through Johnny Thunders’ fingers from the business end of a ’59 Gibson Les Paul Jr plugged into a Marshall set on 12. I mean, there you have it: This is the story of the music in a nutshell. Without Chuck Berry, Keith Richards has no career. There is no Rolling Stones. There’s no Beatles, Kinks, Yardbirds, and really, no one ever cherished and chronicled by Ugly Things across its entire history. I’m sure Mr. Stax himself can testify that the Pretty Things and Downliners Sect certainly wore out a number of blue-and-silver label Chess 45s bearing the Chuck Berry brand. You can hear those licks and style even echoing through the best early punk, right there in the grooves of the Sex Pistols’ Virgin 45s, the Clash’s bombast, the Damned’s recklessness. Chuck Berry is inescapable and omnipresent in the music’s DNA.
Yes, getting ripped off left/right/center by Leonard and Phil Chess and serving time for (inadvertently?) transporting a teenage prostitute across state lines hardened him, sucking the playfulness out of his art. It left behind a mean-spirited mercenary, playing with local pickup bands to save on payroll. Chuck would show up in a rented Cadillac with his Gibson in back, steaming backstage 10 minutes before show time, counting the cash in the briefcase the promoter had to provide, then shaking hands with the local band and walking on, changing keys just to fuck with ‘em. It may have been responsible for the tales of major perversion that leaked in the ‘90’s and many other unsavory tales. But really, does any of that count? No. What does count can be found in the shredded grooves of those same Chess 45s, the clarion call of that guitar ringing like a bell, that backbeat that you can’t lose any ‘ole time you use it. It can be found in that pure street poetry warning Ludwig Van and all the rest of those squares the revolution was on. “If you feel and like it / Go get your lover and reel and rock and roll it over / And move on up just a trifle further / Then reel and rock with one another.” Roll over, Beethoven. Chuck Berry’s duck-walking his way through the terminal gates. And somewhere, some guitar-slingin’ madman is sweatin’ on a stage somewhere, keeping that groove going. Long live rock & roll. Long live Chuck Berry’s name.
Wow, see the power of this man? It really does feel as if rock & roll died. But it lives on every time you play those records. Rock & roll and Chuck Berry, will live every time some kid picks up an electric guitar, or as long as there are needles for those record machines that Little Queenie forever stands beside, lookin’ like a model on the cover of a magazine. Let it rock.
(Originally published in Ugly Things Magazine, Spring 2017 Used by permission of the author.)