When a Chuck Berry classic song comes on an oldies station, the DJ often says the song is by the “granddaddy of them all.”
Berry was the central figure in the development of rock and roll music. His guitar licks laid the groundwork and set the standards for what rock guitar playing should sound like.
As reported by rockhall.com, John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'”
Berry’s lyrics emphasized the concerns of teenagers and the youth culture, as he explored school days, dance hops, fast cars and romance. These subjects became commonplace in rock and roll. Many of Berry’s songs have lyrics containing the words “rock” or “rock and roll,” as if Berry is defying anyone to reclassify him as R&B, as is done to so many African American rock and roll artists. “Hail, hail rock and roll” is a line from “School Days.” The lyrics continue, “Long live rock and roll. The beat of the drums, loud and bold. Rock, rock, rock and roll. The feelin’ is there, body and soul.” And the title and lyrics in his top 10 song “Rock and Roll Music,” as it relates to rock and roll, are self-explanatory. If Chuck Berry is not rock and roll, then there is no such thing as rock and roll music.
Although rock and roll pioneers Fats Domino and Little Richard were banging on the piano keys, Berry was able to establish the electric guitar as the definitive rock and roll instrument. Unlike many rock guitarists who followed in his footsteps, Berry moved about the stage and even hopped about on one leg in a patented move known as the “duckwalk.”
Berry’s sound is heard on many Beatles songs, and the Fab Four even covered “Roll Over Beethoven” on their “With the Beatles” album and “Rock and Roll Music” on “Beatles for Sale.” The Beach Boys took “Sweet Little Sixteen” and reworked it into “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Berry had become a big enough rock star to appear in the 1956 film “Rock, Rock, Rock,” featuring many early rock and roll stars. But like Domino and Little Richard, Berry had trouble moving his best songs up the charts because of the segregation of the times. Although “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Day,” and especially “Johnny B. Goode” were worthy of being number one songs, Berry did not top the “Billboard” singles chart until 1972, when his vulgar novelty song “My Ding-a-ling,” with its double entendre, reached the summit. Domino and Little Richard weren’t as fortunate, as they never reached number one. Over the decades “Johnny B. Goode” has probably become Berry’s signature song.
Berry, who as a youth was convicted of armed robbery and served a three-year prison sentence at a reformatory for young men, found trouble of a different kind as an adult. He was arrested for violation of the Mann Act, or for illegally transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. Decades before, authorities had used a similar charge to derail the career of legendary boxer Jack Johnson. Those who believed Berry was being targeted due to his race had their worst suspicions confirmed when a judge hearing his case made racist comments about him. According to “The Billboard Book of Number One Hits ,” “Berry’s trial was so racist it was thrown out by a higher court.” Berry was set free pending a retrial, but he was eventually convicted and given a three-year prison term in a federal penitentiary. He was released after serving roughly half the term.
In 1964 he resumed his career in the midst of the British Invasion. Despite the British domination of the charts, Berry had a top 10 hit with “No Particular Place To Go.” He was helped by the fact that many of the British invaders covered his music and were influenced by his guitar style. Later that year at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium he headlined the Teenage Awards Music International (T.A.M.I.) Show that was made into a rock concert movie. Also on the bill were the Supremes, Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Leslie Gore, the Rolling Stones, Jan and Dean, and James Brown.
Berry’s run-ins with the law weren’t over. He served time for tax evasion and was convicted of marijuana possession, but he did manage to beat a child abuse rap.
In 1986, Berry was one of the 10 artists inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Performers category. The others voted in were Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Ray Charles and Buddy Holly. That class defined the boundaries of what rock and roll music is. And Chuck Berry, with his seminal tunes and definitive guitar style, is certainly at the head of the class.
Related article: Fats Domino, a Rock and Roll Original
“Pioneers of Rock and Roll,” Harry Sumrall, Billboard Books, 1994
“The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 9th Edition,” Joel Whitburn, Billboard Books, 2010
“The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003