It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of singer, guitarist, songwriter and general rock ‘n’ roll legend, Chuck Berry. For anyone interested in pop, rock ‘n’ roll, American culture, song-writing and guitar playing Chuck Berry was a seminal figure.
He started playing rhythm and blues, i.e. music made by and aimed at black people, and perhaps his most important contribution was the realisation that by combining the story-telling traditions of American country & western and folk music (music associated with white America) with the sexual energy and drive of rhythm and blues he could produce a music that would transcend America’s fairly entrenched racial divide.
Of course that realisation would not have amounted to much if he was not then able to produce the most entertaining and inventive insights into American life, considered so perceptive by the designers of NASA’s Voyager mission that they included a recording of his song Johnny B Goode on a record designed to communicate something of Earth’s culture to any (record player-owning) aliens encountered along the way.
There was a great deal of warmth and affection in the atmosphere created in his songs – completely at odds, it seems, from the personality of the man. In this lovely couplet from Memphis Tennessee you also see his inventiveness with words and phrases, here substituting hurry-home drops for tears:
Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry-home drops on her cheeks, that trickled from her eye
He also more or less defined the way electric guitar should be played in pop/rock music: the catchy guitar lick introducing the song (later brilliantly adapted by the Rolling Stones and others); the style of thickening the sound of electric guitar by playing two strings at once for his leads and solos which enabled him to maintain a rhythmic drive in his solos that was quite new. This way of playing was a huge influence on later players such as Jimi Hendrix and can be heard brilliantly on the afore-mentioned Johnny B Goode; which is, for all we know, being enjoyed at this moment at a party on OGLE-TR-56b.
Chuck Berry; 18 October 1926 – 18 March 2017. Rest in peace.
Chuck Berry in the Jerwood Library:
We only have one CD in our collection but it gives a very good overview:
The Blues Collection, (Orbis, 1993) which can be found in the Blues CD section: BLUES:BER
We also have his autobiography which recounts the development of the music and other aspects of his life (including a couple of spells in prison) in his inimitable and very readable style:
Chuck Berry: The Autobiography (New York, Fireside, 1988); classmark: 786.91 BER