Promised Land Calling: Remembering Chuck Berry, 1926–2017

In the beginning, there was Chuck. Forget Elvis Presley; everyone knew who the real king was. The tall, stylish brown-eyed man exploded out of St. Louis, Missouri, with a high-speed ball of spitfire called "Maybellene" in July 1955. He was sleek, impeccably dressed, with a broad, chiseled, handsome face, and he brandished his hollow-body Gibson electric guitar like a switchblade while singing his mini-operas about cars and girls in a high, precise, jubilant tenor. America had never seen anyone like Chuck Berry.

To talk about the greatness of Chuck Berry, to explain why he belongs on the Rushmore of American music with Louie, Duke, and Frank, is both too simple and too difficult, and finally almost impossible. Part of the way he seems strangely absent from contemporary consciousness — just another scratchy monophonic voice from the past — is that he changed the terms of American pop music so completely that it is difficult to keep his achievement in sight.

Like air, Chuck Berry is everywhere.

The songs that Berry wrote and recorded between 1955 and 1964 comprise the longest sustained feat of genius-level creativity in the history of American music; no one, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, has ever come close to excelling it. What Berry did in songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Memphis" and "Carol" and "Rock'n'Roll Music" and the rest was to delineate an American pastoral, a secular paradise of perfect freedom and erotic possibility, in a narrative lyricism of unparalleled economy and precision. None of the pretentious "poetry" of the white songwriters of the 1960s and '70s touches these lines, from "You Never Can Tell":

They had a hi-fi phono, boy did they let it blast

700 little records, all rock, rhythm, and jazz;

But when the sun went down, the tempo of the records slowly fell

C'est la vie say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.

Berry took the sexual innuendo of the blues and the down-home vernacular of country and melded it into a new, joyous idiom. As Greil Marcus has noted, he didn't locate the American Eden in some agrarian past but in the percolating now of neon and automobiles and fast food and juke joints. He elevated the most quotidian consumer durables into the mythic; he made the trash and noise and flash of mid-century American culture seem cool.

Had he only written and sung even one of the classics he is known for, he would have been one of the immortals; that as a guitarist he, without exaggeration, founded a whole genre of musical instrumentation is what makes his legacy truly singular. There's really not anything else to compare this to. Try to imagine if Louis Armstrong had also written and sung Cole Porter’s catalogue, or if Frank Sinatra was also a Sonny Rollins–level saxophonist, and you have some idea of the scope of Chuck Berry's accomplishment.

The musical vocabulary that Berry invented — the roaring double-stopped notes, the flashy bends and slides, the stuttering minor-sevenths, all executed with astonishing velocity through the crisply reverbed crackle of his ES-355, compose the foundational sonic vocabulary of rock and roll. To fully appreciate this aspect of Berry's genius, you need to be yourself a guitarist — an obnoxious assertion, I know — but the secret brilliance of Berry's guitar licks was that they were easy to play... and they sounded great. Three generations of teenage guitarists, in bedrooms and garages from Los Angeles to Liverpool, listened to Berry's records or derivatives thereof and emerged armed with Excalibur. "All of Chuck's children are out there," sang Bob Seger in 1975, "playing his licks." No one ever put it any better than that.

That Chuck Berry was an adult black man making music primarily for white teenagers, that he celebrated the public virtues of a nation that took six years of his life for a crime that was no crime to him, is just another choice that he made, another gift that he gave us. There is within us an urge to look for some microscopic level of irony in the vocals in songs like "Back in the U. S. A.," to position Berry as a kind of stealth civil rights avatar, a man whose pride and prickly demeanor and famous penchant for the main chance were some kind of trickster mask. (What was the famous duckwalk, after all, but a sardonic detournement of its racially charged poor cousin the cakewalk? Etc.) This is understandable, but it is a diminution of his legacy — it is the act of placing limits where none belong.

For a different perspective, imagine you're in a small town in upstate New York; it's December 1986, and the radio is full of Madonna and Phil Collins. You wander onto the campus of St. Lawrence University, which is nearly deserted, and into a basement coffeehouse, drawn by the thump of drums and the distant squeal of an electric guitar. Three teenage white boys are onstage, in front of a scattering of bored onlookers. The three kids, comically, touchingly, are wearing baggy thrift-store suit coats and skinny ties; they look like they wandered in from a dress rehearsal for Guys and Dolls. "Little Chuck Berry tune," the frontman says offhandedly; he plays a stop-and-start riff on his Telecaster, and they crash into "Around and Around." They're playing about six times faster than they can really manage, and the break is a clumsy botch, but it doesn't matter. They're happy; in their minds, the joint is jumping, going round and round.