When Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneer Chuck Berry recorded the future classic “School Day” in 1957, it is certain he had no idea that his music would be revered sixty years later. When he wrote the line, “Long live Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it was more of a defiant and cocky boast than a prophecy. Surely, he and this trendy teenaged music would be forgotten fads in a few years—at least that was the opinion of mature adults who “knew better.” In time, those unruly teens who loved the likes of Chuck Berry would be mature adults themselves, and in their advanced age, still carried a passionate love for the man who “could play that guitar just like a-ringing a bell.”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry left us on March 18, 2017, leaving behind one of the richest legacies of American music. A dynamic performer, he not only sang and played guitar better than many, he also wrote his own songs. In a time when Rock ‘n’ Roll singers were merely youth at the mercy of their label’s A & R staff, Chuck Berry was a grown man who knew how to spin an alluring tale and set it to catchy music. Unlike the pimply-faced hyperbole thrust upon teen idols, Berry’s words meant something. Whether it was empathizing with teen frustrations, boasting of sexual conquests, or obliquely reflecting upon racism, the artist was perhaps the most literate of early Rock ‘n’ Roll. His writing inspired younger performers, including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen, to tell unforgettably relatable stories and to make them rock.
Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926. After a troubled youth, he began working as a guitarist in a Rhythm and Blues band led by pianist Johnnie Johnson. Berry’s immense talent eventually stole the show, and in 1955, the musician signed with Chicago’s Chess Records. There, he scored his first hit with “Maybellene,” fusing fast Blues with Country into this new style called Rock ‘n’ Roll. More hits, including “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” followed, gradually winding down as the first Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion lost momentum by 1960.
The new decade did not start well for Chuck Berry. Arrested on a morals charge, he went through two years of legal hassles before finally being sentenced to prison in 1962. When he regained his freedom at the end of 1963, the timing could not have been better. Young English musicians who idolized Chuck Berry, like The Beatles and Rolling Stones, began having international success, bringing positive attention back to the man himself. Riding this wave, Berry scored a handful of minor hits like “Promised Land” and “No Particular Place to Go” in 1964 and ’65. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, this Rock Godfather continued to be a major concert draw, often performing with the very musicians he inspired, including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton.
If one looked at the mainstream pop charts from 1980 forward, it almost seemed that Chuck Berry’s influence was on the wane. The most popular sounds seemed to be Arena Rock, Hair Metal, Synth Pop, and recycled Disco. Beyond the Top 40, his legacy inspired underground and cult artists like Rockpile, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and The Stray Cats. As the 1990’s became the 2000’s, strains of Chuck Berry DNA could be heard in “alternative” and “indie” rockers like The Replacements, The White Stripes, and Jet.
Chuck Berry continued to perform well into his golden years, avoiding long tours by entertaining at his own nightclub in St. Louis. Just weeks before his death, the singer-guitarist announced plans to release his first new album since 1979! If it is up to the standard of his earlier work, it will be the perfect epitaph for a man who touched hearts and inspired many to rock, including The Molars.
We continue to play several Chuck Berry songs, including “Maybellene,” virtual twin “30 Days,” the classic “No Particular Place to Go,” and his take on “Route 66.” More will be added as The Molars grow and redefine these magnificent songs with our own brand of Punkabilly.
God bless Chuck Berry for being there, making great music, and inspiring us to do the same.