I can’t remember when I first heard of Chuck Berry. I dimly knew of him before “My Ding-a-Ling” hit the radio in 1972, and I suspect I knew he was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s it. As the 50s pop culture nostalgia wave crested in the middle of the 1970s, he would have been just another member of the gallery—and I choose the word gallery deliberately instead of pantheon, because they were just guys to me then—the people whose music invoked the vibe of an era I wasn’t old enough to remember.
It would be a few years before I learned more about Chuck Berry, and it’s likely that my education came from a syndicated radio show. At my first paying radio job, it was my responsibility to play the tapes of Sunday at the Memories, hosted by longtime Colorado jock Ray Durkee. Although the show spanned many decades, Durkee loved the 50s the most, and the first historical context I had for Chuck Berry probably came from him.
Since then, I’ve learned that it’s hard to overstate Chuck Berry’s place not just in music history, but in history, period. Charles Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, tweeted Saturday night that Berry was “the primary author of the Declaration of Independence,” which is a superb metaphor for what Berry did. His music was liberation on 45: in his songs, kids didn’t have to be dutiful students and couples didn’t have to keep one foot on the floor. Like Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration, Chuck Berry told us that the course is ours to chart; we don’t have to answer to oppressors just because they say we do, or because we’ve answered to them up til now. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that any teenager who ever rebelled against a parent, a teacher, a cop—any authority figure—is one of Chuck’s children.
A lot of the memorializing of Berry mentions his jail time, his tax troubles, his insistence on being paid in cash, and his quirky performing style in recent years (performing in medley form, rarely a whole song, baffling the pickup bands who backed him as they tried to keep up). But all of that is trivia, and it doesn’t erode Chuck Berry’s place on rock ‘n’ roll’s Mt. Rushmore.
Scientists think that the faces on Mt. Rushmore will be there eons from now. Chuck Berry’s influence might last about as long. Last summer, Chuck Klosterman published But What If We’re Wrong?, in which he tried to imagine which certainties of today might eventually be proven wrong, just as the certainties of 500 and 300 and 100 years have been proven wrong. As part of the thought experiment, he asked which single artist will stand for rock ‘n’ roll a century or two from now, just as John Philip Sousa stands for the entire genre of martial music from 100 years ago. Klosterman settled on Chuck Berry.
And there’s this: On April 22, 1978, Saturday Night Live broadcast the single greatest episode in its history. The last sketch of the night featured Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Jane Curtin as psychics predicting tomorrow’s headlines. Martin’s character predicted that a message from extraterrestrials would appear on the cover of the next week’s Time magazine, sent after they intercepted the famous Voyager Golden Record, which had been launched into space the previous August. Among other artifacts, the record contained audio samples of human culture, including “Johnny B. Goode.” “It may be just four simple words,” Martin says of the message, “but it is the first positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.” And then he holds up the cover, which reads, “Send more Chuck Berry.”
They know. As we should.
I don’t do a lot of obituary posts at this blog because other people do them better than I do. Professor O’Kelly knocked out a beauty on Saturday night, for example. This piece from The Guardian, although it’s Anglo-centric and some of the references will be lost on Americans, is really good on Berry’s revolutionary role. Stephen T. Erlewine says that Berry was the sound of 20th century America. And you should read Peter Guralnick’s memories of Berry because you should read everything Peter Guralnick writes.