Bob Dylan once called him "the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll." This is not exactly faint praise, coming from a Nobel laureate.
But such a statement, made in reference to Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at 90, demands to be unpacked. I mean, Bruce Springsteen tweeted something similar later that day, calling Berry "rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock 'n' roll writer who ever lived." Stevie Van Zandt's tweet called him the "1st missionary for my religion – Rock & Roll." Mick Jagger got in on the act too, claiming that Berry's "lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream."
What are all these guys going on about? Was Berry really a poet?
That depends how you define poetry. When Berry was birthing rock 'n' roll out of the raw materials of Black American gospel, country, folk and the blues, his imagination was out-pacing him, and he sounded like he was struggling to keep up. He had an ear for imagery that was as on-point as his ability to craft the harmonic and sonic vocabulary of the form on his electric guitar. He, more than any other single artist, is responsible for both the sound and the language of rock 'n' roll.
For Berry, rock 'n' roll at once embodied pop music and transcended it. His songs are hooky and memorable, but they were never meant to be disposable. Hence, the imagery that would suggest not just a love of the catchy ditty, but a whole-hearted dedication to a way of life. "Roll Over Beethoven" made it plain in 1956: rock 'n' roll was not just an of-the-moment sound, but was in fact a revolutionary shot across the bow of culture and polite society. "Tell Tchaikovsky the news," indeed.
More than Elvis Presley, more than Buddy Holly, more than Jerry Lee Lewis, more, even, than Little Richard, Berry is the father of it all. Take him out of the picture, and the list of people who would not have become who they are is all but endless. Start it with the Beatles and the Stones, throw in the Beach Boys, Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, carry it straight on through to Springsteen, AC/DC, Gary Clark, Jr. and Jack White. No Chuck Berry? None of these folks, all of whom begged, borrowed and stole from him, would be on our radar. And life would be an awful lot duller.
It wasn't just the street-poet lyrics – all of those references to cars, to sexual liberation, to real life struggles, to images of mobility and freedom, to celebrations of the subculture he was giving birth to by singing about them, and thinly veiled references to the reality of racial inequality, a la "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" – that made Berry both an iconoclast and a genius.
It was also the guitar playing, a unique sound that jumped out of the speakers with primal fury, partially because Berry sat atop a stripped-down combo where the guitar was king, and partially because he invented techniques – notably, the two-strings-at-once slurs known as "double-stops," which every single electric guitarist has employed since 1955 – that did not exist in such a context prior to him inventing them. When these guitar figures bounced off pianist Johnnie Johnson's equally groundbreaking ivory tinkling, the sound was at once minimalistic and sophisticated, raw and hip.
His musical contributions can't be questioned, but Berry must also be seen as a symbol of the exploitation and appropriation that has always been the ugly underneath of the music business. It happened from the moment he first came to Chicago, met legendary record man Leonard Chess, and somehow ended up trading partial writing credit of his first hit, 1955's "Maybellene," to DJ Alan Freed, in perhaps the first instance of rock 'n' roll payola.
Berry would find his work appropriated by others for the rest of his life, and though he was often notably proud of this fact, he was also more than a little bit bitter about it. He demanded to be paid in cash, before he played. He drove himself to his touring gigs in his own car, bringing just his guitar, and performing with pick-up groups of musicians in every town. The assumption was that, of course you knew the music, no matter what key or tempo Berry might call on the bandstand. There would be no rehearsal.
In 2003, Berry came to Buffalo to headline the inaugural edition of the Buffalo Bike Blast in Niagara Square. True to form, he showed up in his own car, and led a group of Buffalo musicians slated to include guitarist Michael Lee Jackson, drummer Howard Fleetwood Wilson II, bassist Rodney Appleby and keyboardist Percy Jones. At the last minute, Berry decided he didn't need a second guitar player, and Jackson watched his band mates perform from the side of the stage.
"The stories of him being tough on his backing bands are legendary, so the guys worked hard to be ready for that show," Jackson told me. "Bummed as I was when he decided he didn't want another guitar player, I was also half-relieved. Rodney, Howard and Percy did an amazing job following Chuck's every musical whim - not only keeping up, but delighting him in the process." No small feat, that last bit.
"Chuck you were amazing & your music is engraved inside us forever," Jagger's Tweet from Saturday rather powerfully concludes. And what of Jagger's partner, Keith Richards? Well, no Tweet was really necessary, though Keef stated the obvious on Twitter: "One of my big lights has gone out," he wrote. But that light does indeed still shine. Every time Richards plugs in and turns up, the sound we hear is a testament to Berry's inspiration.
The true king has left the building. But that rock 'n' roll he created? Never. It's too tough to die.