Rock 'n roll is now officially dead.
John Lennon said it best: "If Rock 'n Roll had another name, it would be called 'Chuck Berry'--but now he's gone.
He was 90 years old and probably lived much longer than anyone would've expected. Consider all of our rock heroes who seem to be dying almost on a monthly basis. Most of them were way younger than Chuck, yet Chuck was a rock and roll pioneer who had survived being on the road and touring almost nonstop for the past 60 years.
Sixty years ago Elvis, Chuck, Little Richard, Jerry Lee and Roy Orbison escorted a few million of us into the new world of rock and roll. A time when uptempo rhythm and blues music--called "race records" in the trade--were finally played, thanks to Elvis's breakthrough on certain radio stations. It was from that exalted perch that some bands like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zep, The Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, Springsteen, Queen, AC/DC and Twisted Sister, kissed the feet of their idols and took away lessons that led to the creation of a body of music that today is the soundtrack for the lives of millions around the world.
From the minute I heard the classic intro to "School Days" blasting from my dad's car radio in 1957, through the master class of all guitar intros like "Johnny B. Goode," and continuing to the sinewy blues-formatted riff from "Down the Road Apiece," Chuck's guitar style and tone became a passion of mine. It was, perhaps, the first time something actually moved me enough to dream about what it would be like to play like that.
But he was so much more than a guitar genius. He was an incredible songwriter of compact emotional lyricism, observation, humor and beauty especially given the deplorable state of race relations in the U.S. (notably in the southern states) in the 1950s during an era where the Jim Crow laws were still enforced.
With songs like his first big hit in 1957 "Maybellene" to "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Little Queenie," "School Days," "No Particular Place to Go," "Rock and Roll Music," "You Can't Catch Me" and "Promised Land," Chuck's lyrics ventured into a color-blind world of the first generation of rebellious teen angst, cars and girls during the post-war baby boom. Chuck's songs were so universally loved and recognized as cornerstones of the genre that they were covered by some of rock's most famous artists at the peak of their careers like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis, to name a few.
He was a musical innovator and businessman who created a unique music-business, live-performance model that served him (not always well) up until his death. The way Chuck played two strings on a guitar simultaneously ("Johnny B. Goode" is a classic example and stands as the Holy Grail of rock and roll guitar intros). It was created because Chuck was too cheap to hire a second guitarist for his band to create the sound in his head so he developed the simultaneous two-string guitar sound so that he could play both parts by himself!
But that same approach to financial economy was also his undoing. He never wanted to have the expense of a dependable and professional touring band. He would drive himself to his concerts, carry his own guitar and amplifier in the trunk and have the concert promoter hire a local band to back him up. He assumed any bunch of kids would know all of his songs and all of the arrangements. This turned out to be not such a good thing, and Chuck's reputation of putting on erratic and sometimes out-of-tune performances began to become a regular occurrence.
He went to jail for violating the Mann Act by transporting an underage girl across state lines. He never paid the bands that were supplied as part of Chuck's appearance agreements, and rarely, if ever, thanked them. He also insisted on being paid in cash before he even walked on stage. This was understandable given the suspicion artists had in general that a promoter would stiff them by either not paying them or bouncing a check.
Still, one has to pay taxes on income, and this led to IRS problems that dogged him for years, and later, he served time for income tax evasion. As an example of Chuck's cash-only, cash-first philosophy, my band ran into this issue with Chuck in 1985. Twisted Sister wanted Berry to play on one of our songs, "Be Chrool to Your Schuel," from our "Come Out and Play" album. Alice Cooper, Clarence Clemons and Billy Joel had already happily signed on for little more than union scale wages.
Twisted Sister, having had a history of playing several Chuck Berry songs during our 10 years in the bar scene, really wanted Chuck to play on the song. It was a real homage to 50s' rock and roll, as the title itself was a deliberately misspelled version of the Beach Boys' song "Be True to Your School."
We sent our tour manager to talk to Chuck, but he demanded $17,500 in cash in a brown paper bag. Our record label, not surprisingly, refused and instead Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats played the Chuck Berry-style lead guitar part.
As far as rock and roll music and the sound he created is concerned: he wasn't black, he wasn't white--he was Rock 'n Roll.