Nothing ruins an artist’s legacy like surviving into old age, especially in the realm of popular music.
Their early innovations become overshadowed by later mediocrity, social and legal gaffes, and a return to obscurity. As a result, some of these artists, the ones who survived, are strangely forgotten. The occasion never arises to dissect their genius and trace their influence.
I always want to talk about Chuck Berry, though. I have a lot to say about him. And now that he’s gone, the moment is here. He was one of the finest American songwriters of the 20th century.
My earliest exposure to Chuck Berry was, like a lot of us who grew up in the eighties, the scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly “invents” rock and roll before a crowd of white kids along with a capable but wary musical ensemble of African-American men by playing “Johnny B. Goode.” One of the guys in the band calls up his brother, Chuck Berry, to share with him the new sound, and the rest is history. So this mighty branch of the tree of Afro-American music, whose roots go down through the slave chants and Negro spirituals all the way back to Africa, was invented by a white teenager.
It’s a little too close to the accepted truth to be comfortable, since my next exposure to Chuck Berry was the Beatles’ reverent versions of his songs “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” (not to mention the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, which I later learned is really “Sweet Little Sixteen”). Worshipful as these 1960s tributes were, there was something lost in translation.
Seems like Chuck himself took it all in stride. Discovering his recordings in my early twenties, I was struck by their playfulness, subversive cleverness, and raucous energy. Unlike the black rhythm and blues and doo-wop artists whose songs were re-recorded, sanitized, sterilized by white artists to be acceptable listening material for white teenagers, Chuck Berry simply wrote with white teenagers in mind in the first place. With songs like “School Days,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Berry romanticized the experience of the American teenager, a lyrical trope which continues to this day.
But it would be underestimating Berry’s genius as a songwriter to suggest that his savvy was limited to just knowing what would sell. His songs are funny, mischievous, sexy, and full of Berry’s unique juxtaposition of slang and nonstandard English right alongside expert wordplay and sophisticated vocabulary not usually found in pop songs. But even more remarkable still was Berry’s daring references to race and class in his songs, right in the thick of the Jim Crow era.
"Johnny B. Goode" was originally "a colored boy," not "a country boy." But even though that one didn't make it to the recording, Berry was willing to push the envelope. Take “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” The title of the song is a euphemism for a person of color, something that seems obvious in 2017 but could hardly have been more bold in 1956. Full of winking references to race and the sexual desirability of men of color, it’s brazen and unapologetically funny...but you could miss the whole thing if you weren’t in on the joke.
“Memphis, Tennessee” is a song that gets me every time. I hate to give away the twist, so if you’ve never heard it, listen now:
So Chuck Berry, gifted storyteller, enraptures us and makes us empathize with the absent black father, a figure whose story is decidedly underrepresented in the world and is rarely seen as sympathetic.
There’s something beguiling about Chuck Berry’s singing: like Ella Fitzgerald, there always seems to be a smile behind his words. While sometimes this means that he doesn’t dip convincingly into darker emotions, this style is devastating on a song like "Memphis, Tennessee", where the narrator is trying desperately to hold onto hope.
Others can speak about Chuck Berry’s influence on generations of guitarists, his showmanship, and how he, not Marty McFly, invented rock and roll. For me, it's all about his oeuvre. His songs, and particularly his lyrics, made me feel as though I had a smart, worldly, quick-witted friend who could always find the humor in the mundane. There could be no Bob Dylan without Chuck Berry. No Beatles, no Stones. He was the best.
A few of my favorite lines: