2017, Music, RIP

RIP Chuck Berry

With guitar-based rock music decidedly out of fashion it is possible – probable? – that many people don’t understand how important Chuck Berry was to the music of the second half of the 20th century. But just because the electric guitar isn’t currently popular doesn’t mean it wasn’t the central vehicle for musical expression of the last 60 years, as it was: from the 1950s till very recently, if you wanted to form a band, someone in your band had to learn how to play guitar. That is because of Chuck Berry.

Growing up, I was told Elvis was The King. He was The King of Rock and Roll, in particular, but generally I was led to believe that he was the greatest rock and roll musician of all time. As I grew older and turned into a massive music snob, I came to the knowledge that Elvis played rockabilly, Elvis sang gospel and what they used to call “country and western” and, most famously, pop music, but there sure wasn’t a lot of rock and roll there. I don’t mean to sell Elvis short. But what I mean is that I associated rock and roll with a particular style, that included fast, relatively aggressive electric guitar parts, including intros and solos. These were standardized by Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry gave us the prototypical rock guitar solo and the rock guitar intro. Until psychedelic music, all rock and roll guitar players were essentially imitating Chuck Berry. (In rare cases they were imitating blues guitarists instead.)

Chuck Berry wrote songs about dancing, driving and having a good time. That’s what the Beach Boys wrote about when they started writing songs. That’s what a lot of early Beatles songs were about.

In the late’ 50s, Chuck Berry went to jail for employing (and allegedly sleeping with) an underage girl. This significantly derailed his career. In the ’80s he was accused of spying on women, including a minor. I have no idea if any of these charges are true. But, knowing what I know about the US justice system, I have a few doubts about whether or not Berry (or these women) got a fair deal in court. I honestly don’t know what happened except that these incidents have coloured our collective memory of Chuck Berry. Elvis is The King and Chuck Berry is a pedophile or a pervert. (I feel like it’s worth noting that Jerry Lee Lewis had a very successful career after people forgave him for his marriage to a 13-year-old. But Lewis was white, of course.)

I don’t know if Chuck Berry was a good man, but I don’t know much about whether or not his contemporaries were either. What I do know is that he changed music as we know it. You could argue that Chuck Berry turned Rhythm and Blues into Rock and Roll, through his guitar playing and his songwriting.

RIP to the real King of Rock and Roll.

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