Chuck Berry, a singing electric blues guitarist with a remarkably limber stage presence who pioneered rock ‘n’ roll and single-handedly put the saxophone out of business as a lead R&B instrument in 1955, died on March 18. He was 90.
Berry’s biography and his dynamic role in helping to hatch rock ‘n’ roll have been brightly traced in recent days in newspaper obituaries, so I’m not going to rehash all of it here. Largely missing from those life-ending portraits, however, is why Berry came to the fore in 1955 and the grief he went through during his career trying to re-claim credit for songs that white artists routinely adapted or falsely claimed credit for. As a result, Berry developed a healthy distrust of white rockers and their slippery surrogates.
From the start of his solo career in the mid-1950s, Berry’s gift was an ability to sing the blues about teenage joys and anxieties while playing a twangy electric guitar supported by a powerful back beat and tinkling piano. Prior to Berry’s emergence in 1955, the tenor saxophone and harmonica tended to dominate R&B recordings, particularly during solo breaks between a song’s first half and second. These reed instruments assumed the sensual growl many R&B songs added for expressive color.
But by mid-decade, the saxophone was running out of steam. For one, a leader couldn’t sing and play the sax at the same time the way one could with an electric guitar. Second, a growing number of teens found the saxophone outdated—a product of the swing era. Third, few teens could play the horn without years of experience, since the reed instrument was unwieldy and tricky to play well with power. Fourth, a sax was expensive and required lessons and hours of practice in a place that wouldn’t disturb households, which eluded many teens. But perhaps the saxophone’s biggest handicap in 1955 was that its volume couldn’t be cranked up.
By contrast, the electric guitar and a portable amp-speaker combo were relatively cheap and could be used in one’s bedroom at any volume while accompanying records. Berry’s genius was his ability to appeal to black and white teen audiences by hitching the blues to rockabilly. What’s more, his singing voice featured a gleeful, laid-back spirit while his fingers could bend two strings on his guitar, emulating a rural feel.
Berry’s songs about high school, cars and romance resonated with young audiences, particularly in the South and West, and his stagecraft (featuring a hopping split and his famous duck walk to name a few eye-catchers) wowed audiences much the way Big Jay McNeely and other R&B saxophonist fired up audiences by leaning way back or writhing around on stage while playing.
Though Berry wasn’t the first R&B guitarist to make waves in the 1950s—Tiny Grimes, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley and others were recording on the electric guitar then—he understood the thump and bump of rock ‘n’ roll and the risque songs and sassy, yowling croon that sold the music to black and white audiences.
Like acne, hot rods and hair pomade, Berry knew the common denominators of teenage life. As his songs resonated with the expanding market for rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950s, other artists and record producers tried to profit off of Berry’s electric guitar sound and churning blend of blues and western swing.
Though Berry’s own Maybellene was influenced by Bob Willis’s Ida Red, Berry’s recording was at first credited to Berry, disc jockey Alan Freed and Russ Fratto. Freed wound up with credit because it was a common way for labels to launder payola to disc jockeys to get them to plug songs. In this case, it may have been to ensure Berry would wind up in several of Feed’s jukebox films of the era. Fratto had loaned money to Chess, so his song credit was probably a form of payoff. In 1986, Freed’s estate gave up credit, as did Fratto’s.
Two of the most popular lifts of Berry’s music were by the Beach Boys and the Beatles. In 1963, the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ U.S.A. was an adaptation of Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. Under pressure from Berry’s publisher in the 1960s, the song’s credit eventually was transferred to Berry. As for the Beatles, Come Together owed much to Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. The issue of credit on that song was settled out of court.
I tried several times to interview Berry, but by 2011, he simply wasn’t granting many. Nevertheless, every rock guitarist owes Berry a debt. Tell “Shahcuffski” the news, indeed!
JazzWax clips: Here are a few videos of Chuck Berry in action:
Here’s Berry in one of Alan Freed’s jukebox movies, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), singing You Can’t Catch Me…
Here’s Berry in another of Freed’s jukebox films, Mister Rock and Roll (1957), singing Oh Baby Doll…
Here’s Berry in 1960 performing on French television, putting on a virtual masterclass in rock stagecraft, including his hopping split and duck walk along with several other signature moves…
Here’s Berry playing Sweet Little Sixteen on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964…
And here’s one of my Berry favorites, the lesser-known Come On (1961) with Martha Berry…
JazzWax tracks: There are plenty of Chuck Berry collections. The one I own is Rock & Roll Music, Any Old Way You Choose It: The Complete Chuck Berry Studio Recordings Plus…!, a 16-CD set released by Bear Family in 2014 (go here).