“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’,” John Lennon once famously said. Few would argue otherwise.
Although some people credit Ike Turner as author of the first rock and roll song (specifically, 1951’s “Rocket 88”), no one can deny that Berry was the architect of rock guitar. From Keith Richards to Tony Iommi to Angus Young and beyond, every rock guitarist who ever strapped on a six-string owes an incalculable debt to Berry. Indeed, the image of Berry wailing away on his ever-present ES-335 stands Mount Rushmore-like atop rock’s fertile landscape.
“If you want to play rock and roll – or any upbeat number – you end up playing like Chuck,” Eric Clapton noted, in the 1987 documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. “There is very little other choice. He’s really laid down the law.”
In addition to his often-overlooked brilliance as a lyricist, Berry’s songwriting genius was rooted in his ability to see the exciting potential that lay in fusing together swing music, rhythm ’n’ blues and country western music. Key, of course, was the fact that he had settled on the perfect instrument – the electric guitar – to pull those musical forces together. Taking inspiration from Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker and Carl Hogan, Berry developed a vocabulary of licks and riffs that became, in his words, “the foundation of the style that is said to be [mine].” The linchpin for that signature style was so-called “hillbilly music.”
“The music that was played most around St. Louis was hillbilly music and swing,” Berry wrote, in his 1989 autobiography. “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of country stuff on our predominantly black audience. After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it.”
Before long, while perfecting his style at St. Louis’s Cosmopolitan Club in the early ’50s, Berry and his “Johnnie Johnson Trio” were drawing crowds comprised of white and black fans in equal numbers. A chance encounter with Muddy Waters prompted a visit to Chess Records, in Chicago, in May of 1955. Fatefully, after listening to Berry’s demo recordings, Leonard Chess declared Berry’s reworking of an old hillbilly song, titled “Ida May,” to be the song with the most commercial potential. After further reworking, and a change of title to “Maybellene,” the song was recorded and released as Berry’s first single. The recording sold more than a million copies.
Thus was forged the template for the deluge of Berry classics that followed, a floodgate that included “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and many others.
Between 1955 and 1962, Berry released 26 singles, in essence creating the fabric from which every rock guitarist who came in his wake would draw. It hardly seems incidental that the style and sound Berry introduced to the world was forged on an ES-335 and its close cousins. Like his peers Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins (who began playing an ES-5 in early 1956), Berry found the instrument to be perfect in terms of playability and tone. When the ES-335TD was issued in 1958, Berry was among the earliest players to pick up the instrument. Following his cue, players from George Harrison to Pete Townshend and beyond have often turned to the ES-335 as their go-to guitar.
Remarkably, at age 85, Berry can still be seen and heard delivering his rock and roll classics on an ES-335.
On at least one night each month, he takes the stage at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in his native St. Louis, plying his trade before a small cadre of fans. In a lengthy profile that appeared in Esquire in January of 2012, writer Luke Dittrich noted that Berry also continues to write and record songs – although not for public consumption, at least not yet. Those who’ve heard the new material say much of it holds its own against the best of his ’50s and ’60s work. Perhaps – who knows? – a treasure trove of fresh Chuck Berry classics will one day see the light of day.
Notable Quotes about Chuck Berry from Other Artists (from ChuckBerry.com):
“Berry's On Top is probably my favorite record of all time; it defines rock and roll. A lot of people have done Chuck Berry songs, but to get that feel is really hard. It's the rock and roll thing – the push-pull and the rhythm of it.” – Joe Perry
“[He’s] the epitome of what it is to be a rock and roll guitar player, songwriter and singer.” – Joan Jett
“There’s only one true king of rock and roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder
“[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry’.” – Jerry Lee Lewis
“Well, Chuck Berry is the first singer-songwriter I know of.” – Roy Orbison
“To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme. He plays that lovely double-string stuff, which I got down a long time ago, but I’m still getting the hang of. Later I realized why he played that way – because of the sheer physical size of the guy. I mean, he makes one of those big Gibsons look like a ukulele!” – Keith Richards