The hours since the death of rock and roll legend Chuck Berry have been filled with a predictable outpouring of praise for his genius. It’s all well-deserved, but perhaps too little, too late.
Berry’s signature guitar riff from Johnny B. Goode was not only copped by a generation of players (some of whom, including the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen, actually shared songwriting credits with him,) it was the sound chosen to represent 20th Century American music space probe.
Berry’s songwriting may lack the linguistic flourishes of Bob Dylan, but narratives like "You Never Can Tell" feature the exquisite detail and narrative clarity of a Raymond Carver short story. The reason why these songs still sound great today–but not particularly innovative–is that a generation of songwriters, from The Beatles and Beach Boys to Springsteen and Prince, adopted Berry’s basic model in their best songs.
And his on-stage showmanship, as you can see in this clip, is every bit as compelling as anything you’d see from Elvis or The Beatles.
While it’s lovely that after his death Berry is now getting his due, what about last week, last month, and last year? And for most of the last 50 years?
There were sporadic tributes–like Tarantino choosing "You Never Can Tell" for –but for the most part reality went something like this. The guys who copped Berry’s licks played them in football stadiums, while at state fairs. When the Rolling Stones play New York they fill Giants Stadium. Berry? His last New York gig was at B.B. King’s Blues club, which seats 500 people.
For all the praise of the subtle artistry Berry’s songwriting, did anyone suggest that he, rather than Dylan, deserved the Nobel Prize? Did he get a stirring final act the way that the great (but not quite great) Johnny Cash did? You can sum up this disconnect in one bit of trivia: Berry’s only Number one single in the U.S was the novelty tune: "My Ding-a-Ling"
And it’s been going on for years. The classic film, , features a funny set piece that makes Berry the butt of the joke. When Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly needs to step in and front the band at the dance where his parents would meet and fall in love, he picks up a cherry red Gibson ES-335 and launches into a version of Johnny B. Goode. Nice homage.
Then there’s a quick aside. The band leader Marvin Berry picks up the phone and calls his cousin Chuck.
"You know that new sound you’ve been looking for?" he says as he holds up the phone to a rhythm riffing, duck walking Michael J. Fox. "Listen to this."
Now BTTF is a time travel movie and if you start thinking too much about layers of who learned what from whom and when, it’ll give you a migraine. But as its most basic level, the script is essentially saying that Chuck Berry copped his signature lick from a white suburban teenager.
The filmmakers could have had Michael J. Fox channeling Elvis or maybe Buddy Holly, but for some reason they chose Berry as the recipient of what is at best a backhanded compliment.
In any case, Chuck Berry is gone, and he’s destined to get more respect in death than he did during most of his lifetime. There’s not much to be done about that, but perhaps we can honor his legacy by doing a little better with other living legends, say, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Smokey Robinson, and recognizing their artistry while they’re still with us.
Where does Chuck Berry belong in the rock and roll pantheon? What’s your favorite Chuck Berry song or riff?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Allen St. John is the author of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game
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