He brought a poet’s touch to brash new style of music
One of the original knocks against teen-oriented rock music in the 1950s, when the form was born, came from an earlier generation that had grown up with the sophisticated, erudite songs of composers and lyricists such as Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Next to such songs that were almost Shakespearean in their literary maturity, “Rock Around the Clock,” “Hound Dog” and other early rock hits sounded positively primitive by comparison.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”? Really? Members of the Greatest Generation often groused.
But then along came Chuck Berry, who wedded smart lyrical wordplay with the blistering energy of an electrified blend of blues and country music in the new genre of rock ’n’ roll to establish a template that’s still influencing pop musicians today.
“Chuck Berry … had been there at the beginning of everything [and] had written the bible of rock ’n’ roll almost single-handed,” author Rick Bragg wrote in his 2014 biography of one of Berry’s fellow rock pioneers, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Setting aside for a moment the argument that attitude and passion were at least as important as what the lyrics said in the first iteration of rock music, Berry proved quickly that it wasn’t an either/or situation.
“I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back / And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac,” Berry wrote in “Nadine,” crafting not only a compelling narrative of romantic attraction but also one that completed a rhyme with a brilliant example of alliteration.
Just as teenagers across the country were rebelling against beliefs and customs held dear by their parents and grandparents, Berry demonstrated time and again that he wasn’t going to be reined in by conventions of language and usage.
He not only famously invented his own words — “motorvatin’ over the hill” when he “saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville” — he also had a great ear for poetic words in the world around him.
In his sweet ode to a young married couple starting their life together, “You Never Can Tell,” he describes their modest home with an accomplished novelist’s sense of detail, including his reference to a particularly evocative brand of refrigerator: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale / The Coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.”
He consistently avoided cliches and stock images or situations. He was investing layers of emotion and meaning into songs long before Bob Dylan came along and started people talking about rock ’n’ roll as an art form.
“Memphis” is a great example, establishing what sounds like a couple’s classic breakup story, only to cap it with a twist worthy of O. Henry.
“Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee / Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me / She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call / ’Cuz my uncle took a message and he wrote it on the wall.”
Berry adds to the drama, building on our preconceived expectations of the caller, in a subsequent verse, singing: “We were pulled apart because her mom did not agree / and tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.”
Only in the final verse, in the penultimate line, do we get the real story: “Marie is only 6 years old, information please / Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee.”
The power of words
Berry loved the sound of words and the power in being able to string together the right combination to pull listeners into his world.
He was relatively old when rock ’n’ roll exploded in the mid-1950s, born nearly a decade before other first-generation rockers such as Lewis, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
It was that age gap that helped give Berry the perspective of a sharp observer rather than participant. That often came into play in his songwriting, which both described and helped codify the emerging youth culture that was born in the aftermath of World War II.
He was often a reporter — a witty and poetic one — on what was happening in the culture at that moment as rock ’n’ roll took over.
That came out in many of his best-known songs, including “Johnny B. Goode,” about a “country boy” … “who never ever learned to read or write so well” but “could play the guitar just like ringing a bell,” plus “Rock & Roll Music,” “Little Queenie” and “School Day.”
“There she is again / standing over by the record machine,” he wrote in “Little Queenie.” “Looking like a model on the cover of a magazine, / she’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen.”
Another writer might have left the age reference at 17 or perhaps “a day over seventeen.” But Berry gave it another measure of specificity by choosing to write “a minute over seventeen.”
He also gave his young audience songs they could instantly identify with. “Sweet Little Sixteen” painted a full-fledged portrait of the earnest teenage rock ’n’ roll fan:
“Sweet Little Sixteen, / she’s just got to have / about a half a million / framed autographs.” And he smartly name-checked half a dozen places of the country, giving hundreds of thousands of kids the feeling he was speaking directly to them:
“They’re really rockin’ in Boston / In Pittsburgh, PA / Deep in the heart of Texas / and ’round the Frisco Bay / All over St. Louis / and down in New Orleans / all the cats wanna dance with / Sweet Little Sixteen.”
A wry sense of humor was evident in many of his songs, like the scene he painted in “No Particular Place to Go” of a young couple out on a romantic late-night drive, when “the moon was bold” and they decided “to take a stroll” — except for one problem: “Can you imagine the way I felt? I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt!”
Another of Berry’s genius strokes was the way he almost subliminally incorporated glimpses into the African American experience before it became a common theme in pop music in the 1960s and ’70s.
As Mick Jagger noted after hearing of Berry’s death, “His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream” for the legion of young British musicians who were soaking up American blues and R&B music en route to launching the British Invasion.
Nine years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers as the league’s first African American player, Berry wrote this verse in his 1956 hit “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”:
“Two, three count with nobody on / He hit a high fly into the stand / Rounding third he was headed for home / It was a brown-eyed handsome man that won the game / it was a brown-eyed handsome man.”
So large did Berry’s shadow as a songwriter loom that many of the titans of the musical generation that followed saluted him in one way or another, sometimes so closely that it came back to bite them.
Influence on Dylan
Dylan has always acknowledged that the dizzying flurry of rhymes and images he spun out in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement, thinking ’bout the government” — owed much to Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”: “Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail / I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale.”
Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson likewise said he was simply paying homage to Berry with his rewrite of “Sweet Little Sixteen” as “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Wilson learned about the fine line between homage and infringement when Berry sued and won, resulting in him subsequently being credited as a co-writer of the Beach Boys’ hit from that point forward.
John Lennon also discovered the perils of crossing Berry’s watchful eye when the Beatles recorded “Come Together,” which closely paralleled and even lifted the opening line virtually verbatim from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” (“Here come a [old] flat-top”).
“Come Together” remains credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but to settle a suit brought by Morris Levy, publisher of “You Can’t Catch Me,” Lennon was required to record three Berry songs and thus generate more publishing royalty payments to Levy.
Berry’s far-reaching impact has been acknowledged by virtually all his peers (of which there were few) and his countless disciples, from Presley, Lewis, Holly and Little Richard on down through the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and too many others to catalog.
“R.I.P. and peace and love Chuck Berry, Mr. Rock ’n’ roll music,” Beatles drummer Ringo Starr tweeted shortly after news of Berry’s death broke Saturday.
As to the generational complaint about the radical new sound of rock ’n’ roll, the genre’s first great poet provided the happy ending celebrating inclusivity in “You Never Can Tell” that found the newlywed couple soaking up a variety of sounds in their new lives together:
“They had a hi-fi phono, boy / did they let it blast / Seven hundred little records, / all rock, rhythm and jazz / But when the sun went down / the rapid tempo of the music fell / ‘C’est la vie,’ say the old folks, / it goes to show you never can tell.”