His crafty blend of rhythm, riff, attitude defined genre
In the later years of his career as a live performer, Chuck Berry famously toured by himself, opting to play with local musicians hired to back him for individual gigs rather than traveling with (and paying the salaries of) his own band.
The idea this could suggest was that Berry’s music was easy to play — that it was so generic that any promoter in any town could find a couple of guys to handle bass and drums while Berry held the crowd’s attention on vocals and guitar. (The practice also suggests that Berry wasn’t interested in spending money he didn’t have to spend.)
And in a sense, that idea is not far off: Berry, who died Saturday at his home near St. Louis at age 90, basically invented rock ’n’ roll with songs from the mid- and late 1950s such as “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” each an audacious yet crafty blend of riff, melody, rhythm and attitude.
So, of course, Berry’s music soon came to seem elementary. It defined a genre, one that grew quickly after his example thanks to acolytes such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
To think of Berry’s work as simple, though — as vague or without detail — is to profoundly misunderstand the compositions and recordings that made him a star.
Take “Maybellene,” his first single, which he based on an old country tune but tricked out with an indelible guitar lick and his own invented word: “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville,” he sings, creating a vivid image of newness even as he sets the scene in a familiar American landscape.
“School Day” does something similar. Writing in his 30s about the slow-burn misery of high school, Berry uses his experience as an older man to enrich the action: “Back in the classroom, open your books / Gee, but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks.”
What a line! All at once, Berry is telling us what it feels like to be in the classroom — what it feels like to be one of his teenage fans, in other words —
The pinched, springy sound of his guitar — like someone winding an antique clock — only adds to the sensation, physicalizing the long minutes until the school bell finally rings.
Berry’s catalog is filled with such lyrical and musical complexity, be it the picture of American ambition in “Johnny B. Goode” or the depiction of American oppression in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which opens by putting us in a courtroom with a man “arrested on charges of unemployment.”
And then there’s his vision of America itself in “Promised Land,” Berry’s epic travelogue from Norfolk, Va., to Los Angeles in which he conjures a vast sprawl of highways, train tracks and overnight flights serving T-bone steaks.
Yet it wasn’t just his words that distinguished his music. It was the way he sang them, enunciating as crisply as that mean schoolteacher might have while somehow communicating his essential rebelliousness.
Listen to “Roll Over Beethoven,” to see how sure he is of himself and the wild, bumptious tune he’s written: This isn’t a crass rock ’n’ roller writing off yesterday’s masters; it’s game recognizing game.
As a guitarist, Berry saw infinite variety in a handful of moves, from the splintery lead lines in “Johnny B. Goode” and “Carol” to the fuzzy jangle of “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Rock & Roll Music.” And like a jeweler with a loupe, he knew the intricate contours of each of his riffs, as he demonstrated in a much-discussed scene from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Rehearsing “Carol” with a band that includes the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Berry keeps halting the music, pointing out little mistakes Richards is making with the main lick.
“You wanna get it right,” Berry says, “let’s get it right.”
In that sharp edge, those who knew Berry offstage likely recognized another of his contradictions, and that was the prickliness of an artist whose legend was rooted in his ability to make music about having a good time.
Some of his coarseness came in the pursuit of admirable goals — his insistence, for example, that he be paid for his work. But if Berry’s sticking up for himself inspired future rockers to do the same, so too did his reputation for mistreating women help establish a harmful norm. In 1990, he was sued for allegedly videotaping women in the bathroom of a restaurant on his Missouri estate; he denied it but paid a settlement.
Yet Berry never quite went along with the notion that his party songs reflected his (or anyone else’s) mere happiness.
Speaking to The Times in 1987, he said he’d given up chasing joy as a way to avoid encountering its emotional opposite. “People have killed themselves over the lack of glory,” he said. “They have also killed themselves from the depths of degradation.”
There was nothing ready made about the man who observed that.