The King of Rock and Roll is dead, and, no, I don’t mean Elvis, but Chuck Berry, who proclaimed himself at every opportunity the rightful sovereign. Next to Berry (according to Berry) every other hip-swiveling, duck-walking, pompadour-combing jackelope was nothing but a lowdown pretender, even those who only bore the faintest resemblance to the above. See, for example, his take on punk rock—so clearly derivative of his work that he can’t help taking credit for most of it. To people raised on The Ramones instead of the Stones his attitude seemed ridiculous. But for those who came of age at a time when rock and roll was a near synonym for Chuck Berry, he was right all along. We failed to appreciate the enormity of his talent, the uniqueness of his style, the genius of his licks.
I’ve wrestled with both the dismissal of Berry and the hagiography. My generation’s “classic rock” involved a Richards or a Clapton. Berry’s music may as well have been buried in Pleistocene strata, though he lived until the irascible age of 90, performing until just a few years ago. We knew the pioneers, the Boppers, the Checkers, the Hollys.
They could seem like cartoon characters from our parents’ infantilized 50s childhoods: wholesome, corny, downright creepy. Bleh to all that. But, it’s true, out of his generation of players, Berry has always been special. He was the first rock and roll guitar hero. And if he sometimes seemed salty about it, imagine how you’d feel to have your biggest hit—with the “12th greatest solo of all time”—stolen from you by the Beach Boys and Marty McFly.
Even the most pedestrian guitar players should recognize how many licks Berry built into rock and roll’s architectural vocabulary from the fretboard of his Gibson 335. Consider then the recognition from those greats who learned to play as kids by listening to him on the radio. Chuck Berry may have felt underappreciated, or undercompensated, but read an interview from almost any decade with Richards or Clapton or Harrison or Page, etc. and you’ll be surprised if his name doesn’t come up. He was such an august American patriarch at his death that the National Review called him “the founding father of rock,” his influence “almost impossible to overstate”—sentiments echoed by nearly every living guitar god to have worn the title. NRO‘s Berry eulogy also includes a roundup of covers of “Johnny B Goode,” from Jimi Hendrix to AC/DC, the Grateful Dead, Prince, Judas Priest, the Sex Pistols…. Not all respectful covers, but name a band, they’ve probably done it.
But it was the lucky few guitar gods who got to play with Berry himself, gazing at him in awe, out of their minds with fifteen-year-old glee. Keith Richards and Eric Clapton once traded solos on an extended “Johnny B. Goode” (top—the video and sound go out of sync, making for a slightly surreal viewing experience.) Berry seemed to soak it up as much as they did. Further up, see a boyishly happy John Lennon play “Johnny B. Goode” with Berry on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972. Lennon understood why Berry was so influential not only as a guitarist but as a songwriter. He wrote “good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby, I love you so.’ It was people like him that influenced our generation to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘do wa diddy.’” Though Lennon did his share of that.
Finally, Bruce Springsteen plays sideman to Berry during “Johnny B. Goode” at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Springsteen paid homage to Berry frequently, and also played in his band in the 70s, “an experience,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock, “that challenged the young musician’s ability to think on his feet.” You may notice Springsteen and Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” performance seems a “a little wobbly.” This is because Berry decided to shift the song “in gears and a key without talking to us,” remembers guitarist Nils Lofgren. The setlist said “Rock and Roll Music,” Berry decided he’d rather play “Johnny B. Goode.” So they played “Johnny B. Goode.” (See Springsteen replicate the experience by playing Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” live with his band, totally unrehearsed.)
All of Berry’s protégés and musician-admirers quickly learned what to expect when they met their idol: when they got together to jam with him, they were “going to do some Chuck Berry songs,” as Springsteen remembers him saying during their old days together. To Berry and to much of the generation that followed, the phrase was pretty much synonymous with rock and roll.