Now who will tell Tchaikovsky the news?
For over 60 years, the job belonged to Chuck Berry via one of his most familiar and prized hits, “Roll Over Beethoven.” With Berry’s passing yesterday at age 90, rock ‘n’ roll lost not only one of its preeminent stylists and composers, but one of its most integral architects. Jazz without Jelly Roll Morton? Bluegrass without Bill Monroe? Country music without the Carter Family? That’s what Berry was to rock ‘n’ roll. Since rock has been more pervasive that any other contemporary music style, the weight of his influence and inspiration can in no way be understated.
Everything from song structure and thematic source material to guitar riffs and the music’s very joy and rhythm shook every succeeding generation. More than any other artist, more than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (who proudly admitted to being disciples), Berry shaped the very landscape of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were covered countless times and imitated (often blatantly so) to unending degrees. Among them: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Too Much Monkey Business” (a personal favorite). Collectively, these songs served as the DNA for an art form that, during the remarkably contained period in which they were recorded and released (between 1955 and 1959), had barely learned to walk.
After the 1964 singles like “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land,” Berry’s hold on the rock charts slipped, although the 1972 novelty tune “My Ding-a-Ling” became one of his best selling hits. By then, his music had already become part of the pop vernacular. There was perhaps no more satisfying tribute paid to his influence than Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the filmed account of two 1986 concerts that had all-star protégés Keith Richards, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Robert Cray and more playing Berry’s hits alongside the master. Today, it serves as a moving timepiece that chronicles the lasting presence, vigor and resilience of Berry’s music.
Like rock ‘n’ roll? Any kind of rock ‘n’ roll? Then pass along some thanks today to Chuck Berry. The party, quite simply, would not have been anywhere near as fun had he not crashed it.