An architect of rock

Chuck Berry laid musical groundwork for generations

When NASA launched its Voyager probes in 1977, both probes contained gold-plated audiovisual discs that contained “sounds of Earth” for whatever intelligent life forms might find them eons from now.

 

Of the discs’ 90 minutes of music, there’s only one rock ’n’ roll song – Johnny B. Goode, by Chuck Berry.

So it’s been said that Berry, who died Saturday at age 90, still is on tour – indefinitely, hurtling through the cosmos.

Back on Earth, Berry’s correctly called one of the architects of the musical genre of rock. So many of his songs – Maybel­lene; Roll Over, Beethoven; Rock and Roll Music; Sweet Little Sixteen – are undisputed classics.

As a musician, he wasn’t one of the most technically accomplished guitarists. But any kid who’s ever had a guitar and a dream knew you couldn’t play rock without playing like Berry.

Many guitarists call it the double-stop or the “harmony lick,” but Berry used the technique of bending and strumming two strings at once with such familiarity and mastery that it’s often just called the “Chuck Berry lick.” Everybody copied it.

“If you don’t know every Chuck Berry lick,” quipped rock legend Ted Nugent, “you can’t play rock guitar.”

Berry’s bold music style also helped shape the rock ’n’ roll attitude. Combined with his tireless showmanship, he was a living embodiment of the restless, rebellious music he played. Some of the most common themes in rock lyrics – cars, girls, school, coming of age – can be traced to Berry. He distilled rock’s essence.

“While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves,” wrote New York Times music critic Jon Pareles.

The highest praise, however, might have come from another John – John Lennon:

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” he said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”

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