There are a lot of legends, quite a few pioneers and, if we are being completely honest, innumerable acts that might be filed under the moniker star.
But there are very few architects.
Chuck Berry was an architect.
Berry, who was able to communicate, translate and innovate so much with a hard twang squeezed from a brilliant red Gibson, died Saturday. He was 90 years old.
The songs he made famous weren’t constructed much differently than the hard R&B and blues people had previously dismissed or embraced as race records and lyrically, he was treading on fairly familiar ground – cars, girls, the anxieties of a young man. But there was something about the way he played, the way he pushed the tempo, the way he transformed the guitar into an emotional outlet, that proved appealing. His songs were singalong favorites, but they also worked on a far more visceral level. They enticed people, urged them to move in new ways. The chugging, insistent rhythms made people rock and roll before that meant anything.
That sound of guitar and voice – aggressive, eager and deceptively simple – proved to be something of a blueprint. Down South, musicians raised on the Opry adopted his sublime sense of boogie and developed the turn-and-burn sound of rockabilly. Both Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly were influenced by Berry’s sound. Across the Atlantic, his guitar-forward approach to arrangement was aped by countless acts looking for a more aggressive sound. It’s no coincidence that early Beatles sets were heavy on Berry tunes.
Over the course of his lifetime, Berry was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, received the Kennedy Center Honor and was part of the initial class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008, Rolling Stone named his iconic song Johnny B. Goode the Greatest Guitar Song of All Time.
But in the end, awards and honors do not sum up the contributions of the man. The reason Chuck Berry was loved. The reasons generations of musicians were inspired by, and often aspired to be, Berry weren’t found in any trophy case. They are found in that wide-legged stance as he smiled through the blistering break in No Particular Place to Go. It’s in the intentional flash of a Maybelline duckwalk. It’s in a lifetime – more than 60 years on stage – defining what rock and roll guitar, in its very purest form, sounds like.
Berry once asked all who might listen to Hail Hail Rock n Roll. I think, if we as fans are to earnestly heed that request, we must Hail Hail Chuck Berry.
That’s something I’m happy to do.