Chuck Berry understood exactly how to tap into the raw energy and frustrations of the youth. With his cocky onstage attitude, devilish guitar licks, and dangerous swagger, Berry was the definition of a rock star. John Lennon had been quoted as saying, “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’” and Bob Dylan called him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll.” Amidst a chaotic personal life, Chuck Berry laid the groundwork for rock n' roll and broke down racial barriers in popular music.
Elvis Presley may have been the first rock n' roll heartthrob but it was Chuck Berry who was the musical architect who understood what teenagers wanted in their music despite being twice their age. Songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven" unleashed the pent-up force of a young generation. “Promised Land,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” tackled racial tensions and classism with satire and a smile on his face. His music celebrated all aspects of the human experience, no matter how appalling.
Born in 1926 to a middle-class black family in St. Louis, Berry was influenced by blues legend T-Bone Walker and was inspired by his riffs and energetic playing. While on tour, Berry met Muddy Waters who got him in touch with Leonard Chess of Chess Recording. During the recording session, Berry conceived the song "Maybellene," a rock and roll staple that sold over a million copies and reached number one on Billboard magazine's rhythm and blues chart. His fiery guitar playing and his signature duckwalk made him a star.
Three years later, Chuck Berry would become the pop music iconoclast after the release of "Johnny B. Goode," his biggest song and one of the most covered tracks in the history of rock. This song about a poor country boy who plays guitar “just like ringing a bell” was actually included as one of the four songs representing rock aboard the Voyager spacecraft.
After his death in March 2017, tributes came pouring in from the biggest names in the genre. "Chuck Berry was rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock & roll writer who ever lived," Bruce Springsteen said. Paul McCartney said, "he was one of rock & roll's greatest poets." Every rock song you've heard in the past 50 years owes a piece of itself to Berry.
During his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said: "I've stolen every lick he ever played."
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