Of all the early rockers, Chuck Berry was by far the most significant. He was really the first artist to exhibit many of the traits that would come to define the form.
First, he featured his own electric guitar prominently in his music. He used the instrument to give his material a propulsive, driving rhythm underneath his vocals, and then used equally rhythmic lead parts to echo and accent his vocals. This presaged the overall importance of guitars and guitarists in the idiom.
Next, he exhibited the highest degree of musical integrity. Not only did he play guitar on all of his recordings, he wrote and sang all of his own material. The result is the most satisfying and consistent recorded canon of any of the early rockers. Others, like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, frequently relied on outside sources to supply their songs. The results were often uneven, with some of the best performances seeming to happen despite the supplied material, and not because of it.
Much like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry developed a unique songwriting style that prominently featured his own talents on guitar. Diddley developed a “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm that proved repetitive and inflexible over the long haul. Berry’s style, on the other hand, while still unmistakable, proved to be much more flexible, ultimately being used for dozens of songs, many of which have proven to be enduring rock classics.
As good as Berry’s music was, however, his lyrics proved just as ground-breaking. Sterling Morrison, member of the group Velvet Underground, said: “I liked Chuck Berry as a guitar player. But I liked him better as a lyricist. There was a lot more depth there, and the rhythm of his lyrics was fabulous.” (Fricke 1995) While the lyrics of other early rock songs continued pop traditions of endless variations on obvious romantic themes, or at best simply reflected current popular culture, Berry’s words transcended and commented on the youth culture he was addressing, usually in a comic way. “Memphis,” for example, starts as a traditional country song, sung by a man trying to connect with a girl he is missing. It is only in the last two lines of the song that he finally reveals that the girl he is trying to contact is his six year old daughter. Other songs dealt with the frustrations of being at the mercy of adults, as with “Too Much Monkey Business.” Berry often wrote about cars, and their role in youthful relationships, as in “Maybellene” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
Berry was one of the first, as well, to write about the music that he and others were creating. “Rock’n Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” were two of his classics on this theme. He was also one of the first to observe the ability of the music to liberate those who played it from their humble beginnings, as in his triumphant “Johnny B. Goode.”
This combination of great music and words resulted in Chuck Berry easily becoming the rock songwriter who has most frequently had his songs covered by other rockers. Artists as divergent as Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys all recorded Chuck Berry tunes, to name just a few.
Original Release Date: 2006
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
Thirty of his great recordings, all on a single CD.
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