Roots of Rock & Roll – Chuck Berry

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Here’s the fourth blog for the on-going series, “The Roots of Rock & Roll.” Check out the other blogs in the series – Alan Freed (August 6, 2017), Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock (October 8, 2017), and History of the Electric Guitar (December 10, 2017) – all part of my AWESOME! page.

Chuck Berry is one of the founding fathers of Rock & Roll. He was born in 1926, and was influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship of blues artist T-Bone Walker, as well as the country music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe. His first performance was in high school in St. Louis, but any early hope of a career in music was derailed after his conviction for armed robbery. In prison, he formed a singing quartet. After his release, he married, had a child, and settled into various jobs, working with local bands to supplement his income.

By 1953, he was performing blues and country music regularly, and his showmanship brought in a wider audience. In 1955, he was signed to a record label, and he started to release songs that were a variation of R&B that made them distinctively Rock & Roll. He wrote lyrics that told stories that appealed to the teenage market. He incorporated guitar solos into his songs. And, his showmanship demonstrated a swagger that was irresistible.

Breakthrough Berry songs that define Rock & Roll include Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock and Roll Music (1957), and Johnny B. Goode (1958). Maybellene is regarded by many as the first rock song that features the guitar as the primary musical instrument. The song is an adaptation of an old country fiddle tune with a bigger beat and a guitar solo. Rolling Stone wrote “Rock & roll guitar starts here.” Roll Over Beethoven was Berry’s “in-your-face” declaration to the greatest classical composer of all time to make room for Berry’s new kind of music. Rock and Roll Music is one of Berry’s most popular songs, covered by many artists, most notably The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Johnny B. Goode is the first rock & roll song about being a rock & roll star. It’s #7 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time List (Maybellene is #16, Roll Over Beethoven is #97 and Rock and Roll Music is #129).

Legends in the music world acknowledge his stature. John Lennon was quoted saying “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” Bob Dylan calls Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.” And Bruce Springsteen is quoted saying “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Berry died in 2017 at the age of 90. Thank you Chuck Berry for your role in putting Rock & Roll on the music map. Here’s Berry performing Maybellene as well as a performance of Johnny B. Goode. Enjoy his famous duck walk!

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