In Taylor Hackford’s documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, Bruce Springsteen told a great story about backing up Chuck Berry one night. Berry, who travelled solo, showed up backstage to meet the then-little-known Springsteen and his band a few minutes before the show. “What songs are we going to do,” someone asked the man who helped shape rock ’n’ roll. “Well,” he answered, “we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.”
As one does. Henry Ford drove a Ford, after all.
Berry, who on Saturday died at age 90, was the archetypal rock ’n’ roll guitarist – a man who needed no introduction, other than his trademark four-bar preamble. Born in St. Louis and a onetime hair-styling student at the Poro School of Beauty Culture, Berry was the one of the first writer-singer-virtuosos in the rock-music style.
Inspired by jazzer Charlie Christian, blues player T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan’s sideman Carl Hogan, Berry will be remembered for his guitar-lick innovations (and duck-walk shenanigans). But if someone as giant as Keith Richards lifted his hero’s guitar vocabulary lock, stock and double-note blues-lick barrel, the brown-eyed handsome Missourian was also a genius lyrical pioneer in a young genre.
A great song should start with a “You are here” arrow on the map, and Berry drew vivid images of a brand new scene: The American youth culture. On Little Queenie, the girl at the record machine was too cute to be a minute over 17; Too Much Monkey Business was a quick-lipped gripe over the grown-ups’ world; School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) commiserated with reading-writing-and-arithmetic kids, and Maybellene took to the road and sympathized with hot-blooded boys, heartsick over unfaithful girls.
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on an open road
Nothin’d outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about 95
And we’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side to side
Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Berry, then, fulfilled the role of a documentarian of an era, providing pictures to a world that adolescents could dream about. Take a line from Nadine: “I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back / Started walking toward a coffee-coloured Cadillac.” Springsteen spoke for a generation when he said, in Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, “I’ve never seen a coffee-coloured Cadillac, but I know exactly what one looks like.”
It’s not hard to verify the bedrock inspiration of Berry. The Beatles, who were the biggest band in the world at the time, covered no less than eight Berry songs on its compilation Live at the BBC recordings. In 1970, when the Rolling Stones were the biggest band in the world, each side of their live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! included a Berry-written number.
In 2011, I travelled to St. Louis to see Berry play his monthly gig at the Duck Room, a small basement venue. He held his big red hollow-body Gibson, but couldn’t finger it so well any more. He shakily played Rock and Roll Music, the 1957 manifesto which promised a young generation that a robust new music had a “backbeat, you can’t lose it.”
We have lost it, though. Guitar-based rock music isn’t in fashion as it was for decades. It had a good run, and so did Berry. Hail, hail, rock ’n’ roll, then, for old times’ sake.Report Typo/Error