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Chuck Berry Was More Than Just a Riff

“If you had to give rock n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon famously said.

Ebet Roberts/Getty

The early history of rock music is littered with conscious-altering moments. Elvis swiveling his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show; Jayne Mansfield strutting to Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It; the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens; the Beatles playing to an unending wave of screams on, again, The Ed Sullivan Show; even the snare shot that kicks off “Like a Rolling Stone”—these are cited again and again as the culturally transformative moments of the 1960s and ’70s.

Chuck Berry’s career spanned seven decades—from his emergence in the mid-’50s with swaggering hits like “Nadine” and “Johnny B. Goode,” to the monthly shows he played practically up until his death on Saturday at age 90—but he had no such defining moment. Instead, he burst on to the national stage in 1955 fully formed, at the age of 28, with the song “Maybellene,” and produced consistently strong material for the next decade-plus, with the exception of a stint in jail that derailed his career and helped briefly kill off rock music. And since the mid-sixties, between the tribute concerts and novelty hits (e.g., the deeply gross “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972, which was somehow his only #1 single) and troubles with the law, Berry’s profoundly influential career was slowly distilled into the riff.

Make that the riff and the duckwalk. The riff, of course, is the punchy opening to “Johnny B. Goode,” which was copied again and again by both Berry and his disciples. The duckwalk is what it sounds like: A guy walking like a duck. Like most teenage guitarists, I learned the riff, note for note, and like most teenage guitarists I could never get its taut musculature right—erring with too-perfect mimicry (a la the Beach Boys, who deserved the lawsuit Berry hit them with) or with too-loose laziness (a la Jerry Garcia who, to be fair, sometimes got it right).

The riff, as 1987’s insanely entertaining and occasionally disturbing Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll attests, is a puzzle that only Berry ever really figured out, a turbulent thing that always feels just on the verge of veering off into chaos before re-asserting itself. Berry may have used the double-stop to mimic the horns he probably couldn’t afford in the early days, but he mastered it, turning it into a trademark. Sixty years later, I’m still struck by just how hard he punches the strings on “Oh Yeah.”

No one was more important to the development of rock n’ roll than Chuck Berry. Yes, rock music predated Berry, and other people, particularly Elvis, were more responsible for popularizing the genre. But the irony of Berry being defined by the riff and the duck walk and little else is that no one grasped the sheer range of rock like Berry did, at least until the Beatles. From the very beginning, Berry’s sound encompassed a host of different elements: Blues, R&B, Caribbean, folk, teeny bopper, and, perhaps most of all, country and western.

And while there was certainly a Berry sound, there was no specific recipe. Much of the music of the 1950s is surprisingly thin. I cannot imagine, for instance, what led teddy boys who heard “Rock Around the Clock” to decide to tear shit up. Even early Elvis, with the exception of the occasional screaming Scotty Moore solo, is surprisingly acoustic. Berry, from the beginning, was heavy—“Maybellene” is muddy and raw, as if Berry’s guitar was blowing out the soundboard.

Berry was on Chess Records, which also hosted heavyweights like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But Berry’s lithe sound could also be surprisingly tender, especially on his more overtly poppy music, like “Sweet Little Sixteen.” He certainly knew his way around a ballad and I’m partial to some of his hokey novelty music, like “Havana Moon,” a goofy but lovely stab at Calypso. But he was at his best when he was pulling from multiple sources at once—Chuck Berry integrated black music and white music into a sound that no one has repeated since.

And then there were Berry’s lyrics. Despite being in his late 20s when he first broke out—significantly older than the teenagers who were in fashion, like Buddy Holly and Elvis—no one grasped adolescent wants and desires quite like Berry, who had an eerie ability to both be of the moment and predict where it was going. Jon Pareles in his obituary for the New York Times wrote that Berry was “rock’s master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.” Pete Townshend would later lay claim to this title, but he never deserved it the way that Berry did in the mid-1950s. The Beach Boys would later parrot his paeans to consumption, but with none of the irony or wit.

Berry’s advanced age—he looked old even in the early 50s, and no one would ever confuse him for a teenager—had the added effect of him distancing from his fans, even as he echoed their desires back to them.

Berry’s wit and eye for detail remains unmatched, in part because Berry rarely strayed from the format he had mastered: The two-and-a-half minute rhyming pop song. In every Berry song, there are vivid little details:

Workin’ in the fillin’ station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, dollar gas!

There are also turns of phrase that are still shocking and delightful even now, such as this self-description from “Nadine”:

Pushing through the crowd trying to get to where she’s at
I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat

When I first started listening to Berry, I would listen to “You Never Can Tell,” a four-stanza fairy tale of a love story, over and over again, trying to figure out how it worked. Story songs are almost uniformly terrible, traps for otherwise fine songwriters like Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart, and crutches for terrible songwriters with nothing to say, like Billy Joel. But Berry is unique in that much of his best work is narrative: Berry’s songs are full of funny and profound descriptions of consumerism, romance, making out in cars, segregation, days at school, racial achievement, and being a fan of Chuck Berry.

Maybe it was his relatively advanced age, but that song is shockingly mature, especially when compared to everything else in the first wave of rock music. The radio host Tom Scharpling once compared Berry to Woody Guthrie and that applies to his lyrics as much as anything else—like Guthrie, Berry was constantly pushing new ideas into old forms.

“If you had to give rock n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon famously said. Bruce Springsteen eulogized Berry by writing, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock n’ roll writer who ever lived.” That still strikes me as not quite right—Berry might be rock’s greatest practitioner, but no one sounds quite like Berry. That’s partly because Berry, as the great Peter Guralnick wrote in a Rolling Stone profile that appeared last fall, has always been a man apart:

For all of the canny “political” (read “artistic” here) inclusiveness that established both his career and his legacy, he has from the beginning chosen to set himself apart. Or been set apart. By a juvenile conviction for armed robbery before he ever thought of entering show business (remember: this was an upwardly mobile, middle-class kid, by his own description). Later by two mid-career prison terms, one coming at the height of his success in 1960 (a contested Mann Act violation, which could certainly be seen as a form of “political” [read “racial” here] reprisal). Not to mention some of his well-documented sexual proclivities and peccadillos (and I don’t mean to minimize them here), what his biographer, Bruce Pegg, writes, represent the actions of “a man whose detachment from society made him feel immune to its mores and taboos.” (For details see Pegg’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry.) Sometimes that sense of detachment has served him well (by allowing him to speak in another person’s voice for example, in his songwriting), sometimes it has not – but it has always been a non-negotiable part of his personality. And it has at times alienated his own audience at the very times that, were he but able to admit it, he might have needed them most.

This remove would metastasize after Berry was released from prison in the early ’60s. Despite the strength of much of his material, Berry had already become a nostalgia act by the early ’70s, a wax figure in a rock history museum. This gave Berry opportunities to prove his critics wrong, as he did in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, where he routinely takes Keith Richards and everyone else to school. But it also meant that he would tour on the cheap, with teenage backing bands who barely knew the material. He shrank down to the riff from “Johnny B. Goode,” and duck-walked across the stage in a pristine white suit and a bolo tie.

Berry is much more than that, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest songwriter not named Bob Dylan, who called him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll.” But it’s still quite a legacy.