The late Chuck Berry's biggest hit may have undermined one of his greatest talents: his gift for storytelling.
Chuck Berry’s passing on March 18, 2017, punctuated the longest running career of any artist in rock 'n' roll. There are those who will forever remark on his famous “duck walk”, a move that found him crouching low and bobbing his head as he made his way across the stage. It was one of those moves that doubtless tempted his early fans, a group that included Keith Richards and Paul McCartney, to embark in a life less cautionary.
That showmanship, however, would have meant nothing had Berry not had the goods on his instrument. His signature style, a blend of country slides and blues-based rhythms, is probably most familiar from “Johnny B. Goode”, a track he penned in 1955 and released in 1958, seeing it rise into the upper reaches of the charts. Some scholars have noted that that opening riff was little more than a souped-up take on the intro to Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman". Though the comparison between those two pieces may worry some, Berry wasn’t guilty of anything other than what great artists have done from the start: Taking the work of a master and embellishing it, moving the form forward, one nuance at a time.
The wave of hot-shot guitar players that would arrive on American shores from Great Britain in the decade after “Goode” climbed the charts has come to be seen as one of the most innovative and enduring to ever take up the instrument. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck have certainly earned their keep (as has Richards) but as they stormed the beaches of the world with their blue notes and avalanche of feel drenched bends, they in many ways overshadowed the work of the mentor. By the time that Clapton became Slowhand and Page was as notable for the dragons on his tailored pants, Berry’s playing and stage antics may have seemed quaint.
His star wasn’t entirely diminished as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began cutting their own renditions of Berry classics, but his reputation was tarnished. He’d spent three years in prison in the early part of the decade after transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The material issued after his release was powerful if underperforming. While John, Paul, George and Ringo could excite a new generation with renditions of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, the master himself offered “You Never Can Tell”, “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go".
When the 1970s came into view, Berry was transforming into a nostalgia act. He toured on package bills with other first generation performers, used pick-up bands who he may or may not speak to when he showed up and grabbed his cash-only payment. Ironically, the nadir of his career came with his first and only chart-topping hit, “My Ding-a-Ling". An adaptation of Dave Bartholomew’s “Little Girl Ding-a-Ling”, the song was the antithesis of Berry’s genius.
Berry was a great lyricist, steeped in American vernacular and capable of weaving tales informed by the stuff of legends and myth and in the process creating a few of his own. The words of “Johnny B. Goode” fly by easily but closer examination reveals something deeper at work: The story of a Southern American male born somewhere near New Orleans but deeper in the woods, his home a shack. Though Berry never specifies Johnny’s race, whether he is black or white, he is certainly coming of age in the years after slavery, when the lines of race and class ran deep into the landscape. By the chorus, Berry champions him, cheering his with the simple “Go Johnny go” that’s most closely associated with the song.
There’s a frenzied pace to Berry’s shouts of encouragement, as though Berry can’t wait for the young man to come of age and reap the rewards of his talents. The character is a folk hero, sharing his talents with the world, the very people who predict that he’ll become a star and, maybe, by the song’s end, will see his name up in lights. There’s something telling about how the song ends, the untold future awaiting our hero the “maybe” of his final destiny hangs in the air. Johnny could be anyone at any time, the rural genius whose brilliance becomes recognized or lives and dies in the Louisiana woods. Even then, Berry recognizes that hard work and talent alone will not transform us into giants of American life. The reasons for this don’t need to be explained in either the song or conversations about it. Instead, it lingers between the notes and lines of that song like the weight of the inevitable.
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Many of his songs are built on a sense of impatience: In “Roll Over Beethoven”, our protagonist decides to write a letter to his local disc jockey with the hope that some brand-new song will become a hit. The movement of these lines, the hubris of youth and the fan’s desire to see/hear their favorites garner appreciation is all there. This isn’t just some kid from the 1950s, it’s a kid from the 1980s who starts a fanzine, the kid from the 2000’s who builds a FAQ site for his favorite band and on and on. The music industry may not have been a democracy then (or ever) but one can hear the wide-eyed hopes in that song. (And although The Beatles did record a credible version, it’s Berry’s that packs the greater emotional punch.)
He handled the teenage love of “You Never Can Tell” with skill, detailing the life of a couple married in their youth who endure against the odds. “No Particular Place to Go” isn’t just a ramble about wandering from one place to next, it’s a ramble about moving from one place to the next, hoping that a young man can find sexual gratification. Berry isn’t just writing about this young man’s frustrations, he’s writing about the frustration of teenagers and lovers since time immemorial, the natural and unavoidable impatience of Can we do it?, When can we do it?, Where can we do it?. The automobile’s arrival may have answered a few of those questions for some but it didn’t quell sexual desire or quiet sexual politics, and that is the tension that the tension of “No Particular Place to Go” is built.
One of Berry’s greatest achievements as a lyricist, though, maybe be “Brown Eyed Handsome Man". Recorded and released in 1956, it is a defiant song, one that champions African Americans in the heart of a culture that didn’t. It is also based on sexual tension and pokes at the notion of black men being a danger/untapped taboo for white women. When one man is “arrested for charges of unemployment” in the first verse and placed on trial, it’s the judge's wife of who calls the DA and demands the wrongfully accused’s release.
Later, a woman flies across the globe and walks across the hot sand to be the object of her desire and a young (presumably white) woman who can’t choose between a doctor and lawyer finds herself encouraged instead to find herself a “brown-eyed handsome man". The final verse depends upon a sex-and-baseball metaphor with you-know-who hitting a home run. It is as defiant and upsetting to established norms as anything the Sex Pistols could ever have hoped to have done and cuts more deeply than Gene Simmons donning platform boots and spitting blood. That is, if one wanted to understand why Chuck Berry embodies rock ‘n’ roll, they need to look no further than this song. It’s not about his guitar style (though that helped), it’s not about his showmanship (though it did too) and it may not even be about the brilliance of his songwriting (though, come on). Instead, it’s the attitude and fearlessness one can hear in his words in a song from 1956 and how, in those words, Berry was taking a risk that makes so many others seem insignificant, small.
Yes, there are those who, in the wake of Berry's death want to rehash the various sex scandals that complicated his life and legacy. Others want to focus on his often unpleasant disposition, and still more will shed light on his mercurial live performances. Those complicate his legacy but none of them singlehandedly define it. What remained through it all is the music, and one suspects that in the coming years more will dive more deeply into Berry’s brilliance and realize that his work provides greater riches than we have often allowed.
Hail, hail rock and roll. Hail, hail Chuck Berry.