Chuck Berry has died, at the age of 90, at his home in Missouri. A rocker to the last, Berry had toured Europe as recently as 2013, kept performing monthly gigs until late 2014, and still has a new album on the way (his first since the 1970s). Rock n’ roll is too organic and chaotic to be attributed to any one creator, but if anyone deserves pride of place as its founding father, it’s Chuck Berry.
Berry’s influence is almost impossible to overstate. He was rock’s first ‘guitar god,’ a complete package who wrote and sang his own songs, supported them with guitar theatrics, and had his own manic, mesmerizing stage presence complete with his signature duck walk. He wrote many great songs, and while a number of them shamelessly ripped off his earlier work, that just made him the first of an almost endless list of people who stole from Chuck Berry. The Beatles memorably covered a few of his biggest hits; John Lennon may have had his finest hour as a vocalist screaming out “Rock and Roll Music,” and George Harrison cut his teeth on “Roll Over Beethoven” (which he played in concert for years – he was still closing shows with it when he toured Japan with Eric Clapton on guitar in 1991). The Beach Boys openly stole songs from him on multiple occasions. The Rolling Stones were in his debt (Keith Richards said that Johnny B. Goode inspired him to learn the guitar), and covered his songs in concert for many years (their classic 1970 concert album “Get Yer Ya Yas Out” features two Chuck Berry covers out of ten songs). The same has been true of Bruce Springsteen. Bob Seger, who spent much of his career building songs on Berry’s foundation, wrote in “Rock n Roll Never Forgets”: “All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks.” When the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame started inducting members with an annual show, the closing number would as often as not be an assembly of rock legends gathering to perform a Chuck Berry song. The same was often true of benefit concerts, as with this George Harrison-led performance of Johnny B. Goode. The Washington Post’s obituary overflows with that kind of detail.
Among his many timeless contributions, I have long argued that Johnny B. Goode remains rock’s greatest single song. It’s one of the first rock songs to do two things, let alone combine them – tell a story and feature a guitar solo – and in unorthodox fashion then as now, it opens with a guitar solo. It’s one of the very few songs recorded in the 1950s that sounds as crisp and clear and vibrant today as it did in 1957, when Berry was already 30 years old. It’s also a song about rock, and the possibilities it offers, even to a barely-literate African-American teen in the age of Jim Crow, modeled rather obviously on Berry himself; its lyrics contain the timeless promise of rock immortality:
His mama told him someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band
Many people comin’ from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights,
Saying “Johnny B. Goode tonight”
Is there a more American promise than that?
Proof of the power of Johnny B. Goode can be found in the fact that just about anyone who has ever picked up a guitar has felt compelled to take a crack at it. Even a partial sample shows the pervasive influence of the song.