Chuck Berry was a music legend if ever there was one. And his passing, at age 90 at his home near St. Louis, is truly the end of an era. Our music man, Anthony Mason, has an appreciation of Charles Edward Anderson Berry, a man whose music defined a genre that helped shape our time:
Chuck Berry’s indelible guitar licks helped form the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll. “If Beethoven hadn’t rolled over, there would have been no room for any of us,” Leonard Cohen said. “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.”
St. Louis born, Berry blended blues riffs with a country twang and an on-stage swagger embodied in his signature strut: the duck walk.
In 1972, Berry -- then 45 -- told Charles Osgood how the duck walk started: “I’ll never forget it. I slipped and fell. But I rolled over and put it in the act and got back up. And ever since then I got such a big ovation that I kept doing it.”
“Do you still do the duck walk?”
“Oh yeah, I can’t get off without it!”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry grew up in a segregated middle class neighborhood. His father was a contractor, his mother a school principal. As a teenager, Berry did time in a reform school for armed robbery, the first of several brushes with the law.
But in 1955, he got his big break in music when he traveled to Chess Records in Chicago to meet Leonard Chess:
“He told me to bring four numbers,” Berry recalled. “And as a matter of fact, I brought six. And ‘Maybellene’ was one.”
A Number 1 R&B hit, “Maybellene” would change his life.
He went suddenly from making $94 a week at an assembly plant to playing 40 weeks a year. “At $50 a night! And the Lord had answered my blessings.”
In the late ‘50s he laid down one classic after another.
“Everybody drives cars. Everybody has to have money. Everybody has a love affair, inspiration. And these are the things I write about,” he said.
And rock’s next generation all paid homage to him.
The Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” borrowed its melody from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” The Beatles covered his hit “Roll Over Beethoven.” And a young Keith Richards wrote about him, in April 1962, in a letter to his aunt.
“’I’m playing guitar ‘Chuck style,’” he wrote . “Yeah, that’ll be Chuck Berry.”
As Richards told Mason last November, Berry was “the poet of rock n roll. It’s American rock ‘n’ roll that turned us all on.”
Last night Richards tweeted, “One of my big lights has gone out.”
Chuck Berry’s final album will be released in June. He played on into his 90th year. And his influence never aged.
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