Remembering Chuck Berry

Rock’s first guitar master dies at age 90: The Godfather of Rock ‘n’ roll leaves big legacy despite being underappreciated


On March 18 Chuck Berry passed away and he left this world as the true father of rock ‘n’ roll music. He was 90.

Berry shattered all the musical rules when he burst onto the scene in the 1950s and he influenced everything that followed.

He was the first true rock guitar virtuoso. He was a showman, and one of popular music’s most prolific songwriters.

A St. Louis native, Berry wrote songs for teenagers. Consumerism and his songs were covered by Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, John Lennon, Johnny Rivers and the Rolling Stones, Electric Light Orchestra, and the Faces. That represents just a short list of artists who covered and had hits with Berry’s tunes.

The Beach Boys even stole one of his songs according to the courts. Berry was, after a lawsuit, given the writer’s credit for “Surfin’ USA; a song which is virtually identical to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll was simple, but he was a master on the guitar. He influenced the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Elvis Presley has long been the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And he was rock’s true showman. But his songwriting skills were virtually non-existent. He wasn’t much of a musician as he often used the guitar as a mere prop.

Elvis, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Les Paul and Buddy Holly all have made a deep impact on rock ‘n’ roll. They blended elements of western swing, country, and rhythm and blues.

But Berry’s musicianship could possibly only be topped by Holly (who was killed in a plane crash in his prime, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in 1959).

Berry was a top songwriter and his songs have been covered by his contemporaries such as Presley. And his early guitar work was better than that of Carl Perkins, another early pioneer, who influenced the Beatles’ George Harrison.

Berry recorded an album before his death. The LP, Chuck, will be released sometime this year, and it is his first studio work since 1979.

Berry wrote songs about love and good times and his early work captured the innocence of the 1950s in what would become the world’s most rebellious musical genres.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In that same year, he toured, and those shows were chronicled in Hail! Hail Rock ‘n’ roll, one of the best concert films of all time.

It featured Etta James, Bobby Keys, Clapton, and Keith Richards, among others. The concert tour was undertaken to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. For a present, Richards wanted to give his hero a band worthy of playing with the legend.

The film brought Berry’s work to a new generation of fans. But it wasn’t easy to make, since Richards and Berry are known as two of entertainment’s more volatile personalities.

“All I wanted to do was give Chuck a good band to play his songs, and he caused me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” Richards said. The two, who have had infamous run-ins with the law, did fight during the tour.

Both slapped each other in the face, and they bragged that they were the only ones to live and tell about hitting each other.

Chuck is gone. But he won’t be soon forgotten. His bad attitude and abrasive personality (that was often public) might have tainted his legacy a bit. But the shadow he cast on the musical world is one that is extremely deep.

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