The hours since the death of rock and roll legend Chuck Berry have been filled with a predictable outpouring of praise for his genius. It’s all well-deserved, but perhaps too little, too late.
Berry’s signature guitar riff from Johnny B. Goode was not only copped by a generation of players (some of whom, including the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen, actually shared songwriting credits with him,) it was the sound chosen to represent 20th Century American music on the ‘golden record’ attached to the Voyager space probe.
Berry’s songwriting may lack the linguistic flourishes of Bob Dylan, but narratives like “You Never Can Tell” feature the exquisite detail and narrative clarity of a Raymond Carver short story. The reason why these songs still sound great today–but not particularly innovative–is that a generation of songwriters, from The Beatles and Beach Boys to Springsteen and Prince, adopted Berry’s basic model in their best songs.
And his on-stage showmanship, as you can see in this clip, is every bit as compelling as anything you’d see from Elvis or The Beatles.
While it’s lovely that after his death Berry is now getting his due, what about last week, last month, and last year? And for most of the last 50 years?
There were sporadic tributes–like Tarantino choosing “You Never Can Tell” for Pulp Fiction–but for the most part reality went something like this. The guys who copped Berry’s licks played them in football stadiums, while Berry himself played at his own club or with with pickup bands at state fairs. When the Rolling Stones play New York they fill Giants Stadium. Berry? His last New York gig was at B.B. King’s Blues club, which seats 500 people.
For all the praise of the subtle artistry of Berry’s songwriting, did anyone suggest that he, rather than Dylan, deserved the Nobel Prize? Did he get a stirring final act the way that the great (but not quite as great) Johnny Cash did? (Or even Roy Orbison’s more modest late-career coda?) While there’s an album of new material reportedly in the can waiting for release, the last record to hit the shelves in Berry’s lifetime came in 1979.
Contrast this with next-gen rockers like Dylan, Springsteen, Robert Plant, and even Loudon Wainwright III, who gained critical praise–and Emmy recognition–for albums of covers and traditional songs. You can sum up this disconnect in one bit of trivia: Berry’s only Number one single in the U.S was the cheeky novelty tune, “My Ding-a-Ling”
This has been going on for years. The classic film, Back to the Future, features a funny set piece that makes Berry the butt of the joke. When Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly needs to step in and front the band at the dance where his parents would meet and fall in love, he picks up a cherry red Gibson ES-335 and launches into a version of Johnny B. Goode. Nice homage.
Then there’s a quick aside. The band leader Marvin Berry picks up the phone and calls his cousin Chuck.
“You know that new sound you’ve been looking for?” he says as he holds up the phone to a rhythm riffing, duck walking Michael J. Fox. “Listen to this.”