When Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” comes on, it sounds like something that could’ve been recorded yesterday, 15 years ago, or over 50. It’s primal: Berry’s guitar careens and moans, the drums snap and slap, a piano tinkles away somewhere out back. And there’s his voice, alternately pleading and snarling. Asking her to come back and recounting him speeding after her in the rain.
Chuck Berry died on Saturday at 90.
He started his music career in his 20s, playing on the road with bands, most particularly with blues piano player Johnnie Johnson; the two formed a lasting partnership and he played on several of Berry’s most famous records. In the mid 50s, on a tip from Muddy Waters, Berry signed with Chess Records, and in 1955 he released “Maybellene.” It was a hit. Several others followed: “Rock and Roll Music,” “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and more.
Indeed, his singles collection The Great Twenty-Eight reads like a list of songs played by seemingly every 60s rock act. Everyone played some of these songs and almost as many ripped them off: The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, among others, covered his songs and adapted his approach for their own music. It’s not for nothing that John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” At least he name-checked him; Brian Wilson was dragged to court before he would.
As the 50s turned to the 60s, Berry went to jail and almost at that moment, rock started to stagnate.
Elvis joined the Army, Little Richard found religion and Jerry Lee Lewis was basically too controversial to handle. But unlike his peers, when he started making music again, he kept pace with the times. Where Elvis went schmaltz and Lewis went country, Berry kept cranking out rock: both “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go” immediately became standards. Meanwhile, “Tulane,” is about pot dealers on the lam. In 1972, he had another hit single with “My Ding-A-Ling,” which was basically a cute little novelty song.
By then some of the fire was gone, though. He coasted through the 70s and after the decade was over, he wouldn’t release another studio record in his lifetime. Instead, he owned a restaurant, got in trouble with the law and played all around with a variety of pick-up bands. It was a living, but not much more than that. Call it an extended retirement.
Still, even nearly 40 years after he stopped making records, Berry’s music is as cool as ever.
His lean, taught rock sound echoes in bands like the Black Keys or Courtney Barnett, while his flamboyant approach to performing points ahead to Prince, David Lee Roth and any guitarist who does the duckwalk. But it’s more than that, too.
What makes Berry’s music resonate so strongly isn’t just because of when he made records. When set among his peers, his music leaps out of the speakers, sure, but it’s not a question of quality. It’s a question of craft, of distilling influences into a new sound, and performing in a way which made him stand out.
Take, for example, “Havana Moon,” a song he released in 1957. Against a gentle guitar accompaniment, he sings about a man waiting in the dark for a woman he loves; he gets drunk, falls asleep and she comes and leaves without him. It’s more than just a simple love song: the man’s a refugee fleeing to the states and blows his one chance of getting there.
Berry once called it rock’s first novella, and even if he was kind of overselling himself, he had a point: it was a story song, not a little ditty whipped up by the Brill Building or Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. And it pointed to how rock could carry the same kind of messages and stories that blues and country did.
And, indeed, Chuck Berry was a country fan at heart.
You can hear it most overtly on the loping, sliding guitar of “Deep Feeling,” or the dark, moody lyrics of “Down Bound Train.” But if you listen, you can hear it throughout his music, the stories he sings about and the way his guitar rings and slams.
He gave it a name, too, in his first single: “and that’s when I heard that highway music,” he sings at the climax of “Maybellene,” when his woman’s riding in another car and he’s going 110 in the rain. And to think: on his first single, the first song he recorded for Chess Records, he said it all, everything people expect from the genre he was creating: fast cars, broken relationships, speed and lust. And that guitar, cranking and moaning away.