Gone at 90, Chuck Berry walked racial tightrope in founding rock, left everlasting lyrics, actions


Behind so many great rock bands and rock songs looms the music of Chuck Berry.

Like the time a teenage Keith Richards ran into a childhood friend, Mick Jagger, at a train station in England and discovered they were musical soul mates.

“You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles,” Richards wrote to a relative in April 1962. “I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school … came up to me. He’s got every Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have, too.”

Berry died Saturday at age 90, leaving behind not only a core of rock classics such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” but countless descendants in songs clearly indebted to him in sound and in spirit.

You could assemble a heavenly mix tape just of the hits built around his guitar work. You can hear it overtly in the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which closes with a near-verbatim homage to “Johnny B. Goode,” in Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun,” or in brief passages to songs that might not otherwise remind anyone of Berry, like the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or the Who’s “Who are You.”

“It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all,” tweeted Rod Stewart, whose Berry-influenced songs included “Hot Legs” and “Stay With Me,” a hit when he was with the Faces. “The 1st album I bought was Chuck’s ‘Live at the Tivoli’ and I was never the same.”

Berry also patented an animated, stream of consciousness storytelling style that artists have been using ever since. Listen to Bob Dylan unfurl his story of paranoia in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or his old man’s boast in “Thunder On the Mountain,” or the Rolling Stones’ mockery in “Respectable,” songs inconceivable without Berry’s “Maybellene” and “Too Much Monkey Business” among others. Berry’s rocking groove and comic spirit inspire Creedence Clearwater Revival’s sci-fi “It Came Out of the Sky,” while Seger’s “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” consciously brings Berry’s teen world into adult life.


So now sweet 16’s turned 31

You get to feelin’ weary when the workday’s done

Well all you got to do is get up and into your kicks

If you’re in a fix

Come back baby, rock and roll never forgets


Critic Peter Guralnick notes that Berry’s influence is both literal, in the way Richards might consciously imitate one of his riffs, and more general in his poetry and novelistic detail. The Cadillac in Berry’s “Nadine” is not just a Cadillac, but a “coffee colored” Cadillac. He says one of Dylan’s great accomplishments was absorbing Berry’s gifts into his own style.

“Dylan called Berry the ‘Shakespeare of rock n’ roll’ and with good reason,” Guralnick said Sunday. “Had the Nobel committee been open to popular musicians before Dylan’s era, they might have given the prize to Berry.”

Berry didn’t just create the music for so many rock n’ roll lives but helped invent the characters — the bored student, the groupie, the would-be guitar hero — and placed them in an American landscape of restlessness, aspiration and motion. The simple pleasure, and underlying boredom, of The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” were the suburban Californians’ take on Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is rock romance and adventure in the grandest Berry style.


In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream

At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines

Sprung from cages on Highway 9

Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected

And steppin’ out over the line


Up ahead, and moving along, was Berry and the Garden State adventures of “You Can’t Catch Me”:


New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours

I was rollin’ slowly ’cause of drizzlin’ showers

Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me

Then come wavin’ by me in a little’ old souped-up jitney

I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll

With “Johnny B. Goode,” a 1958 song that so defined rock ‘n’ roll that the U.S. space program chose it to introduce the music to potential extraterrestrials, Berry created a now classic character — the scrappy guitarist who triumphs through pure skill.

“People passing by, they would stop and say / Oh my, that little country boy could play,” Berry sang.

But Berry had tinkered with the lyrics. He later explained that he had originally written, “that little colored boy could play” — but changed it so the song could appear on the radio.

Berry, who died Saturday at age 90, helped create both rock ‘n’ roll and modern youth culture, becoming one of the first African-American stars to win a wide white audience.

Yet Berry was also forced to navigate a delicate line in a country that was still largely under the institutionalized discrimination of Jim Crow laws.

His career suffered a major blow when he was imprisoned for allegedly sleeping with an underage waitress — a conviction seen by many as a warning from the white establishment against African-American artists who rise too far.

As for the music, Berry achieved his success in part by his skill in understanding the racial divide. Born to a middle-class family in St. Louis, Berry played blues guitar but knew that white audiences wanted country.

He combined the two — joking he was a “black hillbilly” — as well as other genres, creating the sensation that became rock ‘n’ roll, even if he hesitated to call himself its father.

As the baby boom generation came of age, Berry won cheering crowds with his consummate showmanship, including his “duck walk” across stage, and lyrics that celebrated youthful freedom. His first song “Maybellene” spoke of cruising in the open air in his Cadillac.

Berry managed to capture “the rebelliousness, the playfulness, the irrepressibility” of a generation, said Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.”

“For a black man to do that in the 1950s was pretty groundbreaking. He wrote what became the soundtrack for American youth, both white and black,” he said.

Berry rarely spoke to media, fearing he would be sensationalized, and was strikingly diplomatic when asked about racial politics — and how his white contemporary Elvis Presley became so much wealthier.

In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Berry acknowledged that television networks were white-owned and gave more exposure to Elvis but said he did not see “The King” as his rival.

“It’s not unfair that seven people are eating turkey and I chose to have chili or whatever. That’s what it was. More people chose his music than chose mine,” he said.

In 1959 — the same year Berry was briefly arrested after a white girl embraced him in Mississippi — the rocker hailed the Eisenhower-era American dream with “Back in the USA,” said to be written after he visited Australia and saw the conditions of aboriginal people.

“I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA,” he sang, speaking of a land “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”

He touched more directly on race in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which he wrote after visiting California and being struck by being around so many fellow African-Americans and Latinos.

“Ever since the world began / There’s been a whole lotta good women shedding tears over a brown eyed handsome man.”

In a cruel irony, Berry was in prison just as white rockers led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took over the United States with the British invasion.

Other waves of African-American music later transformed the landscape from Motown in the 1960s to hip-hop, which in contrast to rock ‘n’ roll has its origins in deep community roots rather than fusion.

Rocker Tom Petty, in a speech last month as he accepted a lifetime Grammy award, saw the imprisonment of Berry as part of long conspiracy against rock and its racially mixed origins.

“The music became popular and it empowered the youth of America. The government got very nervous — especially the Republicans,” Petty said.

“They put Elvis in the Army and they put Chuck Berry in jail. Things calmed down for a couple of years. But it was too late — the music had reached England. And they remembered it.”