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Chuck Berry’s music was out of this world

  • Written by Joe Boyle

 

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We live in a world of hyperbole, thanks in large part to reality TV and social media. Someone is said to be the king of this or the queen of that. When these titles are so easily thrown around they have little meaning.

The late Michael Jackson was a great singer and an outstanding performer. He was referred to as the “King of Pop.” I’m not sure what that actually means. The late Elizabeth Taylor, of all people, came up with that moniker. Sometimes well-intentioned titles are just meaningless.

Referring to Frank Sinatra as the “Chairman of the Board” has a nice ring to it. The Rolling Stones were once probably the “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band’” on some nights. Benny Goodman was known as the “King of Swing.”

I don’t recall specific titles given to Chuck Berry, who died at the age of 90 Saturday afternoon just outside St. Louis. I’ve seen a reference to him this week as the “Father of Rock ‘n Roll.” I don’t know if he was or not. But if not, then who was?

Elvis Presley was always known as the “King” due to his emergence in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Presley was the answer to some record executives’ dreams. When so-called “race music” began popping up on some radio stations in the early 1950s, managers and executives wondered if they could find a white man who sounded black and moved around the stage as opposed to just singing into a microphone. They felt such a performer could draw a large audience of white teens.

Presley was the answer to that dream. I don’t know if Elvis was the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” but he put the music on the map, especially after his TV performances on “Milton Berle” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the mid-1950s.

The way I look it is the King is just a part of Presley’s title. His early performances shocked more conservative tastes. Elvis was a southern boy who grew up on country, blues and gospel music. He was performing that way long before his TV performances.

But Berry was unique. I recall when I was a teen a couple of friends of mine were arguing over who was better, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, the flamboyant piano player and singer who was noted for his outrageous look long before David Bowie and Prince. Little Richard, whose real name is Richard Penniman, was never short on confidence. He would scream to anyone who would listen that he was the actual King of Rock.

But when that question was once posed to The Who’s Pete Townshend years later about Little Richard’s royalty, he looked at the reporter with contempt. In his mind, Little Richard was all hype. Chuck Berry was the real deal.

Berry may not be the king or greatest this or greatest that. But if you examine his long career, he is an integral part of American music of the 20th century. In several documentaries I’ve watched on Berry, he said that he was able to see some country singers at a local theater in St. Louis. He was heavily influenced by county music chord progressions that he brought to his own band at the age of 15. The guitar was his instrument of choice and his early influences was country and swing music.

Many of his hit records of the 1950s -- “Johnny B. Goode,” "Roll Over Beethoven,” “Back in the USA” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” – had country influences in those distinctive guitar riffs backed by a rolling drum beat. But it wasn’t until Chicago and Chess Records when he recorded a re-worked country song called “Maybelline” that Berry’s career took off.

While Presley obviously was the major attraction who popularized rock, Berry poured out the hits that he arranged and wrote that white teens could also identify with. Young white audiences could identify with his songs about fast cars and girls.

Berry will not be mentioned with reverence and love like some other performers when they died. Three jail sentences have something to do with that. His third offense was when he was accused of secretly filming women in the bathroom of his restaurant.

In that regard, Berry could be cantankerous and moody. But all those complexities resulted in some memorable music.

NASA compiled 27 songs on a “Golden Record” that includes photographs and other artifacts and attached it to the Voyage 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 to explore the outer depths of the solar system. Only one rock song appears on that list. The song is not by Little Richard, or Elvis, The Beatles, the Stones or The Who.

That song that’s now floating in interstellar space is “Johnny B. Goode.” If there is any intelligent life out there, maybe they will learn those guitar licks and do the duck walk.

Joe Boyle is the editor of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Chuck Berry’s music was out of this world

We live in a world of hyperbole, thanks in large part to reality TV and social media. Someone is said to be the king of this or the queen of that. When these titles are so easily thrown around they have little meaning.

The late Michael Jackson was a great singer and an outstanding performer. He was referred to as the “King of Pop.” I’m not sure what that actually means. The late Elizabeth Taylor, of all people, came up with that moniker. Sometimes well-intentioned titles are just meaningless.

Referring to Frank Sinatra as the “Chairman of the Board” has a nice ring to it. The Rolling Stones were once probably the “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band’” on some nights. Benny Goodman was known as the “King of Swing.”

I don’t recall specific titles given to Chuck Berry, who died at the age of 90 Saturday afternoon just outside St. Louis. I’ve seen a reference to him this week as the “Father of Rock ‘n Roll.” I don’t know if he was or not. But if not, then who was?

Elvis Presley was always known as the “King” due to his emergence in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Presley was the answer to some record executives’ dreams. When so-called “race music” began popping up on some radio stations in the early 1950s, managers and executives wondered if they could find a white man who sounded black and moved around the stage as opposed to just singing into a microphone. They felt such a performer could draw a large audience of white teens.

Presley was the answer to that dream. I don’t know if Elvis was the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” but he put the music on the map, especially after his TV performances on “Milton Berle” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the mid-1950s.

The way I look it is the King is just a part of Presley’s title. His early performances shocked more conservative tastes. Elvis was a southern boy who grew up on country, blues and gospel music. He was performing that way long before his TV performances.

But Berry was unique. I recall when I was a teen a couple of friends of mine were arguing over who was better, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, the flamboyant piano player and singer who was noted for his outrageous look long before David Bowie and Prince. Little Richard, whose real name is Richard Penniman, was never short on confidence. He would scream to anyone who would listen that he was the actual King of Rock.

But when that question was once posed to The Who’s Pete Townshend years later about Little Richard’s royalty, he looked at the reporter with contempt. In his mind, Little Richard was all hype. Chuck Berry was the real deal.

Berry may not be the king or greatest this or greatest that. But if you examine his long career, he is an integral part of American music of the 20th century. In several documentaries I’ve watched on Berry, he said that he was able to see some country singers at a local theater in St. Louis. He was heavily influenced by county music chord progressions that he brought to his own band at the age of 15. The guitar was his instrument of choice and his early influences was country and swing music.

Many of his hit records of the 1950s -- “Johnny B. Goode,” Roll Over Beethoven,” “Back in the USA” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” – had country influences in those distinctive guitar riffs backed by a rolling drum beat. But it wasn’t until Chicago and Chess Records when he recorded a re-worked country song called “Maybelline” that Berry’s career took off.

While Presley obviously was the major attraction who popularized rock, Berry poured out the hits that he arranged and wrote that white teens could also identify with. Young white audiences could identify with his songs about fast cars and girls.

Berry will not be mentioned with reverence and love like some other performers when they died. Three jail sentences have something to do with that. His third offense was when he was accused of secretly filming women in the bathroom of his restaurant.

In that regard, Berry could be cantankerous and moody. But all those complexities resulted in some memorable music.

NASA compiled 27 songs on a “Golden Record” that includes photographs and other artifacts and attached it to the Voyage 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 to explore the outer depths of the solar system. Only one rock song appears on that list. The song is not by Little Richard, or Elvis, The Beatles, the Stones or The Who.

That song that’s now floating in interstellar space is “Johnny B. Goode.” If there is any intelligent life out there, maybe they will learn those guitar licks and do the duck walk.

Joe Boyle is the editor of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .