No one person can lay claim to being the fountainhead of rock ‘n’ roll. Its roots are deep and – if one could be so minded – you could go back to the murder ballads of the Middle Ages or the spiritual music of Africa. Rock ‘n’ roll is, in truth, a boiling stew: the original melting pot of disparate influences from blues to folk to country and a thousand things between.
But when people think of “rock ‘n’ roll”, chances are they are thinking of Chuck Berry’s vision. He, almost singlehandedly, created the template and his influence runs through the work of a thousand acts he inspired – from the Beatles to Zeppelin, to Hendrix and the White Stripes.
The I-IV-V structure was as unknowably old as the blues, but it was Berry who supercharged it with the riff to end all riffs: the opening blast of Johnny B. Goode is as iconic a 3 seconds as any in popular music, and continues to be referenced, stolen and played on a full 60 years after Chuck let it rip.
He was the first guitar slinger. A decade before Hendrix electrified London, Berry was throwing his guitar around on stage, dressed in orange and red, the first to make explicit the connection that age-old psychic connection between a man, his guitar, and his cock. See the header image for proof.
He was the first literate rock ‘n’ roll act. Dylan is often credited with giving rock a conscious, but Chuck was there first. In 1956 – while Elvis was twisting his hips and Dylan was plucking chords on his first guitar, Berry was dropping tracks like Brown Eyed Handsome Man. Check these lyrics for quietly subversive commentary on racial identity.
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man
Way back in history three thousand years
In fact every since the world began
There’s been a whole lot of good women sheddin’ tears
For a brown eyed handsome man
It’s a lot of trouble was brown eyed handsome man
The whole language of rock ‘n’ roll. Youth. Girls. Cars. Sex. Smoking and drinking. Chuck Berry synthesised it all and is the giant on whose shoulders we all stand.