Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90. He was the man whose songs gave rock ‘n roll a sound and a shape and a theme and a direction, way back in the ’50s, and thereby helped to create a genre of popular music that has endured for more than 60 years. His song Maybellene, his first big hit, was released in 1955, and its combination of irresistible guitar licks, a chugging back beat, and a story about teenage angst, girls, cars, and speed created a lasting framework for what was then a shocking and utterly new sound. (Interestingly, just last year Chuck Berry was working on an album of new material to be released some time this year. Let’s hope we get to hear it.)
The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world. The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing. And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music. Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?
I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try. I can say this without fear of contradiction, however: when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry. That remains true today, 40 years later. That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.