Listening to Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is the greatest lyricist in the history of rock and roll. His unprecedented synthesis—blues (especially the jump-band variety), country, and swing funneled through his wry, nonlinear mind—extended ideas about what the new teen form could encompass. Berry took over rock and roll moments after its birth, and anyone who has subsequently picked up a guitar with the desire to write a rock’n’roll song that described real life knows that Berry provided most of the tools. He also coined the word “motorvatin’,” which counts for a lot.
His Chess recordings have a bit of fluff toward the end (Owen and I have already weighed in on “My Ding-a-Ling”), but not much. Those records showcase Berry in his prime, all train-track guitar lines and images of “coffee-colored Cadillacs.” Berry’s prime musical foil is his St. Louis compatriot Johnnie Johnson, a pianist with a blues background whose rhythmic style was so flexible and skeptical that it influenced Chuck’s fret work, not to mention his lyrical world-view. Piano and guitar hop over each other throughout this set, like grinning duelists. Detractors often claim that Berry’s songs “all sound the same,” but they’re referring only to the jump-start guitar introductions that were Berry’s duck-walking trademark—though even those were immediately distinguishable to seasoned fans. There’s a tremendous variety of styles on his Chess tracks: Listen to “Havana Moon,” “School Day,” “Dear Dad,” and “Have Mercy Judge” and hear a performer able to thrive in blues, rhythm and blues, straight rock’n’roll, and his own fusion of them all. The only thing that’s the same is the high quality.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry alternated between adult and teen topics as surely as he moved from adult to teen beats. Sometimes he could call up lines like the hilarious hyperboles in “No Money Down” (by the end of the song, he has an entire furniture store installed inside his new car) that rang true and immediate to both. Berry’s conversational singing is a major part of his appeal—everyone can understand what he is singing, although some couplets like “it’s way too early for the Congo/So keep a’rockin’ the piano” (from “Rock-and-Roll Music”) have defied attempts at explication for half a century.
Berry presented himself as a guy next door with a penchant for pungent and detailed singing, writing, and guitar-playing. He always considered himself an artist (he allowed none of the usual “It’s junk because it’s for kids” crap), and the most amazing thing about his wildly imaginative work is that there’s no condescension. Although the kids in the audience couldn’t comprehend the singer’s child-custody anguish in “Memphis,” Berry wrote the tune in such an open-ended way that everyone could be included. Everyone could be included: that’s Chuck’s genius in a nutshell.