Where to start with Chuck Berry, dead today at the age of 90? How about his first record, Maybellene? As he told a Soul Train audience 15 years later, "it was about a car and a girl," which means it was about rock & roll. He was a hard man to love as a person, but his best songs defined the word "infectious," inducing you to move and dropping perfect little lyrical couplets into your head. He was a keen observer, especially in the early days, and wrote songs about what teenagers did and what they wished they could do. Put all the classic songs together and it becomes clear that he created an American iconography as clearly defined as that of Norman Rockwell.
And then there is the guitar playing, a combination of jump blues and country twang that defined the instrument as THE sound of rock & roll. Each solo is a clinic, linking riffs together in various combinations, always driven by electric energy. Live, he played with casual mastery, tossing his guitar this way and that, indulging in a wild array of entertaining poses and creating another iconography, this one of movement, like the famous duck walk.
Sounds, words, sights - Berry was the full package. As John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." If you still house physical product in a collection, then your shelves are not complete without a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight, which features most of the classic songs from his early years.
While the really creative part of his career ended in around 1965, when he adapted the Liverpool sound for I Want To Be Your Driver, his last great single on Chess Records, he continued to be a live draw for nearly the rest of his life. There is the matter of My Ding-A-Ling, a puerile song that caught people's fancy at the dawn of the rock & roll revival in 1972, becoming Berry's only number one hit. It was an artistic injustice but commerce and art don't always get along, even when you're getting paid in cash. Despite the renewed interest, his tours were often slapdash affairs, with pick up bands, no rehearsals, and rote performances. His last album, 1979's Rock It, wasn't terrible - just indifferent, which may be worse.
We have Keith Richards to thank for convincing Berry to try a little harder, leading to the 1987 film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. While there are some unnecessary guests, it's filled with wonderful performances of some of Berry's greatest songs, putting a fine cap on the legend's indomitable legacy. While the arguments with Richards got a lot of attention, one of my favorite Berry moments comes at the end of the movie. While the credits roll, we see him alone in his nightclub, playing the loneliest sounds known to man on a pedal steel guitar. Was this a glimpse of his heart? As the great man himself once sang, you never can tell.
Postscript: In 2016, on his 90th birthday, Berry announced a new album called Chuck, to be released in 2017. According to his son, Charles Berry, Jr., "These songs cover the spectrum from hard driving rockers to soulful thought provoking time capsules of a life's work." Whatever it turns out to be, Chuck Berry will always have a place in the firmament of American music.
You may also enjoy: