Chuck Berry built rock and roll in his image, filling it with his interests and his undeniable guitar inventiveness.
Sure, Elvis Presley was the genre’s first star, but even he acknowledged, “I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does.”
Because Berry, who was found dead in his Missouri home Saturday afternoon at the age of 90, wrote all his own songs, he was more directly involved in shaping rock in its early days than Presley. And his definition grew out of a desire to keep teenagers wanting more, by continually giving them something new musically and visually in his performances and by championing them in his lyrics. “The Father of Rock ’n’ Roll” channeled their brashness in “Roll Over Beethoven” and showed he understood what their lives were like in “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
“Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived,” Bruce Springsteen tweeted after hearing of Berry’s death.
The Boss’ summary is one that almost anyone who has ever had the pleasure of seeing Berry duckwalk across a stage or flashily deliver one of his classic guitar riffs would share. Even in recent years, with Berry well past retirement age, the fire in his performance still burned bright, clearly showing why his combination of blues, country, R&B and a positive, rebellious attitude was so irresistible both to fans and fellow musicians.
His music was covered by generations of musicians — starting with Presley and continuing through The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.
“He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers,” Mick Jagger tweeted in tribute. “His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing & your music is engraved inside us forever.”
John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”
Long Beach’s Joan Jett would agree. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer patterned her guitar playing on Berry’s style and hailed his influence. “I’m glad I had a chance to know, love, and work with Chuck Berry during my life and career,” she said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly. “Original Pure Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Even Berry’s mishaps seemed influential. Three days after he performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter in 1979, he was sentenced to federal jail time for tax evasion. In 1990, he was arrested for marijuana possession — a tradition rappers have carried on in recent years.
Though Berry had several health issues in recent years, he seemed thrilled last year when he announced that he had completed “Chuck,” an album of new material that he planned to release this year.
“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Berry said, referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”