More than one rock writer has posited the notion that Brian Wilson invented California. Yes, I know, the Golden State existed for centuries before the Beach Boys' leader and creative point man was born. But it's not unreasonable to argue that the image and idea of California that was communicated in the Beach Boys' great hits of the '60s – a miraculous land of sun dappled beaches, perfect waves, endless summers, and two girls for every boy – has become a cherished collective myth, embraced by the sizable majority of people as they look to the West with a sense of aspiration and hope.
But if Brian Wilson invented California, I must insist that Chuck Berry did something even more remarkable: he invented America. And he did it without having to create a soft-focus fantasy, but by discovering a streamlined poetry in the details of this country that many people overlooked. Chuck Berry codified a vision of the United States that was a riot of gaudy glory – spacious Cadillacs, endless highways, neon signs, roadhouses, jukeboxes, diners, jet planes, T-bone steaks, beautiful women, and men determined to catch their eye. Sure, not everything in Chuck's America was fun – work, school, and other responsibilities punctuated his tales, and things like seat belts, bus rides, and pay phones seemed to exist only to get under your skin. And Berry wasn't the first songwriter to celebrate this vision of America, as a spin of "House of Blue Lights," "Route 66," or "Saturday Night Fish Fry" will reveal. But Berry's lyrics conjured a fully formed nation of hipness that bore a certain resemblance to the sights and sounds you could find in the right part of town. And that's a portrait that still rings true in the hearts and minds of the rock 'n' roll nation. For tens of millions both here and abroad, the glories depicted in "Back in the USA" speak of a joy and sense of freedom you just don't get from "America the Beautiful."
And inventing America wasn't even the greatest of Chuck Berry's accomplishments. Berry's songwriting was the work of rock's first true poet laureate; he had a tremendous eye for the details that make a story come to life, and his delight in the possibilities of sound and rhythm gave his lyrics a snap few of his many followers could duplicate. There's a real drama and suspense in the car chase romance of "Maybellene," his litany of bad luck and injustices big and small in "Too Much Monkey Business" is powerfully evocative, and plenty of authors would give a great deal to capture the gleeful adventure of young love as well as Berry did in "You Never Can Tell."
Berry's way with a melody was just as powerful as his gift of language. Chuck often insisted that there was nothing new under the musical sun, and that all he did was combine influences from other tunesmiths. But any chef knows that the proportions and the cooking method is just as important as the ingredients, and Berry's savvy fusion of R&B, jump blues, jazz, and a dash of country flash gave his music a bounce that filled his tunes with buoyancy and a sense of joy. While Berry sometimes played the blues, he clearly had a greater passion for his rock 'n' roll, and for good reason – it was truly his baby, not an interpretation of someone else's traditions, and the fact artists are still finding new wrinkles in the style he created, where the roll was as important as the rock, speaks to the strength of Chuck's creation.
And Berry was rock 'n' roll's first guitar hero. He played a massive role in defining the six-string as the definitive rock 'n' roll instrument, both as a musical voice and a symbol of cool. Berry typically insisted that his instrumental style was simply an amalgam of his influences – among them the pioneering jazz player Charlie Christian, the blues giant T-Bone Walker, and Carl Hogan, who played with Louis Jordan's Tympani Five. Listening to Berry's work makes it clear he was being coy; the combination of his tough, fuzzy vamping and blazing single-note soloing on his debut single "Maybellene" was a clarion call that announced a new and more euphoric language for the guitar. Berry's style gave him a career, as well as a style that would fuel other artists – it's hard to imagine where either Keith Richards or Steve Jones would be without Chuck's example. And watching Berry play was nearly as exciting as hearing him; in his hands, his Gibson was a worthy comic foil, as he rocked it back and forth, pointed it like a rifle, pretended it was his latest romantic ideal, or thrust it out from his waist in a gesture that would make Freud chuckle.
There was a tremendous reserve of joy and wit in Chuck Berry's music. The man himself was a more complicated figure. Berry was born in St, Louis, Missouri on October 18, 1926. His parents were the grandchildren of slaves, and though his mother had attended college and his father ran a construction business while serving as a deacon at a Baptist church, they were all living in the American South at a time when segregation was the order of the day, casual racism was a fact of life, and lynching was a troubling reality. Young Chuck Berry was bright, ambitious, and talented, but he also had an independent mind and an impulsive streak. Berry dropped out of school when he was 17, and in 1944, he set out on a road trip with to California with some friends that turned into a short spree of holdups when one of his buddies found a gun in a vacant lot. Chuck's part in the robberies earned him three years in Missouri's Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men. When he was released, Berry seemed willing to take any work he could get – construction, photography, hairdressing. But while performing in school talent shows, he developed a taste for making music and took up the guitar. In 1951, an old friend, Tommy Stevens, invited Berry to join his band. Their group soon attracted a loyal following, and in 1952, Berry joined the Sir John Trio, a St. Louis combo featuring pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy; Berry replaced sax player Alvin Bennett, who left the group after suffering a stroke.
Working with Johnson, Berry blocked out the style that would become his signature, though many have suggested he borrowed more from Johnson than he was willing to admit. In 1955, Berry met Muddy Waters, the iconic blues artist, and Waters suggested he should get in touch with Chess Records, the Chicago label that played host to some of the biggest names in blues. After hearing a homemade tape Berry sent to Chess, the label invited him to Chicago to cut a record. A few weeks later, "Maybellene" was a massive hit, and Chuck was on his way.
However, while the single was a smash on the Rhythm & Blues charts, where it went straight to No. 1, it also managed to cross over to the pop charts, peaking at No. 5. Before the record broke on pop radio, Alan Freed, then the most popular and powerful rock 'n' roll DJ in America, somehow became credited as a co-songwriter on "Maybellene," giving him a cut of the royalties. It didn't take long for Berry to learn just how corrupt the music business would be, and while he was willing to play along as long as he was well paid, it should come as no surprise that Berry developed a profound distrust of many folks in the business, especially the white men who held nearly all the power.
And as rock 'n' roll evolved in the '50s and '60s from what was seen as an African-American musical form to one whose practitioners and consumers were largely white, Berry watched as the blue-eyed kids who loved his early singles began forming bands and playing music much like his own … often with greater commercial success. (Berry's music was in many ways informed by race – he invented that roadside America in part to compensate for the fact he wasn't welcome in many parts of the real United States – but for a 15-year-old not allowed into the club where his favorite band is playing, that sense of separation and otherness can be read in a number of ways.)
In 1961, Berry suffered a massive career setback when, during a visit to Mexico, he met a young woman he brought back to St. Louis to work as a waitress in his nightspot, Club Bandstand. The woman in question was only 14 years old, but already had an arrest record for prostitution. When she was busted again for turning tricks just weeks after arriving in St. Louis, Berry fired her. In response, Berry was soon slapped with charges that he had violated the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Most believe Berry's race and unwillingness to bow to authority had more to do with his sentence than anything else, but he still ended up serving 20 months behind bars.
Once he was free again in 1963, Berry had seen enough of what society, the law, and the music business thought of a willful and confident black man, and his ways of working changed. Berry had long used the dollar as a way of measuring his success, and now cash was his prime motivating factor. Rather than cart around a band and pay them a salary, Berry insisted promoters provide him a backing group for his live appearances, and he very rarely rehearsed with them before show time – he would arrive a few minutes before he took the stage, get his payment in cash, play a set of his hits, and drive away as soon as he walked off stage. In 1966, Berry left Chess Records and signed with Mercury, primarily attracted by a large advance; when his Mercury releases failed to sell, he was back at Chess by 1970, where he scored a minor hit with "Tulane." Berry's career was at a low ebb when he cut a live album in London in 1972, and one track from the LP, a double-entendre novelty number called "My Ding-a-Ling," became a surprise smash hit, and Berry's first No. 1 pop hit in America.
"My Ding-a-Ling" was without question Berry's weakest hit (and one of the only ones he didn't write), but it re-charged his career as a live act and reminded fans that rock 'n' roll's first and greatest architect was still on the road. Berry occasionally recorded new material, but after the 1979 album Rock It, he stuck to playing live shows, making his living barnstorming across the nation and around the globe, playing wherever someone would pony up the cash and provide a local band to provide the backbeat.
In 1979, Berry also ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, who took him to court over an unpaid tax bill of $200,000. Berry was sentenced to four months in jail and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service. (It's worth noting that when Willie Nelson, another musical icon, was handed a tax bill of $16 million in 1990, he never served a day behind bars.) During his time in jail, Berry worked on his autobiography, which was finally published in 1987. The same year, Berry was the star of a documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, that examined his life and career while presenting highlights from a 60th birthday concert featuring a number of high profile guests and a band directed by Keith Richards. Berry had always seemed reluctant to share his private life with the world, and Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was a movie in which the protagonist seems reluctant to open up for the camera. But the film was deeply revealing as Chuck's interactions with his collaborators – especially Richards, whose guitar style was largely borrowed from Chuck – made it abundantly clear that he was ceding his power and the control of his music to no one.
While many saw Berry's behavior in the film as foolish arrogance, I prefer to point to something Marshall Crenshaw wrote about Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll in his book Hollywood Rock, referring to the source of an epic-scale verbal battle between Berry and Richards: "Any self-respecting electric guitarist gets angry as hell if someone else messes with his or her amplifier settings without permission – and Chuck Berry has self-respect." By the time he was 60, Berry had seen more than enough of how the word had been changed by his music to know just how important and influential he was, and he didn't need Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, or Julian Lennon to tell him that. Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was designed to honor Chuck Berry, but by the end of the film, the most obvious message was Chuck didn't need anyone else's validation, and considering he's the most important and influential single figure in rock 'n' roll, that's as it should be.
In his latter years, Berry seemed to ease back from his bitterness and developed a new appreciation for live performance. In 1996, he played a show at a St. Louis nightclub, Blueberry Hill, and ended up making it a monthly engagement, playing 209 shows at the venue before bowing out in October 2014. Working with a steady band solidified Berry's performing skills, and despite his advancing age, those who saw Berry's Blueberry Hill shows reported he was in lively and enthusiastic form, and the club became a destination for fans from around the world. And without making much noise about it, Berry began recording again, laying down tracks at St. Louis recording studios and at home on a ProTools setup. On his 90th birthday last October, Berry announced he would be releasing a new album in 2017, simply titled Chuck. Despite Berry's death on Saturday, March 18, his family has announced the album will still be coming out in June, and one track from the album, "Big Boys," has already surfaced. With a melody and a guitar line that recalls his hits of the '50s, the tune hardly sounds like the work of a man in his eighties or nineties, and it's smart, lively, and playful just like a Chuck Berry song should be. It's anyone's guess if the album will live up to the first single, but with "Big Boys," we have a reminder that Berry still wasn't done telling new tales about the America he created for us all. And it still sounds like the coolest place to be.