Chuck Berry was a great guitar player. I’m sure you heard that once or twice.
Thing is, Chuck was a better songwriter. Both his guitar and his words became staples of rock ‘n roll. The reason John Lennon said you could call rock ‘n roll “Chuck Berry” is because so much of what the world loved about it came from him. From the time signature to the solos, Chuck stumbled upon a marriage of styles that would combine what people liked about R&B and country while extracting what they didn’t. His music, for its time, was as perfect as anything anyone could ask for.
There are a zillion songs I could have pulled for this. I went with “Johnny B. Goode” because it’s the best known, but it’s also a clear reflection of all the things Chuck figured out before the rest of the world.
The story was that Chuck and his band started playing country music for white audiences because they couldn’t get enough of it. Blues was his thing, but the idea of those black guys singing that hillbilly music just set them off. Plus, yanno, the music was pretty damn incredible.
What’s funny to me about Chuck Berry singing country music is how damn proper he was. Every word was clearly enunciated. The grammar, considering he was singing, was pretty correct. You could hear every single word. Every syllable was perfectly placed.
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And with those perfect, pristine pronunciations came perfect songs. They told stories. Their settings were clear. The characters were fleshed out. They were catchy. And man, they moved. And when he went from the verse to the bridge and back, he never had to throttle down.
It was all the energy of music from the boondocks with the requisite polish for mainstream success. In an era of segregation, he sound could cross over and cross right back without changing.
That’s not the sort of thing one can do just by being a bad ass guitarist. That’s the power of songwriting, the skill that takes hits and makes them classics. It is Berry’s greatest contribution to the game, and the one that will endure long after rock is actually dead. Everyone with a band, ultimately, is trying to make a point, and I’m not sure anyone ever did so better than Chuck Berry.
Tags: Black Music Month, Bomani Jones, Chuck Berry, Johnny B. Goode