The King is dead: Chuck Berry passes at 90

By: Tony Frye

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John Lennon once said, “”If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry“. These are not the words of a die-hard fan but the words of someone with a deep understanding of rock and roll music and where it came from. While there are many men and women who deserve credit for being pioneers of the form, none are as deserving of the moniker of “King” as Chuck Berry.

Berry, who died at aged 90, invented the vocabulary, attitude, aggression, and spirit that rock music still possesses today. Blending the story telling lyrics of Louis Jordan with the guitar licks of Freddie King, straightening the blues shuffle pattern of his guitar heroes, and writing about fast cars, pretty girls, and reelin’ and rockin’, Berry became a genre all of his own.

Outliving many of the rock icons he most inspired, it will come as no surprise if he is little more than a passing eulogy on the evening news but the man who gave us Johnny B. Goode, Maybeline, No Particular Place to Go, and countless other classic songs deserves a tribute in every city.

So ingrained into the musical landscape was his playing style that, often, sheet music will simply say “Berryesque solo” or “In the style of Roll Over Beethoven” and, as a guitar player, you instinctively know what to play. Chuck Berry wasn’t the best guitar player or the most technical player but he was the greatest player. He attacked the strings in a way that nobody before him did and, borrowing licks from his pianist, harmonized his own playing in an instantly recognizable fashion.

There isn’t a guitar player alive today that can’t trace their lineage of influence back to Chuck Berry and for that he deserves the title of King. The man wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but his impact on American culture and music is still felt today. Don’t believe me? Take the distortion and modern drums out of any Ramones or Green Day song and you have, at its core, a Chuck Berry song. He’s everywhere and as much a part of rock and roll music as sex and drugs.

If, by some crazy chance, you are reading this and aren’t familiar with his music, do yourself a favor and listen to as much as you can. Listen to the raw energy, the clever lyrics, the driving aggression, and try to think of where rock music could possibly have gone had Chuck Berry not been around to bring all of that to the table.

It is hard to say that a 90 year old man with no new music in decades has left us too soon but it’s also hard to watch the icons that helped invent an entire genre of music pass away. When Johnny Johnson, Berry’s pianist, died in 2005, I had a gig with my blues band that evening. I arrived at the show and said, “Johnny Johnson died, let’s play Johnny B. Goode today.” We had never rehearsed the song as a band prior to the gig and decided on the key we’d play in while on stage in front of an audience. I counted it off slow and did it as a blues shuffle and we played it at every gig after.

We didn’t need to rehearse the song because Berry’s songs are in our bones. As students of rock and blues music, we knew every break, chord change, and solo and the words were always on our tongues. There are very few artists who become so ubiquitous that the mere suggestion of their music counts as rehearsal.

I have played in the orchestra pit for 100 theatrical productions and virtually every rock show I’ve played has, at some point, asked me to improvise a Chuck Berry solo. It was always a matter of pride for me that I knew how to do what I was asked but, from now on, it will be a service to the legacy of the greatest guitar player in rock and roll history.

Rest in peace, Mr. Berry.