Chuck Berry, Fiery and Flinty Rock ’n’ Roll Innovator
Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll song, but it was the best and brashest of the genre’s early advertisements. Released in 1956, it opens with a nimble, bendy guitar riff — a prelude to the one that would be perfected a year later, on “Johnny B. Goode” — that serves as an intrusion and an enticement. Then Mr. Berry describes the fever, “the rockin’ pneumonia,” that was soon to grip the country. “My heart beatin’ rhythm/And my soul keep-a singin’ the blues,” he sang. “Roll over Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Plenty of artists would go on to cover “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles streamlined and sweetened it; Electric Light Orchestra distended it into an overlong, pompous shuffle with a snatch of the Fifth Symphony; Paul Shaffer and his band made a sleek version as the theme to the 1992 film “Beethoven,” about a St. Bernard with the composer’s name. But those covers lacked the panache, the transgressive potential, the unexpected twists and turns of the Chuck Berry originals. Continue reading the main story Mr. Berry, who died on Saturday at his home near St. Louis, was the first true rock ’n’ roll superstar. When in his late 20s he emerged from St. Louis onto the national scene, the genre wasn’t yet codified. In its infancy, rock was hybrid music, and Mr. Berry was its most vivid and imaginative alchemist. From the mid-1950s through the end of that decade, he concocted a yowling blend of hopped-up blues, country and then-emergent rhythm & blues that ended up as the template for what became widely accepted as rock ’n’ roll (though the term predated his rise). He gave it virtuoso playing via guitar work that drew on country and the blues. He made it a songwriting genre with wry, detailed lyrics that helped shape the idea of American freedom via stories of teenage abandon or open-road adventure. He embodied the music by giving it physical language, from his signature duck walk to his coiffure, which was equal parts structure and flair. (He also was a beautician, having studied hairdressing and cosmetology when he was still playing in small bands in St. Louis in the early 1950s.) And in performance, he sold the music hard, with eyes bulging, hips swaying and a sly smile that indicated he knew just how much he was pushing the envelope. That archetype of rock ’n’ roll swagger would define the next couple of decades of global pop music. Without his twitchy, gloriously accessible songs, there would have been no Rolling Stones, no Beatles, no Bob Dylan — at least not as we know them now. While Elvis Presley, flaunting his sexuality, was making himself into the original teen-idol pop star, Mr. Berry was being policed, both figuratively and literally. On songs like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he sang, in judiciously coded language, about pushing back against segregation. In his autobiography, he wrote that he changed a phrase in “Johnny B. Goode” from “little colored boy” to “little country boy” because he “thought it would seem biased to white fans.” Instead, he coded a tale of racial achievement in terms he felt would be more broadly palatable.


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