Chuck Berry, a giant of popular music, has died aged 90. He was the greatest of rock’n’rollers: the greatest lyricist and guitarist of the Fifties, and the greatest spokesman of the values that defined his era. He was one of the most influential musicians in all of rock. And his collection of hit singles (best compiled in The Great Twenty-Eight) still sound impressive and vital — they’ve lost none of their energy 60 years on.
Berry had a chequered background prior to his music career, combining both criminality and hairdressing. He spent time at a reform school in his youth, with convictions for car theft and armed robbery. He went on to get a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology, later finding work as a beautician. He also worked as a car factory worker and a janitor to support his wife and child.
His breakthrough single, ‘Maybellene’, was released in 1955. When Berry signed with Chess Records, he had expected his slow blues track ‘Wee Wee Hours’ to be his debut single. But label boss Leonard Chess much preferred another song called ‘Ida May’, which was adapted from a Western swing fiddle tune called ‘Ida Red’. Chess was savvy enough to see the potential of a ‘hillbilly song sung by a black man’ at a time when black musicians weren’t crossing over. After deciding the original title was ‘too rural’, Berry renamed it after the brand name of a mascara box he found on the studio floor (spelt with an ‘e’ to prevent legal action). Chess’s commercial instinct was proved correct – ‘Maybellene’ became a million-selling single, and one of the pioneering songs of the rock’n’roll genre.
Despite crafting many of his biggest hits while in his thirties, Berry’s lyrics were aimed squarely at teenagers. They helped define an era, forging rock’n’roll mythology in the process: ‘the big beat, cars and young love’, as Chess described it. Baby Boomer teens were more affluent than their parents had been, and Berry celebrated the newfound consumerist culture. He came from a blues tradition, but his music was optimistic, full of swagger and humour.
His guitar style remains distinctive and immediately recognisable, all these decades later: that clean tone, the sliding notes, the mix of country twang and fast blues runs, and those unforgettable riffs. If you listen to other rock’n’roll songs from Berry’s era, it’s striking how lacking they are in riffs. Berry’s insistence on riffs as a primary melodic element set the standard that all future guitar bands would build on.