Even among the giants, he stood taller than most. Charles Edward Anderson Berry — you can call him "Chuck," if you're paying cash — might have been the dominant figure along the way from rhythm and blues to rock and roll; his axe and his pen were equally mighty.

Which is not to say he wielded them in a vacuum. From the very beginning, Chuck Berry synthesized his music from the widest possible variety of sources. That variety includes, yes, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys:

Berry took that drive and turned it into a driving song — except that it wasn't just a driving song.

Berry, it seems clear, had an inclusive sort of vision. Consider his fable of Johnny B. Goode, the little country boy who "played guitar just like ringing a bell." Rural Johnny may have been, but that's not the important part of the description. Johnny had the chops, and he had a dream, but Berry was astute enough to slide past the fact that Johnny was black: the song reads the same if you hear Johnny as a "colored" boy. Berry, correctly, reasoned that anyone of any race, creed, color or national origin could identify with Johnny if he left that minor detail out of the narrative.

And if you're doubting that particular impulse, try to explain "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man":

Well, a beautiful daughter couldn't make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her, darling go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That's what your daddy is, a brown eyed handsome man

Would have been scandalous if he'd said "brown-skinned handsome man."

This is not to say, of course, that Chuck Berry was some sort of altruist who passed along these licks out of the goodness of his heart. Ask the Beach Boys. "Surfin' USA" was obviously a rewrite of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," which explains why, almost since day one, Berry's publisher, Arc Music, has owned the publishing rights to "Surfin' USA."

Still, rewriting Chuck Berry was a fruitful pursuit, one Berry himself didn't disdain. "School Day" was a big hit in 1957, but by 1964 that was so seven years ago:

Chuck's life was hardly idyllic, of course: as a black man in 20th-century America, he was subjected to various indignities, and you have to wonder what the hell the Fates were thinking when they allowed "My Ding-a-Ling," an indisputably minor bit of silliness that Berry didn't even write, to be his only Number One hit. Still, if you're poking around Rock and Roll Heaven, or for that matter Rock and Roll Hell, you're going to find that everybody knows those Chuck Berry licks. For 90 years, that's the way he wanted it.

The Vent

  18 March 2017

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