A Tribute To Chuck Berry

That Brown-Eyed Handsome Guitar-Playing Man
A Tribute To Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry during an appearance on NBC’s “The Midnight Special” in 1973.

When those first notes of Chuck Berry’s first Chess single came blasting out of the radio in July of 1955, many a youngster – as well as those young at heart – turned that Volume dial northward. And many others turned it way, way down. It was all a sign that something really good was happening.

Berry, that self-described brown-eyed handsome man from St. Louis, hot-rodded the hoary hillbilly tune “Ida Red” and came racing out of the gates with “Maybellene,” Chess #1604A. There was plenty of hard-charging guitar, luscious amplified distortion that you c ould almost sink your teeth into, and those crazy, wacky lyrics that were all his own – “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill….” Chuck Berry signaled nothing less than the Big Bang of guitar-powered rock and roll.

By the time of his fourth Chess single, “Roll Over Beethoven,” in May of ’56, Berry’s style was firmly in place. He borrowed an intro line from the 1946 jump-and-jive hit “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” played by one of his heroes, Carl Hogan, guitar man in Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, souping up its single-note line with double-stops. Berry played with fire and brimstone, blending country twang with the snarl of the blues and the swing of jazz. “Tell Tchaikovsky the news,” indeed! Those charging, aggressive double-stops would become Berry’s trademark. Popular music – and especially the guitar – would never be the same.

Anyone who doubts the hoopla surrounding Berry need only listen to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins during the Million Dollar Quartet session at Sun Studios in December of ’56; between their bedrock gospel and country tunes, Jerry Lee strikes up a line from Berry’s September ’56 single “Too Much Monkey Business,” which inspires Lewis and Elvis to break into “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” The Million Dollar Quartet was playing what they themselves saw as the rock of ages.

More proof lies in the fact that in later years, Chuck rarely toured with a backup band. Wherever he went to perform, he’d simply hire a local band to support him. Everyone, everywhere knows his songs.

Finally, consider that Berry’s March ’58 single, “Johnny B. Goode,” was the sole example of rock and roll deemed necessary by Carl Sagan and crew to be included on Earth’s postcard to the rest of the universe, the Voyager Interstellar Mission, launched in ’77. It was slotted in alongside Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night,” and other examples of so-called “ethnic” music from around our globe. As Sagan wrote on Berry’s 60th birthday in 1986, “Go, Johnny, go.” Johnny has since traveled 20 billion kilometers and counting.

When Berry died on March 18 at his home in Ladue, Missouri, it was not the end of an era. His legacy will live on every time a rock-and-roll band counts off a song.

Guitar Intoxication

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born singing. As he recounts in his insightful Autobiography, published in ’87, he came into this world on October 18, 1926. “My mother tells me that before I was even dry, I had begun singing my first song; I started crying prior to the customary spank that brings one unto life.”

Music infused his childhood. His parents were the grandchildren of slaves, but the family was now relatively well-off, his mother one of the few African-American women of her time with a college education, his father a carpenter and deacon of their church. “My very first memories, while still in my baby crib, are of musical sounds – the assembled pure harmonies of the Baptist hymns, dominated by my mother’s soprano and supported by my father’s bass blending with the stirring rhythms of true Baptist soul.”

As a teen, Chuck served three years in the Algoa reformatory for armed robbery and hijacking a car, but served many more years in various bands, duets, choirs, and orchestras. He remembered an early infatuation with the songs of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey, as well as Muddy Waters.

Berry likely first performed for a public audience at a Sumner High School talent show in ’41, singing big-bandleader Jay “Hootie” McShann’s “Confessin’ The Blues” with his friend Tommy Stevens accompanying on guitar. Administrators bristled at the crude, low-down song, but it was exactly to students’ taste – an early lesson Chuck took to heart. And his vocal debut was also auspicious in another, perhaps ironic, way. “I guess the most important result of that performance was the inspiration it gave me to play a guitar,” he said.

A classmate loaned Berry his father’s “abandoned” four-string tenor guitar, and Chuck set about teaching himself how to play.

“I learned enough from Nick Mannaloft’s Guitar Book of Chords to strum out the progression to most of the popular love songs while singing at backyard parties,” he said. “Most of the guys in the neighborhood got their haircuts at the home of the three Harris brothers, Pat the barber, John the juicehead, and Ira the jazzman. Ira was the one who showed me many professional styles of execution on the guitar and reinstated my ambition to play the instrument. When it came to playing tunes by Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, and Little Walter, I could shine like the sun….

“The guitar was slowly intoxicating me. Every lyric that left my lips seemed unworthy of the sound that the strings produced behind it, so I sometimes would not even sing, it sounded so good. Consequently, my picking and chording progressed far more rapidly than my voice. I was learning to play better than I could sing. I wondered sometimes if I would ever be good enough to become a professional musician, but the thrill of what was developing so far satisfied me beyond any thoughts of the future.”

While working as a janitor at WEW radio, Berry met Joe Sherman, a renowned local guitarist who played for the station’s Sacred Heart Program. Sherman sold Chuck his first electric guitar for $30, paid off at $5 per week; sadly, no record exists of what model it was. “I found it much easier to finger the frets of an electric guitar, plus it could be heard anywhere in the area with an amplifier. It was my first really good-looking instrument to have and hold. From the inspiration of it, I began really searching at every chance I got for opportunities to play music.”

He was holding down odd jobs as a carpenter, janitor, automobile-factory assemblyman, and trained beautician, supporting his wife Themetta and playing music at night. In ’53, Chuck was 27 years old when he found a place in a jazz/blues ensemble named the Sir John Trio, fronted by rocking piano man Johnnie Johnson. The two would collaborate for decades.

Berry soon began taking his place alongside Johnson in fronting the band, singing in a style that he did his best to cop from Nat King Cole, as he readily admits in his memoir. And their repertoire of music was broadening and developing as well, as Chuck remembered. “The kind of music I liked then, thereafter, right now and forever, is the kind I heard when I was a teenager. So the guitar styles of Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I’ve heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry’s style.”

Berry in ’67: John Peden

The Blues Had a Baby

The legend of Berry’s first recording session is part of rock-and-roll mythology – an origin story evoking a heroic time and place. In May of ’55, Berry and Johnson pointed their car toward Chicago and Chess Records – the spiritual home of Muddy Waters – with hopes of waxing a disc. Berry had met Muddy during an earlier trip, and Muddy introduced him to label owner Leonard Chess. Now, he was invited back to try his hand at recording.

The market for Muddy’s phenomenal sides on Chess was starting to dwindle and the label was eager to succeed with something new. Berry pulled out the song “Ida Red,” which had been made popular by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys back in ’38.

Legend has it that Chuck reworked the song there in the studio, but the story in his autobiography is even more illuminating about the junction of musical styles as well as the intersections of race at the time. “‘Maybellene’ was my effort to sing country-western,” he remembered – which either proves him one of the worst or best country singers of all time.

Berry enjoyed playing hillbilly tunes with the Sir John Trio for the African-American audience at the Cosmopolitan Club in notorious East St. Louis, a rollicking juke joint across the river, in Illinois, that did its best to put on upscale airs.

“The Cosmo clubgoers didn’t know any of the words to those songs, which gave me a chance to improvise and add comical lines to the lyrics,” said Chuck.

So he revved up “Ida Red” for the modern crowd and at some point was advised to change the title for copyright reasons; it became “Ida May.” But when he was ready to cut it, Leonard Chess worried it was still too close to the original. One story goes that the name “Maybellene” came thanks to Leonard, who happened upon a Maybelline mascara box in the studio; no one remembers how the spelling got transformed, which makes the tale taste of apocrypha, especially since Berry says he named the song after a storybook character: much like cats were named Tom and ducks were Donald in kid’s books, cows were always Maybellene.

Berry cut “Maybellene” with Johnson on piano, Chess stalwart Willie Dixon on bass, drummer Jasper Thomas in place of the band’s Ebby Hardy, who didn’t make the trip, and Bo Diddley sideman Jerome Green lending a hand with maracas.

“Maybellene” was one of the first true rock-and-roll songs. It had it all – a wild woman inspiring heartbreak, a hot-rod race with an elusive Cadillac, plus twang and swagger… and that guitar sound. To put it simply and bluntly, rock-and-roll guitar begins right here.

The song also marked other beginnings. Pioneering disc jockey Alan Freed had nothing to do with penning the song, but he got co-writer credits and royalties in return for radio play. It was hardly the first time a deejay pocketed “payola,” but when the song sold more than a million copies, hitting #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the mainstream pop charts, such co-writer arrangements heralded an early tradition.

The song also marked the beginning of the end for the blues. Little did they know, but Berry would soon eclipse Muddy Waters’ popularity. Sure, Muddy continued to record stellar sides and go on performing, but the fuse under a new, younger audience had been lit. As Muddy famously said – no doubt with a hint of pride and irony and, yes, sadness in his voice – “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”

Like Ringing a Bell

Berry would go on to cut so many songs that now personify “rock and roll” that it seems superfluous to name them: “Rock And Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Sweet Little Rock And Roller,” “Little Queenie,” “Carol,” “Reelin’ And Rockin’,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell),” “Back In The U.S.A.,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Promised Land,” “My Ding-a-Ling,” and more. And his songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones to Prince, and on to most garage and bar bands that ever plugged in and cranked it up.

There is one song that stands out, of course – a song that is an autobiography, an anthem, and perhaps the rock-and-roll fable all wrapped up in one; “Johnny B. Goode.”

The song is more, though. Its currents run deeper with meaning, both personal to Berry and universal to African-American history – the story of the unshackling of chains and rising up to recognition and redemption, freedom, and promise.

Berry remembered the song “…had its birth when the tour first brought me to New Orleans, a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Waters’ lyrics, ‘Going down in Louisiana, way down behind the sun.’ That inspiration, combined with little bits of Dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through, turned into the song ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”

Berry’s ancestors had arrived in the New World via the slave markets of New Orleans; later, his great-grandfather lived “way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” And during his own childhood, Berry’s mother predicted great success for him. So he wrote the song based on “a story that paralleled.” It’s akin to Muddy Waters shouting out in “Mannish Boy,” “I’m a man! No b-o-y!” Ditto Bo Diddley’s own “I’m A Man.”

As Chuck explained in one of the most intense, vibrant, and strongly felt passages in his memoirs, “I feel safe in stating that no white person can conceive the feeling of obtaining Caucasian respect in the wake of a world of dark denial, simply because it is impossible to view the dark side when faced with brilliance. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was created as all other things and brought out of a modern dark age. With encouragement, he chose to practice, shading himself along the roadside but seen by the brilliance of his guitar playing. Chances are you have talent. But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to ‘Go!’”

And go he did.

Forever Duckwalking

Berry never really hung up his guitar. Whether it was his early Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty, his ’50s ES-350TNs, or (starting in the early ’60s) his stream of ES-335 and 355 models, he kept playing, kept touring. In ’79, he performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House and saw his name in lights at concert halls and stadiums around the globe. From 1996 until 2004, he played each Wednesday at the Blueberry Hill club in St. Louis – 209 shows in all, duckwalking through his final show there at age 85.

On his 90th birthday, in October of 2016, Berry announced he was putting finishing touches to a new studio album – his first in almost four decades. Chuck will be reportedly be released this year and has new original songs along with backing from his children, Charles Berry, Jr. (guitar) and Ingrid Berry (harmonica). The album is dedicated to Themetta, Berry’s wife of 68 years.

“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Chuck said when announcing the album. “My darlin’, I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

Bow to the Throne

Players, VG Staff Remember Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry was my idol – his influence on me was tremendous. At a very early age, Chuck took me under his wing and made me his protégé, took me on tours, showed me the ropes and how to work a crowd. Being on the road with him was always an adventure and a whole lot of laughs, and in our 50 years of friendship we never had a cross word. Guitarists the world over owe a debt to Chuck. Though he’s gone, in my heart he will never be forgotten. Love and miss you, Chuck! – Billy Peek

Chuck Berry, the groundbreaking and inventive entertainer admired by millions, leaves a wealth of evergreen recordings, memorable performances, and some sizzling guitar pyrotechnics to be enjoyed by leagues of fans and followers of that fascinating American art form, rock and roll. The Chuck Berry phenomenon grew to impact legions around the globe and will certainly maintain the long-standing and strident place and position among the great performers for all time. Rock on…! – Billy F Gibbons

When I was a kid, I first saw Chuck on TV – might have been on the “Sha Na Na” show. He duck-walked and played the heck out of his guitar, I knew instantly, “This is what I was born to do!” From that moment, I was completely obsessed with the guitar. For my 13th birthday I used all my gift money to buy a really horrible Framus copy of a Gibson ES-335 because it looked like the one Chuck played on TV! Several years later, with the help of my pop, I was able to get a ’66 335, bought for the same reason. I still have both today! – Deke Dickerson

“Johnny B. Goode” was the first time I heard an electric guitar. It was in eighth grade and I was messing around on my dad’s uke at the time. That song showed me the path to the heart of folk music, blues, rhythm-and-blues, country, and rock and roll. I bought a new ES-335 that year, too, but sadly couldn’t keep up the payments and “the man, he took it back,” to coin Freddie King. I switched to a Harmony Rocket and kept on going – because of Chuck. – Dan Erlewine

Chuck is the first person to come to mind when I think of music. The hours of setting the needle back and still getting the words wrong, yet singing them that way for 50 years; then you find out the correct words, and still sing the wrong ones. When I first started to play music together with The Spiders, it was folk, but turned into Chuck Berry right away. And of course Chuck’s music is folk music. – Jay Edwards

I consider myself lucky for having the distinction of seeing Chuck Berry in concert only twice, and he was great both times. Chuck had a reputation for putting on lackluster shows, which is a shame because he was only eroding his own reputation instead of demonstrating that, as much or more than anyone, he deserved the mantel of King of Rock and Roll.

In the early ’70s, the concept of a first-class rock-and-roll revival concert was a new thing; it took that long for ’50s rock to become nostalgia. The show I saw, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, was produced by Richard Nader. It had Freddie Cannon, Del Shannon, the Coasters, Bobby Day, the Fleetwoods – maybe a dozen acts in all – with Chuck Berry closing. Things were running late, and they were giving Chuck the cut sign, but he kept performing. Finally, they turned the lights on as Chuck was doing “Wee Wee Hours.” He improvised a verse – “Well, they’ve turned on the lights, and it’s time to go/So the ’Wee Wee Hours’ will have to close our little show” – at which point he turned to the band, stamped his left foot, and launched into “Johnny B. Goode,” duck-walking all over the stage.

The other show was at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater, where Chuck opened for Elvin Bishop and had the advantage of using Bishop’s top-notch personnel as backing band.

Everyone thinks there’s one Chuck Berry riff, but they’re all different, with their own nuances; Rick Vito is the best I’ve heard at doing Chuck right. And “Maybellene” still ranks as one of the most primal sounds in rock-guitar history. His wordplay influenced Dylan, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles the same way his guitar playing influenced the Stones, Johnny Winter, and Hendrix. To me, he stands alone the same way Django Reinhardt stands in jazz – because, like Django, more than a half-century later, countless guitarists aren’t just absorbing his influence, they’re trying to get each riff down, the way Chuck played it. – Dan Forte

Countless writers and talking heads have gushed about how Berry incorporated country-western into his music. They’re right, of course, but what about his knack for dense storytelling? In the mid/late ’50s, nobody in rock and roll, rockabilly or R&B was doing it in quite the same imaginative way. His wasn’t be-bop-a-lula stuff, great and primal as that was. Rather, “Maybellene” is a complete story in three verses; he piques interest by starting with the chorus. When I hear that song, I see a shade-tree mechanic’s hot-rodded Ford chasing a custom Caddie. And the metaphor is obvious, but incredibly clever. In fact, there might be two extended metaphors. Plus, look at the language; “rainwater blowin’ all under my hood” is just one example of Berry’s knack for detail. Maybe he gained that knowledge working at the Fisher Body plant.

And if good writing is in the verbs, it doesn’t get much better than “motivatin.’” Figuring out how to jam all that inventiveness into a song… it’s obvious why he went eight notes to a bar, doubling the beat. It’s also interesting that he had the business savvy to write for teenagers, the demographic he knew was buying his records. That’s how a 29-year-old came to write rock poems like “School Days.”

Dylan and the Beatles get a lot of credit for ushering rock’s “songwriter era,” but how long would it have been, and how it would have been different, without Berry’s influence, without him showing how far a still-scorned genre like rock-and-roll could go? The payoffs in “Memphis” and “Never Can Tell,” for example, are literary devices. It’s no coincidence that great songwriters and acts like John Prine, Waylon Jennings, Faces, Bruce Springsteen, and Ronnie Lane were covering these songs 10-plus years later.

It’s also almost incomprehensible that Berry didn’t actually write “My Ding a Ling,” one of his last singles and, incredibly, his only number-one, because that sort of wink-wink double entendre and extended metaphor both continued a great blues tradition and certainly influenced people like Bon Scott. – Dennis Pernu

The last time I saw Berry perform was at B.B. King’s in Manhattan, on New Year’s Eve 2012. His guitar was frequently out of tune, he forgot lyrics, and he hit bum chords. Though frail at 86, his legendary showmanship shone through – he even attempted to duck-walk.

Like most beginning guitarists, I discovered that learning the standard I-IV-V chord progression allowed me to play an infinite number of rock songs. Of course, Berry’s songs were amongst the most fun, especially once one mastered the famous riffs.

I was honored to interview him and got to spend a little time backstage. Though his reputation was for being surly, he could not have been nicer – gracious and charming. I asked if he’d pose for a photo with me. Ever the ladies’ man, he insisted the woman I was with stand between us so he could have his arm around her. My friend, Jeff, who witnessed this, was a huge Berry admirer, but an even-more-passionate Beatles fan. Afterward, he told me, “You shook the hand that shook the hand of John Lennon!” – Elliot Stephen Cohen

Berry’s influence was so pervasive it’s hard to imagine anybody alive today who has not heard his tunes. Even if they’ve never heard a full album or seen him perform live or on radio or TV, so many performers have recorded and performed his tunes that they are deeply ingrained in our culture. I’ve never seen him perform live, but have seen him on TV and heard him on the radio, and I’ve seen and heard the bluegrass group Jim and Jesse perform his tunes. In fact they did an entire bluegrass album of Berry Pickin’. – George Gruhn

Each of us has been touched by Chuck’s music; we all have our own story. As a young man in Louisville, Kentucky, I was lucky to have an older brother, who, along with a cousin that lived with us at the time, brought home the coolest records. One day, I stumbled upon my brother’s 45 of “Johnny B. Goode” with the flip side “Around & Around.” Just hearing the intro to “Johnny B. Goode” sent a lightning bolt through my soul. If that intro doesn’t touch you, something’s wrong. As with any young guitarist growing up in the ’60s, my rite of passage was first “Johnny B. Goode” and then on to The Beatles, Stones, and later, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and many others. But, on that fateful day when I first put “Johnny B. Goode” on the turntable, I was baptized in something that has stayed with me the rest of my life. – Greg Martin

When I saw the news about Chuck being gone, all I could think was that now rock and roll really is dead. But I’m glad I was here for it while it was up and kicking. One of the most exciting, revelatory things the world will ever know. Chuck Berry was rock and roll. – G.E. Smith

The first time I was able to play rock-and-roll was when I started to learn those great intros and solos from Chuck Berry records. It got to the point friends and I would listen to new records to see who was influenced by Berry, and take great joy in it. To this day, I gravitate to rootsy guitarists who mix Berry licks with their own style. Those double-stops say so much more to me about rock-and-roll than albums full of power chords, hammer-ons, and tapping. 

While there were a lot of pioneers, Berry’s guitar sounds (and lyrics nothing short of brilliant) are the building blocks of what rock-and-roll should be. – John Heidt

When I first heard “Maybellene,” I couldn’t get enough. It was new but seemed to have been there always, like it just should have been – inevitable. One night in ’65 at The Sidetrack Coffeehouse, Chuck paid us a visit. Didn’t perform, just stopped in. He was gracious, in a nice suit and all. I remember shaking his hand, thinking “His fingers are so long, no wonder he plays so well.” 

We loved his music, and when the coffeehouse folkies started to “go electric” we went right to his playbook. John Hammond had a vicious version of “Nadine.” Play Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” back to back with Chuck’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” See what I mean? The parallel combined wordplay and music gifts can’t be denied.

We are lucky to have lived in his time. His music made it better for all of us. Still can’t get enough of his stuff. – John Peden

Chuck showed all us guitarists what you can do when you play only the right notes at the right time to create the right mood. With his precise style of riffing, he created a style that was at once raw, elegant, and complete. His playing defined a genre the moment it exploded on the scene. He stands as one of rock-and-roll’s most important architects, practitioners, and original bad boys. Long live Chuck Berry! – Joe Satriani

Having spent my formative years in the blues under the tutelage of the late Johnnie Johnson – Chuck’s piano player and rock-and-roll Hall of Fame member – I had many encounters with Mr. Berry. Some good, some bad – all memorable. We learned to love Chuck unconditionally, and in exchange for all that, he gave us a guitarist, songwriter, singer, performer, and – most of all – street poet who was in touch with our generation. Without him, there is no rock-and-roll, no Beatles, no Stones, and more importantly, no Dylan. And he knew that. 

Farewell, brown-eyed handsome man. In truth, you’ll live on forever. – Jimmy Vivino

Rock and roll is now officially dead. John Lennon said it best; “If rock and roll had another name, it would be called ‘Chuck Berry.’”

He probably lived way longer than anyone would have thought, given the potholes of life in general, and a rock-and-roll life in particular.

Sixty years ago Elvis, Chuck, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison escorted a few million of us into the “Promised Land.” From that exalted perch came the Beatles, Stones, Who, Zep, Floyd, Queen, AC/DC (to name just a few) to kiss the feet of and take the lessons that have enriched the lives hundreds of millions.

The pillars of my guitar style were Albert Collins, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Chuck. The first guitar solo I learned – from Berry’s “Down The Road Apiece” – became the foundation of almost every solo I ever wrote.

From the minute I heard the intro to “School Days” blasting out of my dad’s car radio in 1957, through the master class of all guitar intros, “Johnny B. Goode,” and continuing to the sinewy blues-formatted riff from “Down The Road…,” Chuck had me and millions of others!

But he was so much more then a guitar genius. He was an incredible writer of compact, emotional lyricism, observation, humor, and beauty given the state of race relations in the U.S. in the ’50s. Even more remarkable is that his lyrics ventured into a colorblind world of the first generation of rebellious teen angst, cars, and girls created during the baby boom; listen to “Promised Land,” with lyrics as perfectly written as any song in rock-and-roll, encapsulating the humor and observation in nine short verses. – J. J. French

I didn’t come to the guitar through rock and roll. But when I inevitably passed through rock, I – like virtually everyone else – encountered the music of Mr. Chuck Berry. In many ways, he represented the essence of rock – perpetual youthful ebullience propelling clever, catchy lyrics punctuated by perfectly brash and bluesy guitar riffs. Whenever I heard him play, it made me smile. That’s about as good a memorial as one could wish for a long life well-lived.  Thank you for the smiles, Chuck! – Michael Wright

Chuck was punk before punk. He was rock and roll. True outlaw. True legend. He inspired my heroes, and once the history lesson was realized, became the hero at the top of the heap. He had the licks. He had the walk. He told the stories. And after I got a little taste of the business side of rock-and-roll, he inspired my band’s name. My enormous debt to him will never be paid in full. May he rest in peace. – Keith Nelson

Chuck was head and shoulders above all the rest – my first inspiration to play guitar was hearing “Johnny B. Goode” on the radio; I had to have a guitar to learn what he was doing. And those lyrics – so true and poetic – captured the feelings we were all having. Girls and cars and guitars.

I was lucky enough to hang out a little in a dressing room a few years ago when the Heartbreakers shared a bill with him. That night was sublime. As he played his way offstage to a standing ovation, he stopped on every step, looked at the crowd, and played them a lick, turning to the crowd every few steps as he exited the room. Simple rock and roll heaven.

He was so gracious to my wife and I, smiling and laughing and taking pics with us. If I get stuck working on a solo, I always stop and think, “What would Chuck Berry do here?” And that is the key to tuning into the true source of guitar soul. He is the king and always will be. I miss him dearly, but the music is always here; thank God for that and thank God for him. Sweet travels, Chuck. You are always with us. – Mike Campbell

Berry’s musical aesthetic and persona provided the world with the connective tissue between rhythm and blues, country-western, and rock and roll. He was a maverick, a poet, an entrepreneur, and an outlaw who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He left a towering musical legacy within a hostile racial environment, ultimately becoming an iconoclastic songwriter and the most appropriated guitarist in the world. – Oscar Jordan

If not for Chuck Berry, we may all be playing major scales on acoustic guitars while standing still onstage with a way-too-short haircut. He was an explosion of freedom. – Steve Vai

The Kingston Trio inspired me to play and sing, but by 1963, I was over folk. Playing in a college band, I covered as many Chuck Berry hits as I could – they were great songs.  Chuck was top of his class in singer/songwriter excellence, and astute at composing by using hybrid blues/jazz/country licks. He practically invented rock guitar. My current band still plays several Berry tunes and the revelers love them. – Gil Hembree

Yes, Chuck Berry was arguably the most influential rock-and-roll guitarist, but it was his songwriting that brought him immortality. I’d even venture to say he was the real “king” of rock-and-roll, as his songs were covered by all of the genre’s icons – Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi – just about everybody!  Chuck’s riffs became the words used in the language of rock-and-roll, and his brilliant lyrics painted detailed pictures of American culture, bringing us Technicolor in an age of black and white. – Tom Guerra

When I saw The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, I was familiar with Berry’s hits from the radio. But the film underscored the “I wanna play guitar and be a rock star” mentality of untold numbers of teen boys who’d experienced an epiphany when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan earlier that year. Jan and Dean introduced Berry as the first act, calling him, “The guy who started it all back in 1958.” Then, he traded songs with Gerry & the Pacemakers; the image of his lanky frame bending and contorting with the music while evoking those bright, chugging riffs from a Gibson ES-350T was burned into my mind. – Willie G. Moseley

This article originally appeared in VG June 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

No posts to display