The Chuck Berry Dilemma

The trouble with icons is they tend to obscure their own greatness. The myths that arise around them make you  forget how good they actually are. The recently departed Chuck Berry has, for a number of years, been the dictionary definition of this fact. Sure, no one would ever deny that he was great. However, when you delve past songs his “classic” songs and into his lesser known ones, you quickly realize how uniquely talented Chuck Berry was.

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Forget the flamboyance, forget the brushes with the law, (“On December 23, 1959, Chuck Berry is arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, on charges relating to his transportation of a 14-year-old girl across state lines for allegedly “immoral purposes.”) forget the teenage themed fifties schmaltz lyrics and focus on the music. It was the music that Berry made that set him apart from all others and that music came through his guitar.

Chuck Berry just didn’t play the guitar. He made the guitar in popular music. Sure, others laid thefoundations of guitar and its place in blues/rock, Chuck Berry made the guitar. He made it happen. He made the guitar sound like an important instrument that was cooler than anything that had come before. If not for Chuck Berry there would be no Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or Jack White.

While words on a page can either hold sway or be just hyperbole spoken in an empty room, where Chuck Berry is concerned, the words represent a light of clarity to show what Berry meant to music. The Beatles covered Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones covered and admired Chuck Berry. And all of these things happened for a reason.

Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman in article on had this to say, “Of the original people who were there when rock was formed, he’s the only one who not only wrote most of his own material, but wrote substantive material. He was writerly. He filled his songs with meanings and subtexts that resonate still today by means of a somewhat jokey but always intent poesy. And with those talents he added one thing to rock and roll it didn’t have before, and this thing he added might well be the thing that makes us talk about it, still today.”

Very few artists in the history of popular music was able to achieve the heights that Chuck Berry did, not only in popularity but as an artist as well. Jimi Hendrix is an icon who transformed the guitar’s standing and, for that matter, its purpose in music, as Chuck Berry did. Where the difference between the two is quite noticeable is that Hendrix’s career only spanned four years. Berry’s, on the other hand, spanned sixty four.