Photos by Derek Meade
Chuck Berry, one of the original and certainly one of the most colorful rock ’n’ roll innovators, died March 18, 2017, at the age of 90. Berry’s funny, flamboyant songs about cars, girls, music and dancing came directly out of his own experience and inspired generations—that’s generations, plural—with the desire to experience the same.
Berry’s 1955 breakout hit, “Maybellene,” cut with Chess Records owner Leonard Chess in Chicago and pushed by influential and ultimately infamous DJ Alan Freed, topped Billboard’s R&B chart and reached No. 5 on its pop chart.
His inventive descriptions of driving, sex and rock ’n’ roll (“I was motivatin’ over the hill”; “coffee-colored Cadillac”; “he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell” and “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news, I got the rockin’ pneumonia, I need a shot of rhythm and blues,” etc. ) captivated the nation’s teens and united them together across racial and social barriers with one fervent purpose: to rock.
Berry developed a reputation for being difficult about money. He usually insisted on being paid in cash, in advance of stepping on stage, and he hired local musicians rather than maintain a band. In fairness, Berry wasn’t wrong. He was a veteran of the days when major labels grew rich while their trusting artists grew poor; Ruth Brown, for example, drove a school bus while her label, Atlantic Records, was described as “The house that Ruth built” and its head, Amet Ertegun, lived a famously opulent lifestyle. When Berry hired a young, starstuck Bruce Springsteen to back him one night, Springsteen, wanting to do well, excitedly asked, “What are we going to play?” Berry answered calmly, “We’re going to play some Chuck Berry songs.” After all, everybody knew them.
The duckwalk, the guitarslinging, the dancing onstage with women from the audience every night (Elmore publisher Suzanne Cadgène did it more than once), the vanishing act from the venue following the last song—Berry’s trademark behavior started early and continued into his ninth decade, when he still performed once a month in his hometown.
NASA sent a time capsule into space to represent life on Earth and it included Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” NASA got it right: life on Earth won’t be quite the same without Chuck Berry, “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”