Chuck Berry: The King of Rock and Roll

Elvis was great. Elvis is not the king.

Truth be told, Elvis actually hated that moniker and never truly embraced it personally but not for the same reasons I hate that moniker.  I hate it because the true king of rock and roll is Chuck Berry.  Berry played guitar and wrote his own songs and took the form from basic blues lyrics to complex stories about cars, school, sex, trouble making, and rockin’ and rollin’.  While Elvis was a master showman, excellent singer and a great interpreter of blues, country, rockabilly and gospel, Chuck Berry was setting the standard for how rock and roll was to be written and imaged for over 60 years.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Many of the early pioneers of rock made their name by taking the styles they used to play (country, gospel, blues) and playing it louder and faster and calling it rock and roll but Chuck Berry created new forms by taking out the swing, adding a guitar riff and singing about things that young kids wanted to hear.  Elvis appealed to the youth because he was dangerous and adults hated him but Chuck Berry appealed to the youth because they related to him and believed in what he was singing.  That’s an important distinction.

The lineage of rock goes back forever.  There’d be no Foo Fighters without Zeppelin, no Zeppelin without Beatles, no Beatles without Chuck Berry, no Chuck Berry without Freddie King, no Freddie King without Robert Johnson…and on and on but everything before Chuck Berry is something other than rock.  He drew his inspiration from the great blues and jazz guitar players of his youth, especially Louis Jordan and his guitarist Carl Hogan, but combined those influences into something truly original and innovative that, in turn, has influenced every rock guitar player since.  There’s not a guitar player alive who’s influence line doesn’t pass through Chuck Berry at some point.  Can Elvis say the same for vocalists?

“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder

All of this is not to diminish the importance of Elvis Presley.  The man is an icon and a crucial part of rock’s development.  Without him, it’s hard to believe that rock would have attained such great success and longevity but without Chuck Berry, it’s hard to believe that rock would have evolved much further than rockabilly guitars…not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Chuck Berry has the respect of musicians around the world and he has had his fair share of fans and admirers but he really doesn’t get the credit he deserves considering his importance in the most popular music of the last half century.  There is rarely a live set that I play where I don’t sing Johnny B. Goode.  Sometimes we do it fast, sometimes it’s slow but it’s always in the spirit of Chuck Berry and with a nod to his greatness.  Do some homework this week and pick up some Berry tunes.  Dig deep past the big hits you’ve heard all your life and get into his wealth of stunning material and have fun with it.  There’s much more there than meets the eye.