Chuck Berry Essay - Critical Essays

Berry, Chuck

Introduction

Chuck Berry 1926–

Black American songwriter and musician.

Berry's unique synthesis of country-western and blues formed an animated musical style which has influenced musicians throughout the world and helped to define the sound of rock and roll. His songs are simple and almost crude in content, yet their narrative skill and innovative word play have, in retrospect, been considered the first examples of rock poetry.

From 1956 to 1959, Berry popularized the "novelty tune": songs noted more for their unusual or catchy content than musical merit. However, Berry's works had an underlying social consciousness. Such songs as No Money Down presented critical views of a racist society and indicated youthful unrest. Though significantly older than his audience, Berry depicted a realistic view of teen life. His songs were not personal; they were written for and about his listeners. Sweet Little Sixteen and No Particular Place to Go expressed the frustration of the teenager's world, while Rock and Roll Music and Johnny B. Goode captured its exhilaration and exuberance. His lyrics are unabashedly American, as in Back in the USA, reflecting media catch phrases and modern trends. By reaching out beyond the traditionally all-black rhythm and blues audience into the realms of rock-oriented audience, his music attained a far broader appeal. Using country guitar tricks and touches of blues vocals, Berry engineered a music style many were eager to imitate.

Berry's age puts him out of most young artists' peer group, yet his influence continues to be felt. While he has not produced anything noteworthy since his 1972 hit, My Ding-a-ling, a current trend towards the simplicity of early rock and roll insures Berry's importance. As the initiator of the rock and roll experience, many consider him its most viable force.

Chuck Berry, an energetic guitar-strumming Negro singer, is a natural for a rhythm & blues bill. He sparks his songstering with some frantic maneuvering in an acrobatic vein. It's strictly in the r 'n' r groove and in that idiom the frenetic and athletic delivery has appeal.

Berry's tunes include "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "In the Wee, Wee Hours" and a calypso number.

"New Acts: Chuck Berry," in Variety (copyright 1957, by Variety, Inc.), February 6, 1957, p. 62.

Lester Bangs

So many grit-jive geniuses—Elvis, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley—have turned stiff in their old age. That's why it's a double delight to find Berry, the original poet and scribe of rock and roll, who in many life-worshipping ways exceeded his Minnesota son-in-law [Bob Dylan], as fresh and as effortlessly committed [in his new album, Concerto in B Goode] as he ever was.

The first side of this album includes four of his recent compositions. You won't get tired of them. They don't relate to Sixties dope-balling, or the feel of police truncheons crunching into skullbone but they do ring true, and two of them exude the marvelous old Berry wit, something a great many of today's owl-faced artrockers would do well to pick up on. Rock is an ailing form without its sense of humor, and Chuck Berry defined a whole comic sensibility. He has not lost that gift: "It's Too Dark In Here" tells the story of a sheltered chick who finds danger wherever her date takes her….

The entirety of side two is given over to "Concerto in B Goode," an eighteen-minute flood of instrumental interpolations on Johnny B. Goode and all of his relatives. For all the thematic and improvisatory repetition, you can't help but dig it, because it's so happy, driving, and exuberant, everflowing with the spirit of life joyously lived—the essential spirit of our music…. On and on and on flows Chuck Berry, duckwalking his great Gibson guitar down the cluttered corridors of rock history. I suspect he'll still be wailing wisely when the current crop of overpublicized Sensations have faded with their forerunners back into the obscure footnotes of the chronicle of our art.

Lester Bangs, "Records: 'Concerto in B Goode'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1969; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 39, August 9, 1969, p. 37.

Michael Goodwin

Chuck Berry, the greatest rocker of them all, is back … and it looks like he's got the power again.

Back Home is the usual … Berry mix: three or four dynamite tracks, two or three good ones, two or three bombs…. [The] old genius/magic is still there in Berry's translation of the universal reality into rock and roll metaphor. (p. 46)

And Berry's perceptions are no less pointed, no less irresistible than they were in the Fifties. For instance, [as on] the latest adventures of the Berry existential man (Johnny B. Goode as culture hero)….

It's good. This is rough music, raw music, and it's all totally accessible, up front where you can grab it; you don't listen to this stuff so much as take part in it. And baby, that is rock and roll. (p. 48)

Michael Goodwin, "Records: 'Back Home'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 66, September 17, 1970, pp. 46, 48.

Pete Welding

While the music is pleasant enough [on San Francisco Dues] the album as a whole is not very exciting. That is, it won't challenge any of the early … LPs by [Berry] you might have in your collection.

The music lacks the conviction, enthusiasm and lithe strength of the young Berry, sounding instead as though it had been ground out to a formula—and small matter if the man responsible for the formula is following it here. It pains me to say this, for I have great respect for Berry and what his music accomplished so beautifully, but much of the stuff here sounds tired and the lyrics often forced, where before they had a delightfully perfect naturalness and a real feeling of spontaneity, however painstakingly that may have been achieved. But that feeling is largely absent here and craft has taken the place of inspiration. Unfortunately, it's no substitute.

On the credit side, there are the increased sensitivity and subtlety of Berry's playing and the obvious attention lavished on the ensemble textures and the overall recorded sound and mix, all of which are handsome. (pp. 60, 62)

Taste being what it is, not everyone will react to the songs themselves in quite the same ways. I found several of them veering dangerously close to bathos and naivete: "Oh, Louisiana, My Dream" (actually a poem recited over a slow riff-like piece dominated by Berry's piano), and "Lonely School Days," which, while quite like a number of Berry's early paeans to adolescence, seems dated and in a curious way quite sad. Nor do I feel that "Festival," which is little more than a litany of performers' and groups' names, comes off too well. "Bordeaux in My Pirough," Berry's attempt at "swamp music" and set to an old cajun melody best known in Hank Williams' setting of it, "Jambalaya," I found embarrassing. Then, too, I think there's something basically wrong with an artist who's paid as many real dues as has Berry during his career having to write a song about paying "San Francisco Dues"; Berry must have felt the same way, for the song comes off sounding pretty forced, its wings clipped by the theme itself. (p. 62)

Pete Welding, "Records: 'San Francisco Dies'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 95, November 11, 1971, pp. 60, 62.

Michael Lydon

Heady days, that first lindying era of rock. In retrospect it is astonishing how fast it happened…. Which means that the music filled a gargantuan need that neither artist nor audience knew existed…. Neither music nor phenomenon alone, rock 'n' roll is a mass sensibility.

That sensibility not only came from nowhere and spread everywhere, but was so natural to those who shared it that it was impossible to explain…. For that sensibility was not just sensuality, speed, and rebellion, but also black—how much still isn't clear, but more black than anyone was willing to admit in 1955. The rock 'n' roll sensibility meant that on some level white kids who were trying to find their own identity were identifying passionately with black music, doing it barely consciously but therefore without any self-conscious distance. And not just identifying passively, but creating a new identity between white and black.

The medium of the process was the music, which from the first was a racial and musical hybrid. (pp. 14-15)

In short, a black-white music and white kids who said, "Yeah, that's how I feel" That was rock 'n' roll. (p. 15)

No one fully grasped what was happening, but Chuck Berry seemed to have an idea. Of all the musicians, he was the one who best recognized these new American kids, and he loved and encouraged them. With an extraordinary leap of empathy, he knew and...

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Richard Williams

Charles Edward Berry was to the Fifties what Dylan was in the succeeding decade: the poet of the age. Over boogie-derived rhythms which rolled like a hot-rod Ford, he sang about girls, cars, school, rock 'n' roll, cars, school, cars, and girls. Nobody ever voiced the preoccupations of a particular generation more accurately, and with more real wit.

Richard Williams, "Albums: 'Chuck Berry's Golden Decade'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 3, 1972, p. 18.

If a vote were ever taken to determine the single figure who most embodies the spirit and best qualities of rock, chances are the majority would plump for [Chuck...

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Tony Glover

At his best Chuck Berry was a hip short-story teller, with insightful, affecting and entertaining pictures to show, set to a strong jumping boogie beat. But he never had much of a way with albums, and the problem with being chief chronicler and day-to-day historian of the ways of an era is that it fades away and people grow older. Times and audiences change—but Berry hasn't much….

The only infectious cut that you want to play again is "Rain Eyes."… It has all the evocative power and charm of the Berry songs of old and it jumps steady too.

Bio is OK—but if you never hear it you won't have missed much—certainly not anything important in Chuck Berry's musical history....

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Mike Jahn

[If] there is any one performer who conceivably could be credited with having influenced every rock 'n' roll and rock musician to follow, it would be Berry. Equally important, he was the first major figure to write the kind of songs that reflected the romance between rock 'n' roll and youth culture. He was one of the first performers to realize that rock 'n' roll was more than just a music kids liked; that it had a social importance quite distinct from, and perhaps more significant than, its role as a music. (p. 31)

"Maybellene" was a good, exciting, up-tempo rocker, but its lyrics had little distinction, unless one wants to push a point and make a case for the common people out of the...

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Arnold Shaw

Chuck Berry has been called "folk poet of the '50s," "the major figure of rock and roll" and "the single most important name in the history of rock." All of these epithets are well deserved, not only because of his own achievement but because of the influence he exerted on later super-rock artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys (whose surfin' music was based on his "Sweet Little Sixteen"). (pp. 144-45)

[He] sang about "Maybellene," who took off with a cat in a Coup de Ville and he went motivatin' after her in his Ford—nothin' outrun my V-8 Ford—and though Maybellene might be untrue, he drove his way truly into the heart and psyche of school kids in...

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Bob Sarlin

Berry was a rarity of his time: a full-blown singer/song-writer, equally gifted as a performer and as a composer of rock material. (p. 31)

Chuck Berry … was the best of the early rock-and-roll songwriters. He is a primitive songpoet, but a songpoet nonetheless. At a time when rock-and-roll lyrics were notably inane, Berry was composing songs that expressed in loud and clear terms the dilemma of being young and alive in the America of the '50s. His songs are filled with references to school and budding sexuality and to automobiles, the prime obsession of much of the teen-age audience. Each of his tunes featured a strong rock sound which stood out clearly among its imitations.

...

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Robert Hilburn

Though Berry may not have been as dominant a figure in rock in the 1950s as Presley, his records and, particularly, his songs represented virtual blueprints for untold thousands of rock musicians who followed him to the scene.

It's hard to imagine a rock musician who didn't have a Berry song in his repertoire during some point in his career….

Berry's success as a writer was based on both his simple, yet highly infectious melodies and the extraordinary universality of his lyrics. Though several of his songs ("Memphis," "You Never Can Tell") touch on adult themes, it was Berry's ability to capture the language and attitudes of teenagers that first propelled him to stardom.

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Robert Christgau

Chuck Berry is the greatest of the rock and rollers…. But Chuck Berry isn't merely the greatest of the rock and rollers, or rather, there's nothing mere about it. Say rather that unless we can somehow recycle the concept of the great artist so that it supports Chuck Berry as well as it does Marcel Proust, we might as well trash it altogether.

As with Charlie Chaplin or Walt Kelly or the Beatles, Chuck Berry's greatness doesn't depend entirely on the greatness of originality of his oeuvre. The body of his top-quality work isn't exactly vast, comprising three or perhaps four dozen songs that synthesize two related traditions: blues, and country and western. Although in some respects Berry's rock and...

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Jon Young

Presto! It's 1957 again and nothing could be finer. The solos [on Rock It] may be a tad less brash, the beat a mite slower—otherwise Chuck's still the genius who wrote the rock 'n' roll book of rules…. Try "They put a Grand Dragon posse on his trail" or "She dresses like a fish" for a reminder of how the best can say a lot with a little.

Jon Young, "Hit and Run: 'Rock It'," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1979 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 6, No. 10, November, 1979, p. 42.

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Joel Vance

Berry was the first literate lyricist in rock-and-roll, and, so far as I'm concerned, he's still the champ. His delighted exploitation of the possibilities of the English language and his sophisticated sense of humor are unsurpassed in the field….

"Rockit" is precious not merely as a reminder of what he once was, but as evidence of how great he still is. Some of the songs here, such as Oh What a Thrill, are such pure, undiluted examples of Berry's late-Fifties style that they might have been written and recorded twenty years ago. Others are frankly updates: Havana Moon, one of Berry's B-sides from the Fifties, is re-created here without the West Indian accent he was then fond of...

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