'If you tried to give rock 'n' roll a name, you might call it Chuck Berry', John Lennon 'I've stolen every lick he ever played', Keith Richards 'The Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll', Bob Dylan.
When the Voyager space probe was launched in 1977, a gold disc was placed on board containing examples of humanity's defining cultural achievements. The spacecraft is still out there hurtling through the cosmos and has so far travelled more than six billion miles. Should it ever reach an alien civilisation, they will find on board music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - and Chuck Berry. If you had to define rock music by one single track, NASA's choice of 'Johnny B. Goode' was surely impeccable.
'If you tried to give rock 'n' roll a name, you might call it Chuck Berry', John Lennon once noted. 'I've stolen every lick he ever played', Keith Richards admitted. Bob Dylan dubbed him 'the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll' and rock's poet laureate Leonard Cohen reckoned that every lyric writer who has followed has merely offered 'footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry'.
On the likes of 'Johnny B. Goode', 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and several dozen others, Berry created a set of riffs which to this day remain the core building blocks of rock guitar-playing and married them to smart, sassy, sly, playful lyrics that painted incisive vignettes of teenage life. In songs no more than two or three minutes long, built around themes of fast cars, erotic discovery and escape from parental authority, Berry not only captured the mood of 1950s American youth but defined the spirit of teenage rebellion the world over and to this day.
When Berry died on March 18, 2017 at the grand old age of 90, the world went back to his original recordings and discovered that his music still sounds as vital and urgent today as it did 50 or 60 years ago. As the critic Stephen Deusner put it, every one of his songs represents 'a little engine of excitement, still revving loudly'.
Born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri, he learnt to play the family piano in childhood and then took up the guitar, playing in local bars and clubs, combining blues, r&b, jazz and swing and giving it the backbeat that came to be known as rock 'n' roll. His breakthrough came in 1955 when he travelled to Chicago and met Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Chess Records. His first hit,'Maybellene' was followed in short order by the other unforgettable hits contained on this disc, all recorded in six momentous years between 1955 and 1960.
By the time the Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerged in the following decade, Berry's hit-making days were mostly behind him. It would not be too harsh to say that he spent most of the rest of his career resting on his laurels. Yet he could be forgiven, for he had already changed the musical world forever and those who came after owe him everything. Hail, hail, Mr Rock 'n' Roll.
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