Early rock and rollers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis have made claim to the title of king of rock and roll music, a title usually associated with Elvis. However, if there one rocker who can make a legitimate argument for the title, it was Chuck Berry.
Unlike anyone before him, Chuck Berry wrote about and spoke to teenagers. Songs like School Days, Sweet Little Sixteen, Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, You Never Can Tell, Reelin’ and Rockin’ and much more addressed the world of America’s youth. Berry’s music, along with new film stars James Dean and Marlon Brando helped create the teen market as a dominant financial force to be reckoned with. While adults brushed aside the teen years as a phase that one would grow out of, the world of rock and roll said it wasn’t just a phase, it was a new world order where the youth market would emerge as a not just an economic force, but political and racial. White teens were listening to Chuck and other black rock and roll musicians. They purchased their records, made friends with blacks and found the world wasn’t going to end. Berry did not do it by himself of course, but he was an important spoke in a wheel that was just beginning to get rolling.
Across the Atlantic in England during Berry’s early days, a group of wannabe rockers heard Chuck’s music and knew that was the world they wanted to be part of. One of those young kids was John Lennon; another was Keith Richard. Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, it might be ‘Chuck Berry’.” Early Beatles recordings paid tribute to their idol with cover versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. One of Lennon’s greatest honors was performing with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show back in 1972.
After hearing Chuck Berry’s music, a teenage Keith Richard knew what he wanted to do with his life, play the guitar like Chuck Berry. In 1986, for Chuck’s 60th birthday, Richard assembled a backup band that included Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Robert Cray for a birthday tribute concert in Chuck’s hometown St. Louis at the Fox Theater. Fortunately, it was all filmed and preserved for us to see. Released in 1987, Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, directed by Taylor Hackford is a must see.
Thanks, Chuck and long live Rock and Roll!