Sad to hear that Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock & Roll, has died at the age of 90.
The great early rock bands owe their very existence to Berry—including The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys. Rock & roll may have never gained traction in the 50s and 60s without his signature guitar style (both on lead and rhythm). It was the DNA of his many hits, including “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Berry—along with his boogie-woogie pianist Johnny (B. Goode) Johnson—played a key role in the alchemy of R&B, rockabilly, Gospel, and jazz that was taking place in the 1950s and given the name of "rock & roll." The infectious rhythm—combined with Berry's innovative lyrics that celebrated the consumerist culture of fast cars and fast food—attracted white teens to this emerging genre, helping to launch a new musical form—and even a new demographic.
For purposes of this blog we should note that Berry, unlike many early rockers, developed his business acumen quickly, after being cheated by his first manager. Berry took charge of his own career and became so focused on cost-cutting that he was known to sleep in his Cadillac rather than pay hotel bills. (Of course, when touring the South a black man didn’t have the option of sleeping in most hotels or motels anyway.)
When he started to make serious money he invested in real estate, his own restaurant, and an amusement park (Berry Park) in the St. Louis area. I can't think of any other early rocker who had the same business savvy.
Later in the 60s and 70s, rather than play live with a band he’d have to pay, Berry toured solo and performed with whatever band was on the bill with him, which the promoter had to pay. Musician friends I’ve spoken to, who backed up Berry on these occasions, said he never rehearsed with the band beforehand but just went on stage and started playing. The band was usually able to keep up, however, given that most musicians were familiar with his canon of hits. Bruce Springsteen was one of those lucky musicians who once got to back him up.
Not your easy-going dude to begin with, Berry was notoriously hard-nosed with promoters and booking agents and demanded cash for every performance—some of which went unreported to tax authorities, resulting in a four-month conviction for tax evasion in 1979. He certainly worked every angle he could to make and keep as much money as he could.
But it was his artistry—his brilliant songwriting, musicianship, and showmanship—that made him the legend that he is. If someone builds a Mount Rushmore of rock & roll, Chuck Berry's face will be on it.