He who gave birth to rock n' roll

Jyaneswar Laishram *

Little or nothing did my generation know about Chuck Berry when we used to rock n' roll during our high school days in Bishenpur, because he was not as fair and handsome as Elvis Presley. That was the time then when amateur teen rock music enthusiasts in my age group around my hometown rather went for attribute of fair and handsomeness than any intrinsic musical value in a rocker. A pimpled classmate of mine in Bishenpur was named Elvis by his parents, after the rock's first pop star. Sadly nobody was found to be called 'Chuck' or 'Berry' around!

By look, Berry was closely resembled with a teli-wala (mobile edible oil seller) called Balkrishna Mishra from Bihar who catered mustard oil to every household around Bishenpur. The bad look subsided, of late, Chuck Berry fans in my circle of friends comprising musicians and critics eventually discovered the architect of rock n' roll music who passed away recently at his St Louis home at the age of 90.

Berry, with his unique style of guitar lick and body language, was the one who carved rock n' roll out of blues and jazz. He was a master theorist and a conceptual genius who inspired a host of his contemporaries and successors - right from Elvis Presley, Rolling Stones, The Beatles to AC/DC. The ever popular duck walk of AC/DC guitarist Angus Young is unquestionably a reproduction of what Berry ever did in every single gig he performed.

Youth culture

Berry surfaced amid the time of big social barrier between black and white classes in America. And he broke that barrier. His style of new music, which later called 'rock', electrified young white audiences and influenced horde of musicians who came from Europe and Australia to take part in the popular music scene of America. Analysts opine that Berry had defined modern teenagers in the 1950s in the line of James Dean and JD Salinger, setting a narrative for the generation whose life was no longer under pressure of war and hardship.

What Berry introduced about rock n' roll was more than a musical genre, but a story to tell. In the story, he narrated youth about openness and a new generation unlocked from social and parental bondages. Before the rise of Bob Dylan, it was Berry who sang some songs narrating social prejudices, going a bit beyond adolescence. John Lennon in an interview once said that Berry would introduce intelligent funky lyrics.

Bad boy Berry

Every one of us has a dark side, so did Berry who had a lot of trouble with the laws during his younger years. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926 at St Louis, he brought up in a poor family. In his teens, he spent almost three years in reform school after a spree of armed robbery and other petty theft crimes. When black were an outcast in America and every public space like convention or concert hall was designed with separate arenas for 'black' and 'white' classes, Berry did care little about it. He even tried to date a white woman in Mississippi, for that he had been jailed.

Women were involved whenever Berry got tangled in a crime. In 1962, he went to jail after the girl he hired for his nightclub turned out to be a minor involved in prostitution. Berry, however, claimed that the girl was 20 and she herself went to the police after he fired her. Then in the year 1990, several women filed suits claiming Berry videotaped them while in bathrooms.

His music and lyrics

Brought up in a middle-class suburb, Berry socked up with some good old blues, soul, gospel and of course, country. Many music critics called him a bluesman who gave birth to a baby called 'rock n' roll'. Despite blues, Berry picked ingredients from jazz and soul to hybridize his music. It was in the early 1950s, he joined hands with a number of jazz musicians, such as pianist Johnnie Johnson, double-bass player Willie Dixon and many others.

A big turn took place with Berry in the year 1955 when he arrived in the Chicago blues scene, at the doorstep of his idol Muddy Waters who later introduced him to Chess Records recording studio. Owner of the studio, Leonard Chess, found a new potential of swing music in Berry's song Ida Red, a variant of a country track of the same name. As the lyrics of the song sketched a narrator (a motorvatin) chasing car after an elusive girl, Chess wanted to rename it 'Mabellene' and released in the same year gaining top places in charts.

What it takes is a bite of blues with twang of country and some jazz equanimity in Berry's music. In some of his timeless numbers like Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode, You Can't Catch Me, he proved rock as a form of music that filled all that wishes of young people. His lyrics celebrate, and at the same time, satirize the opportunities and class tensions in America. Some of his energetic numbers like Let's Twist Again, Nadline, My Ding-A-Ling, released in different periods, do rock joyfully in lust and romance, laughing off tension and pressure.

The last gig

Berry was a rocker who rocked till his last breathe. The rock legend's last big concert I remember is the 2010 Las Vegas concert he gigged at the age of 83. And he was still in the same old way, obliging with his trademark duck walk and lazily bent notes from his Gibson guitar. It's said that he picked up the technique of bending two guitar strings at once from guitarist T-Bone Walker and it became a rock n' roll talisman widely known as 'Berry lick'. At the gig, youngsters who were young enough to be Berry's great grandchildren sang along with timeless 'Chuck Berry' songs.

There is a restaurant at Blueberry Hills in St Louis where Berry performed once a month regularly until 2014. Regardless of past or present, his songs with lyrics speaking to the youth of the day remained fresh for decades, even today, wherever it is - at a restaurant or on a jam pad.

* Jyaneswar Laishram wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at ozzyjane(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on March 30, 2017.

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