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Chuck Berry Started It All

“If you were trying to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In April 1962, Keith Richards wrote his dear Aunt Patty a cordial and loopy and exuberant letter in which he describes reconnecting with a primary-school classmate named Mick Jagger at a Dartford train station. Mick initiated the conversation because Keith was holding a Chuck Berry record under his arm, and the two immediately fell in together, and to this day, have never quite fallen back out. That’s all it took. “He’s got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have, too,” Keith enthuses, adding that he and Mick recently started a band. Aunt Patty gets to hear all about that, too: “I play guitar (electric) Chuck style we got us a bass player and drummer and rhythm guitar and we practice two or three nights a week. SWINGIN.’” It had begun. Chuck Berry started it.

This is Chuck Berry’s first prominent mention in Keith’s 2010 memoir, Life, and far from the last. (This occasionally rocky love affair ends in 1986, when Keith inducts Chuck into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) A few pages after the Aunt Patty missive, the nascent Rolling Stones are adding “Reelin’ and Rockin’” to their repertoire. In the next chapter, Keith’s geeking out over Chuck’s appearance in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a concert film about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. “A hugely important film for aspiring rock musicians at the time,” he writes. Chuck did “Sweet Little Sixteen” with jazz giant Jo Jones on drums, the backing band as a whole treating Chuck with semi-playful disrespect. “They were laughing at him,” Keith continues. “They were trying to fuck him up.” They were desperate to stop rock ’n’ roll from taking over. They did not succeed. It had begun. Chuck Berry started it.

More into the Beatles than the Stones? OK.

That’s from The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, and John Lennon lays down the marker immediately: “If you were trying to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” His influence on the Beatles was likewise immense, and is quite the rabbit hole to go down. Suffice it to say that Chuck all but started the other Biggest Band in Rock ’n’ Roll History, too. He was practically in the room with them, or more likely hovering over their heads, the spectral and indomitable ideal.

Chuck Berry died Saturday, at 90, in a house near his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Paramedics found him “unresponsive”; no cause of death has been released. Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t die with him, of course, but it never would have lived without him.

This is, somehow, not hyperbole. Chuck Berry is the guy; Chuck Berry is that guy. And when you’re deepest in thrall to him — enraptured anew by “Maybellene” or “Roll Over Beethoven” or “Run Rudolph Run” or (personal favorite) “Come On” — that feeling only intensifies. You convince yourself that it’s not merely that rock ’n’ roll would’ve still happened later, shepherded by somebody else, modified in some modest way. No, it feels like rock ’n’ roll doesn’t happen without him. The swagger, the ferocity, the catchiness, the cordial and loopy exuberance — that’s all him. He was the first living human to make teenagers feel truly joyful, feel invincible, feel like teenagers. He was rock music’s “master theorist and conceptual genius,” says the New York Times, “the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they did themselves.” He was “the greatest of the rock and rollers,” wrote superhero rock critic Robert Christgau — “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan, and sometimes I prefer him to Dylan.”

You don’t want to take anybody else’s word for it? OK. Go back to “Come On.”

That’s a 48-hour-long raging house party, a lovelorn, operatic post-breakup pity party in less than two minutes. It’s ecstatic and fearsomely economical, sonically and verbally. Like Chuck’s best songs, it is adolescent and immortal. “Every time the phone rings, it sounds like thunder.” Good lord. “Come On” is not one of his more famous songs: It is not, for example, one of the Chuck Berry songs that came to define both the definitive movie of the ’80s and the definitive movie of the ’90s. But it is utterly fantastic, and it will never leave you once you find it. He has several dozen songs just like it.

He is a lot to deal with. Read as much as you can. The December 2016 New York Magazine piece “Chuck Berry Invented the Idea of Rock and Roll” will give you the full background on both the man and the genre he invented. His hardscrabble St. Louis upbringing. His mercenary approach to both art and commerce (“Berry wanted to be popular because it made him more money; for the rest of his career he would insist it was as simple as that”). And, yes, his dark side and frequent legal issues, which involve both the Mann Act and, much later, the alleged placement of some cameras in some toilets in a women’s bathroom. Chuck Berry also helped invent the idea of conscience-wracked fans tying themselves in knots trying to separate profoundly flawless music from the profoundly flawed man who made it. That is part of his legacy, too.

So choose your rabbit hole and plunge into it, but listen to Chuck Berry all the while. The three-disc Chess Box will get you started. It got a whole lot started, in fact. It started everything.