Chuck Berry and the Inevitability of Rock and Roll

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

After the tremendous outpouring of respect and admiration for Chuck Berry when he passed away, I sought out his autobiography, published in 1989 (in fact, I’m listening to Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” as I write this).

I tend to be a linear thinker. So when Bruce Springsteen says, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” I want to understand the path Berry followed to become that person. Reducing his life events to a linear sequence of events (that’s the engineer in me) only gets us part of an answer:

  • Listening to Baptist hymns while still an infant
  • Trying to play the piano before he could even walk
  • Listening to foxtrot recordings on the family Victrola as a child
  • Mastering his iconic duckwalk while retrieving a toy from under the family dining table
  • Listening to poems read by his father during childhood
  • Listening to music that ranged from Bing Crosby to Louis Armstrong on the family’s Philco radio
  • A teenage fascination with science and photography that expanded his technical and artistic abilities
  • Listening to the blues music of Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters, and others as it was broadcast on the nearby black radio station
  • Singing in a local choir by the time he was in the eighth gradeBlack and white photo of Chuck Berry, with guitar, taken in 1957
  • Being the only student to sing a blues number in a 1941 school musical review and deciding to learn to play the guitar as a result
  • Realizing that learning a small number of rhythm changes and chord progressions would allow him to master “80 percent of the songs that were played…”
  • Organizing a musical quartet to accompany religious services while serving prison time for armed robbery
  • Singing at local bars and parties in the late 1940s
  • Being mentored by local musician Ira Harris, who “showed me many licks and riffs on the guitar that came to be the foundation of the style that is said to be Chuck Berry’s”
  • Mastering “black” and “white” voicings, and integrating blues and country music into his style, to appeal to a diverse audience
  • Performing club dates with a trio in the 1950s when he realized that it was his combination of guitar playing, dancing and stage presence, and song selection that had the greatest impact on his audiences
  • Following the advice of his inspiration, Muddy Waters, to meet Leonard Chess of Chess Records

All of these events don’t describe why, of all the people who must have been exposed to similar influences, only a few like Chuck Berry had the determination to master the guitar and write his own songs. He might easily have followed his interest in photography instead.  He could have abandoned his hopes while in prison.  But performing music in the act of entertaining a crowd was a greater passion.  The drive to integrate different influences in one’s life and take them in a new direction; that’s what Chuck Berry and others like him had. Maybe drive without the right influence leads to aimlessness; whereas influence without drive is just a hobby.

Next time, we’ll consider another aspect of Chuck Berry’s legacy. Did the social and economic forces at play during the 1940s and 1950s make rock and roll, or something similar, inevitable? And if it was inevitable, to what extent did individual creators exploit or influence those larger forces?

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