Chuck Berry Gave A Generation The Power Of Self-Expression It Was Yearning For

Elvis Presley may have lit the spark that started the Rock Revolution, but Chuck Berry gave the world the tools to finish the job. Elvis taught the biggest teenage generation in history that it was good to let loose, free yourself, and shake your hips any damn way you want to. Chuck Berry gave that generation the keys to a vehicle that would deliver the feeling of freedom and the power of self-expression it was yearning for. Chuck Berry was the true Father of Rock. It is beyond debate.

He was pushing 30 years old when he began laying his influence on this ticking time bomb of a generation in the mid-1950s. Like most great pioneers in history, he didn’t really invent stuff, he just brought existing stuff together in a new way. His revolutionary guitar sound was largely lifted from jazz and R&B guitarists like T-Bone Walker. From country music he drew a sprightliness of sound and a colorful authenticity of lyric, and from Elvis of course he borrowed that youthful iconoclasm and sass.

It was a magic formula that ignited the imaginations of this huge cohort of young musicians that was coming of age at the time. Chuck Berry taught them that if you tell your own stories in your own songs, let your wild side shine through and combine it with the powerful allure of the electric guitar, you can move people in deep and wonderful ways. The possibilities of popular song suddenly seemed limitless to these young dreamers.

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It could be argued that Berry’s accomplishments as a lyricist were his greatest contributions to Rock’s heritage. In an era full of simple boy-meets-girl ditties, nobody had ever heard lyrics like this before: witty, literate, cynical and non-conformist, all laid out in perfect rhyme and meter:

You know, my temperature’s risin’
and the jukebox blows a fuse
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
and my soul keeps on singin’ the blues
Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news

I got the rockin’ pneumonia,
I need a shot of rhythm and blues
I think I’m rollin’ arthritis
sittin’ down by the rhythm review
Roll Over Beethoven rockin’ in two by two

I mean let’s face it, Berry’s songwriting strengths were not melody and chord progression. He used the same “Chuck Berry” riff to open at least seven or eight songs, and most songs were based on well-known three- or four-chord patterns. “School Days” and “No Particular Place To Go” are practically the exact same chords and melody with different words.

But those words were always interesting and sometimes amazing. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is one of my favourite Chuck Berry songs because its chord progression is a little different from his usual fare. But that lyric, man, just imagine how it inspired the kind of flights of fancy that we would see from brilliant songwriters like Dylan and Lennon only a few years down the road:

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a walkin’ thirty miles en route to Bombay
To meet a brown eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
In fact every since the world began
There’s been a whole lot of good women sheddin’ tears
For a brown eyed handsome man
It’s a lot of trouble was a brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her darlin’ go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
Just like your daddy, he’s a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To meet a brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man

Two, three count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounding third he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game; it was a brown eyed handsome man

Chuck Berry was like the first ambassador for Rock & Roll, proclaiming its greatness in his songs over and over again, as if he knew that Rock would eventually become the massive cultural institution that it did. Well, why not? He was a very intelligent guy. He was older and had a broader perspective than many others in the game at the time, and yet he was right at the epicenter where he could feel the energy rising from this big, restless generation. He must have least suspected back in the late Fifties that what he started was going to change the world.

Photo by NBC Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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