To say someone is a rock god today really means that that person has been moderately successful and in the same room as a guitar. Don’t believe me? Take a cursory glance at the mainstream music press. It is a statistical certainty that right now someone – it could even be someone you know, dear reader – is earnestly penning a think-piece about how Ed Sheeran is this generation’s rock god. Well, don’t believe it. Not only because this world has already lived through The Simply Red Years once and survived (and really, shouldn’t we know better by now?), but also because there really was a Rock God. His name was Chuck Berry, and he died last Saturday.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” Such was the size of the shadow he cast over the genre and, indeed, over almost all music since. Yes, his music wasn’t unprecedented – one can point to the blues musicians of the thirties and forties, Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker in particular, as critical antecedents. But Chuck was different. His guitar playing – angular, effortless and solo-oriented, and yet lockstep with the rhythm – was unprecedented. Likewise, no musician before him had been able to so successfully catch the ear of teenage America with their lyrics – whip-smart narratives about high school dances, fast cars and young romance. And man, he had style. A handsome black kid, hair quiffed back, clad in a smoking jacket, and high-waisted, pleated pants, guitar slung low like a gun – he was slick, smart and maybe a little dangerous. The epitome of 1950s cool.
Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. He gained an appreciation for music at high school, a rambunctious talent show performance making him something of a local sensation, picking up the guitar soon after. He was also something of a hell-raiser, unmotivated at school despite his talent, and on a sporadic road trip to California ended up finding a pistol, robbing a barbers, stealing a car and getting thoroughly caught. He ended up spending the next three years in a reform school. Upon his release, he continued pursuing music, supporting himself with a succession of rather eclectic jobs, working as a carpenter, a janitor, a photographer and a hairdresser.