Dave Helling

Dave Helling: Chuck Berry, on a jet to the promised land

Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll legacy

Jon Pareles, a music critic for The New York Times, reflects on the pioneering music and attitude of rock legend Chuck Berry.
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Jon Pareles, a music critic for The New York Times, reflects on the pioneering music and attitude of rock legend Chuck Berry.

Rock ’n’ roll music is now everywhere, which means Chuck Berry is everywhere.

Listen closely. You can hear Berry in television commercials, movies, on your smartphone, in elevators and restaurants. On the radio: in pop, blues, folk songs — even hip-hop (doubters should cue up “Too Much Monkey Business”).

Chuck Berry changed music, which means he changed the world.

How he accomplished such a feat remains a mystery. It’s impossible to see now, but when Berry’s first record was issued in 1955, rock ’n’ roll was still an iffy proposition, hidden on obscure radio stations and in backwater clubs.

The best-selling 45 rpm single in 1955? “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Perez Prado. Mitch Miller, Pat Boone, Ernie Ford and Nat Cole all had popular chart hits.

“Rock Around the Clock” was also a hit and a scandal — it touched off disturbances in theaters.

Somehow, in that record and others, Chuck Berry of St. Louis saw the future. Teaming with pianist Johnnie Johnson, Berry soon ripped through a series of glorious recordings: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Carol,” even “Run Rudolph Run,” the greatest Christmas single ever. Astonishing stuff.

He battled Elvis Presley for pop supremacy in those early days and fell short. But don’t we now see Berry as the greater artist — the one who wrote his own songs, played his own music, created the longer-lasting audience?

I think so. Presley sang to America, but Berry sang about it: boredom in school, the desire for fame, even the casual bigotry around him. Listen closely: Johnny B. Goode became a “country” boy, the Handsome Man was “brown-eyed.” “Looking hard for a drive-in” was a common black experience in the 1950s.

Yet Berry’s appeal wasn’t overtly racial. His frustration and bitterness in those early years were well-hidden, which made his music accessible to that new demographic: the teenager. Millions of kids, flush with radios and record players and money to spend, heard Berry’s songs as an invitation to dance.

They’ve been dancing ever since.

It’s likely Chuck Berry understood only a little of this. By all accounts, including his own, Berry just wanted to make money. Teenage records, he thought, would sell. So he wrote them. And sang them.

But he had created an audience, one that would survive his own inevitable dip in popularity. Some members of that audience took Chuck at his word. They grabbed guitars and drums and pounded out the joyful noise we still hear today.

Other kids, lacking Berry’s musical skills, sought glory in other ways. Rock ’n’ roll made all those dreams seem real.

“My model for business is the Beatles,” Apple co-founder Steven Jobs once said.

And who was the Beatles’ model? “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.”

Yes, we can take this too far. Chuck Berry didn’t invent the computer. Baby boomers too often romanticize their history, and Berry is a part of that.

Boomers have given us great art and technology, but they have stumbled too, more than once.

Chuck Berry would have understood. He could be surly. He spent time in prison. His life, like all lives, was contradictory.

But a Chuck Berry recording is now hurtling through space, his unforgettable riff engraved in a gold record for our intergalactic neighbors to enjoy. Perhaps, even now, kids in a far-off world are asking Dad if they can use the garage.

Chuck Berry, who died at age 90, is everywhere, still.