Music

Chuck Berry, the man behind rock and roll just died. Here’s why his legacy continues.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

With Chuck Berry, the iconic singer, songwriter and guitar legend who paved the way for the entire rock genre, dead at the age of 90, it’s important to look back at his legacy. His hits, including, “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis” and “Johnny B. Goode,” among countless others, defined an entire genre and generation, covered by a myriad of other legendary acts of the music world.

Berry spent more than 60 years in the business, establishing himself as a gifted individual and becoming one of the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His career profoundly influenced British music legends including The Beatles. He also influenced ‘80s filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, who immortalized “Johnny B. Goode” in the film “Back to the Future.” Carl Sagan chose the song to be included on NASA Voyager’s Golden Record in 1977.

Throughout his career, Berry performed in the White House for former President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985. Rolling Stone named him the sixth greatest guitarist in all of history, and music legend John Lennon even famously said that if rock and roll were given any other name, it would be Chuck Berry.

Berry was able to express the feelings of teen angst, the rebellious spirit of the ‘50s and the tensions of racial segregation all at once in his music. He attracted fans of all ages and races and kept them hooked with his sheer talent and ear for catchy tunes. Despite facing some prison time in the early ‘60s due to alleged sex with a minor, and again in the late ‘70s for alleged tax evasion, Berry still wrote and released songs from behind bars, and even used the medium to communicate feelings on his imprisoned state.

What made Berry special, though, was not his own expression, but his expression of his listeners’ feelings. He played what they enjoyed hearing.

Pioneering rockers of the ‘60s like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys simply would not exist without Berry. Several of them started off their careers with Berry covers, including the Beatles’ “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music,” or Berry-inspired originals like The Beach Boys’ iconic hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which was directly modeled after Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” His influence did not end with the ‘60s, though, as later acts like Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton were noted adorers and even played some live shows with Berry.

Berry’s career and influence is not something that can be summarized in a brief column, or in a 1,000-page novel, for that matter. His autobiography, “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography,” is perhaps the most detailed and accurate account, but before you even delve into books and documentaries, just listen to his music. While he was not alone in his pioneering of rock music, he certainly stuck out amongst his peers. His early hits are to rock music as Louis Armstrong’s are to jazz.

“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together,” reads the introduction to Berry’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you are a fan of any genre of music, to any degree, this time is for mourning.

Jenny Bourque is a freshman English and textual studies major. Her column appears weekly in Pulp. You can email her at jabourqu@syr.edu.

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