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Musical legacy of rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry

HILLEL ITALIE and JIM SUHR | 3/27/2017, 8:27 a.m.
Chuck Berry, rock ‘n’ roll’s founding guitar hero and storyteller who defined the music’s joy and rebellion in such classics ...
Right photo: Rock and roll legend Chuck Berry plays Johnny B. Goode at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Feb. 26, 2012. Berry and Leonard Cohen were honored with Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, presented by Caroline Kennedy. Left photo: Guitarist and singer Chuck Berry performs his "duck walk" as he plays his guitar on stage, April 4, 1980. Harvey Georges (right photo)

“Chances are you have talent,” Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”

Johnny B. Goode could have only been a guitarist. The guitar was rock ‘n’ roll’s signature instrument and Berry’s clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm ‘n blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who once acknowledged he had “lifted every lick” from his hero; the Beatles’ George Harrison; Bruce Springsteen; and the Who’s Pete Townshend.

When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager I in 1977, an album was stored on the craft that would explain music on Earth to extraterrestrials. The one rock song included was Johnny B. Goode.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1926. As a child, he practiced a bent-leg stride that enabled him to slip under tables, a prelude to the duck walk of his adult years. His mother, like Johnny B. Goode’s, told him he would make it, and make it big.

A fan of blues, swing and boogie woogie, Berry studied the very mechanics of music and how it was transmitted. As a teenager, he loved to take radios apart and put them back together. Using a Nick Manoloff guitar chord book, he learned how to play the hits of the time. He was fascinated by chord progressions and rhythms, discovering that many songs borrowed heavily from the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm.”

He began his musical career at age 15 when he went on stage at a high school review to do his own version of Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” Berry would never forget the ovation he received.

“Long did the encouragement of that performance assist me in programming my songs and even their delivery while performing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I added and deleted according to the audiences’ response to different gestures, and chose songs to build an act that would constantly stimulate my audience.”

Meanwhile, his troubles with the law began in 1944, when a joy-riding trip to Kansas City turned into a crime spree involving armed robberies and car theft. Berry served three years of a 10-year sentence at a reformatory.

A year after his October 1947 release, Berry met and married Themetta Suggs, who stayed by his side despite some of his well-publicized indiscretions. Berry then started sitting in with local bands. By 1950, he had graduated to a six-string electric guitar and was making his own crude recordings on a reel-to-reel machine.

On New Year’s Eve 1952 at The Cosmopolitan club in East St. Louis, Illinois, Johnson called Berry to fill in for an ailing saxophonist in his Sir John Trio.

“He gave me a break” and his first commercial gig, for $4, Berry later recalled. “I was excited. My best turned into a mess. I stole the group from Johnnie.”

Influenced by bandleader Louis Jourdan, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and jazz man Charlie Christian, but also hip to country music, novelty songs and the emerging teen audiences of the post-World War II era, Berry signed with Chicago’s Chess Records in 1955. Maybellene reworked the country song Ida Red and rose into the top 10 of the national pop charts, a rare achievement for a black artist at that time. According to Berry, label owner Leonard Chess was taken by the novelty of a “hillbilly song sung by a Black man,” an inversion of Presley’s covers of blues songs.