“Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” -Bruce Springsteen
“If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” -John Lennon
It was the 50’s. America and the greater western world were doing great following the 2nd World War in the mid 40’s. Pop-culture looked something like I Love Lucy and Perry Como; very clean, very innocent, and very white. Some young Americans were on the other side of the world fighting in the Korean War while the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit. The 20th century was halfway over, the world was changing, and it was about to change some more. A new sound was coming, and the ball got rolling when a young black man from St. Louis, Missouri would put all the pieces together for a new kind of music. That music was what we now know as “Rock and Roll”, and that man was Chuck Berry.
Saying that Berry “invented” Rock music is like saying that Franklin “invented” electricity. It gets the right idea, but saying that Berry “harnessed” Rock is a little more accurate. It is debated what the first rock song is with some people claiming singles as old as 1947 as being the first rock song, but nobody was really a rock artist until Chuck. He took the pieces- country guitar licks, rhythm and blues beats, lyrics that spoke to a younger generation- and put them together in the right way, and did it consistently. Without Berry, Rock music would have still happened. Elvis would’ve still become Elvis, the charter plane Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and “The Big Bopper” were flying in would have still gone down, and four kids from Liverpool would have still taken the world by storm, but that doesn’t make Chuck Berry’s legacy any less powerful. Berry did it first, he codified the style, and he perfected Rock before anybody else could. He was the first great Rock guitarist and is a huge part of why, when you think of Rock and Roll, you think of legendary guitarists almost immediately. He didn’t have solos like Hendrix, the creativity of Lennon and McCartney, or the stadium filling power of AC/DC, but he didn’t need any of that to be great. At the end of the 50’s, in 1959, Berry put the pieces together tighter, cleaner, rockin-er, and all around better than he ever had before. The result was his greatest work, his best album containing many of his greatest songs: the aptly named Chuck Berry Is on Top.
Berry’s third album has been described as “almost a mini-greatest-hits package.” With the exception of the final track of the album’s second side, “Blues for Hawaiian’s”, every song is less than 3 minutes long and, depending on where you listen to the album, the whole thing comes in right around 30 minutes. Needless to say, it flies by. In my humble opinion, there is not a bad song on this album. Keep in mind that it is still very much of its time and half of the songs on this album start pretty much exactly the same. The first time I heard this album there were about 4 songs that made me go “Oh sweet, it’s Johnny B. Goode!” only to realize that it wasn’t “Johnny B. Goode” yet, and that hurts the album’s first half a little bit on my initial listen. The tradeoff is that when I actually got to Berry’s greatest song, “Johnny B. Goode”, it hit all the harder.
I’d like to take a minute just to talk about “Johnny B. Goode”, if I may. My introduction to this song, and I think most people’s who were born after 1980, was Back to the Future. The moment in that movie when Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the Romance Under the Sea dance is pretty much the best moment of the film and I think if Marty played any song other than “Johnny B. Goode” it would be a little worse. The way Marty breaks into a Hendrix/Van Halen-esque guitar solo at the end of the song brilliantly illustrates how tightly woven Chuck Berry is into the DNA of Rock and Roll. This song is, in my opinion, the perfect execution of the early rock formula. Every detail of it is just right, even its imperfections are perfect. We hear Berry sing about a fictional boy who is illiterate but could “play a guitar just like ringing a bell” and as Berry belts out those lyrics and rips on that guitar of his, one gets the impression that Berry isn’t so unlike the song’s titular character. Every part of it just feels right, and 62 years later it rocks just as hard as it did in the July of 1959.
Track after track Chuck Berry Is on Top delivers top notch entertainment packed with the quintessential pieces of early rock. That sharp, quick piano paired with simple basslines, crisp drums, and Berry’s legendary guitar parts make up some of the best pre-60’s rock songs you could ask for. The problem is that while Berry figured out how to make the most out of this formula, some of the songs end up feeling more or less the same for it. There are some wonderful moments where Berry strays from the formula and makes great music because of it on songs like “Maybelline” and “Almost Grown”, but the music largely stays within some boundaries. Somehow, though, Chuck Berry Is on Top never grows stale. It is over before you get an opportunity to grow tired of it, but it doesn’t leave you wishing for more. This album is pretty much exactly as long as you could want it to be, and damn is it a good way to spend 30 minutes.
Rock was young when this album came out. Elvis was shown from the waist up on television because his hip movements were considered too sexual. Richard Valenzuela had his named whitewashed into Ritchie Valens to make his music more marketable. Rock was considered sinful and offensive by older and more conservative people, but hey, the kids loved it. The Rock music of the 50s never hit the level of greatness that would be reached in the 60s and 70s, but it laid the groundwork for what would become bigger and more powerful than anybody could have predicted. And nobody was there breaking ground earlier or more effectively than Chuck Berry.
Rest in Peace to the father of Rock and Roll.
Oh golly, here come the 60’s, man.