Pioneering rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry is eighty years old today.
Berry penned some of the most popular and enduring songs of the second half of the twentieth century, including big hits such as "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "You Can’t Catch Me," "Run Rudolph Run," "Maybelline," "Carol," "Back in the U.S.A.," "Memphis, Tennessee," "Johnny B. Goode," "Nadine," "No Particular Place to Go," and one of the very greatest of all rock songs, "Rock and Roll Music."
Elvis Presley was more widely admired (he was a far superior singer), and Buddy Holly more likeable, but Chuck Berry was perhaps the most influential of those three great 1950s musical figures.
Berry’s signatures were his alternately chugging and chiming rhythm guitar interspersed with fairly virtuosic blues- and hillbilly-influenced frills and solos; his boisterous vocals; and his athletic on-stage antics. His songwriting reflected an extremely cheerful attitude and an engaging sense of humor, and he contributed greatly to making 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll a forum for straightforwardly hedonistic fun. His music was hugely influential—the Beatles and Rolling Stones were avid followers, for example, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said Berry wrote "all of the great songs and came up with all the rock’n’roll beats."
Berry’s songwriting was rather limited, however—there never was a great deal of variety to either the music or the lyrical topics—and he reached the end of his creativity after a very few years. He didn’t write any interesting songs after the mid-1960s, and rock music went far, far beyond what he was capable of producing.
Within his limits, however, he was truly brilliant.
Berry’s personal life has often been rather chaotic and unpleasant, showing the unhappy side of the hedonism his music exemplified. His musical legacy, however, is a solid one and his influence undeniable.